Ryan Hreljac first began his project to alleviate the shortage of clean water in Uganda when he was in the first grade by raising funds to build a well.
As a six year-old, Hreljac initially saved just $70 of the $2,000 needed to build a well. He later approached others in his community to raise funds for the project, which culminated in a well built at the Angolo Primary School in Uganda.
In the 20 years since, Hreljac and the foundation he founded, the Ryan’s Well Foundation, have constructed more than 1,166 clean water projects and 1,245 latrines in countries such as Burkina Faso and Haiti.
His efforts were highlighted on World Water Day, marked by the United Nations in 1963 as a day to focus access to water and pollution concerns globally. The UN noted for the latest anniversary that 1.8 billion people continue to uses sources of contaminated water , while 663 million lack improved drinking water sources.
That number of those lacking access to clean water includes populations living in developed countries too. In the United States, drinking water tainted with lead and deteriorating water infrastructure are problems that continue to affect communities in Flint, Michigan.
The reason clean water is such so important is due to the far-reaching impact it has on other aspects of development. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect that improvements in water quality and wastewater management will have run-on effects on health and city sustainability.
For Hreljac, part of the solution to fixing the problem is to approach the issue at the local level.
“We’ve avoided working on big-scale, national government projects,” Hreljac said, “The best results we’ve had is working directly with villages or municipalities and local governments that are a lot more accountable for the local situations.”
“If there’s no ownership or people taking care of the projects at the base level, wells break (and) things go wrong. Water is not free in the sense where you can just put in a well and it will last forever. It takes the community buying into it,” he added.
As for those unsure about how to contribute, Hreljac suggested starting small.
“I think the important thing when I was a kid was that I recognized that I could try to do something small and get engaged. And even though I didn’t have all the answers and didn’t come from a position of affluence or knowledge, … I had the optimism to do something small and that ended up making a big difference,” Hreljac said