Meet the Former Pro Surfer Who Has Helped 7 Million People Get Clean Water

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterApril 17, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 22:  Founder of Waves for Water Jon Rose attends eBays launch of new features during its Future of Shopping event at Industria Studios on October 22, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Jon Rose was on the water when his life changed. The former pro surfer was on his way to Bali by boat. After encountering some rough water, the captain docked Rose and his friends in Padang, Indonesia. They had a reservation at a hotel, but the captain insisted they stay on the boat for the night. The next day, Sept. 30, 2009, they felt the rumble—the start of the Sumatra earthquakes.

At that time, Rose had been asking big questions about his life and his identity. Growing up in Laguna Beach, California, he'd been a surfer since the age of nine. At 31 and recently retired, he didn't quite know who he was without the waves—or the lifestyle that came along with his success. His marriage was ending and he was close to foreclosing on his home. He agreed to go on the trip only when he came up with the idea to combine surfing with philanthropy—he'd hit the water and then give away clean water to people who needed it.

Then he walked ashore in Indonesia and saw the earthquake destroyed the hotel he had planned to stay in. He saw a city crumbled. He saw bodies. He felt helpless. And then he remembered the water filters he'd brought. He found some old gasoline buckets and an emergency relief tent, and he set up the filters so medical workers could clean the wounds of victims. "The earthquake in Sumatra was the divine intervention in my life," Rose says. "I came home. I got a divorce. I saw the path forward in my life."

Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press

Just three-and-a-half months later, on Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti. A friend called Rose and asked if what he did in Indonesia would be replicable. Rose flew to Haiti the next day, planning to stay for two weeks. He didn't leave for two years.

He spent his days distributing water filters and instructing people how to use them. He sometimes didn't shower for months. He slept in a tent. He ate cold ravioli and meals ready to eat (MREs). It wasn't his previous pro surfer lifestyle, but for the first time since his retirement, Rose felt he was living the life he was meant to lead.

Across the globe, nearly 700 million people—about one in 10—lack access to clean drinking water. Instead, they are forced to drink every day from dirty sources, collecting water from lakes and puddles that they sometimes share with animals. In the developing world, the work of collecting water falls almost exclusively to women and girls, who often have to drop out of school to help provide for their families.

"It's a huge problem," says Christoph Gorder, the president of charity: water, the largest water-only nonprofit in the United States. "It's one of the great problems in our world today. But the good news is, it's totally solvable. Since 1990, 2.6 billion people have gotten access to clean water. We can bring this to everybody."

In the nearly eight years since his experience in Indonesia, Rose's organization, Waves for Water, has helped more than 7 million people gain access to clean drinking water. Along the way, it has helped redefine the rules for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Rose likens the way his group works less to a traditional charity and more to a drug cartel.

"Well you have the supply," he jokes, "those are the filters. Then the smugglers, the people like me who bring the filters into a country—sometimes without declaring them. Then we have distributors within each country who bring the water to people from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood."

Waves for Water's programs have touched people in 27 countries, but its active and recurring work focuses on 17 countries, primarily in Southeast Asia. Rose and his team raise money from corporate sponsorships to provide both sustainable water solutions—like wells and biosand filters—and disaster relief in the form of filters that are easy to transport and set up and can help provide clean water to communities affected by earthquakes and other calamities.

Rose, who recently gave up the lease to an apartment he had in New York City and sold a house in California, travels internationally as often as three weeks a month to monitor water projects and to implement new systems. Although Waves for Water was founded as a one-man passion project, it now employs about 40 people around the world. Rose has had to learn not only how to run a nonprofit, but also how to manage people.

Caitlan Rowe, Waves for Water's global operations director, is one of the people Rose pulled into his orbit. In 2014, she had what she calls a cushy corporate job at Hurley in California when Rose invited her to bring clean water to favelas in Brazil. The trip for her was akin to what Rose had felt in Haiti. 

"A lot of people—and I was one of them for a while—say, 'I wish I could do that kind of work. I wish I could help people,'" she says. "Jon just did it. The dedication that takes, to put your life on hold, it's attainable, but you have to put your ass in gear and you have to be prepared to give yourself away."

Gorder doesn't know Rose personally, but he's inspired anew each time he sees someone learn about the world water crisis and decide to take action.

"The moral of the story is: Anybody can make a difference," he says. "There are a lot of ways people can help. You can start an organization or donate to one or raise money with a lemonade stand in your front yard with your kids. There are a million ways to help. And there are people out there who really deserve it and will really benefit from it."

Having thrived on competition throughout the course of his professional surfing career, Rose now views the water crisis as his opponent.

"I approach this work like an athlete," he says. "Anyone who is willing to help bring people clean water is on my team. The game is beating this crisis, and I plan to win it."

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