This post is the first in a series providing questions and answers with people who are doing meaningful work in the water and sanitation sector to make a difference in lives, communities and the world. In this installment, meet ROCKBlue’s president and founder Peter Macy, who is helping chart a new course on how NGOs approach water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues.
By Shannon Roxborough
Nothing reaches into every corner of life like water. Far more than just an essential element, it’s a vital resource that’s intricately linked — directly or indirectly — to life, livelihood, economy, business and even politics.
When in short supply or contaminated, it can threaten our very survival. But when clean and free-flowing, water carries with it the potential of far-reaching change and opportunity.
Some 2.2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion live without basic sanitation services. From a health perspective alone, the implications run deep: waterborne diseases account for nearly 80 percent of all infectious diseases in the developing world.
Conversely, as access to clean water and sanitation increases, so does public health, individual well-being, economic progress, education, gender equality and hope for a better future.
For more than forty years, water and sanitation engineer Peter Macy has witnessed firsthand water’s problems and promise. As a visionary co-founder and president of ROCKBlue, Macy is pushing boundaries and changing the way we combat one of the most overlooked and important issues facing the world today: the global water crisis.
Under his leadership, ROCKBlue has taken a hands-off approach to water and sanitation, empowering local utilities and officials with the know-how, training, resources, networks and funding they need to address their own challenges on the ground — using their intimate understanding of their own unique environments.
In a few short years, ROCKBlue has helped its local utility partners who are tasked with providing urban clean water and sanitation to more than 5 million people in five sub-Saharan African countries, while providing WASH professionals in over 50 countries with valuable industry webinars to broaden their knowledge. And this year, Macy says the organization’s goal is to expand into two additional countries to increase its impact a total of 30 million people.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Please share a bit about your background in water and sanitation?
While I received a BS degree Industrial Engineering and Operations Research in 1980, I did not enjoy being indoors and decided to teach myself to become a civil engineer. So, with personal study and classes at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Colorado and the University of Kentucky, I ultimately obtained my professional engineering license in 1991. Around this time, during a pivotal interview with my grandfather in the last weeks of his life, he urged me to “help people gain access to water.” I decided to dedicate my life to just this goal. I’ve now spent four decades in water and sanitation — mostly in the developing world.
Who or what inspired you to start ROCKBlue? What is your personal story?
ROCKBlue was started out of frustration of seeing so much effort and so much money spent in international development, specifically in helping others gain access to water and sanitation, with minimal results and lack of durability of the efforts and investments. To me this was unconscionable, considering the growing number of people who lack access to basic water and sanitation. I knew a durable and efficient solution could and must be found. So, floating down the Chobe River between Botswana and Namibia in late 2013, the early concepts of ROCKBlue started to form in my mind. Then, with the help of my two co-founders, Satish Menon and Richard Noth, we spent the next two years (2014-15) vetting the novel concept by our peers, aid agencies, utilities, consultants, development financial institutions and others. We were surprised at the enthusiasm our approach received. A common response was ‘why did this idea take so long – it’s the way we must go.’ So, after the two-year vetting process and tweaking the ROCKBlue approach, we decided to test it out with our first partnership in 2016. We’ve grown rapidly and are seeing durable impacts of our partnerships but we’re never satisfied. Every time we see new statistics regarding those lacking access to water and sanitation our alarm bells go off and we look for ways to grow and have a greater impact. An impact on UN Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6) — access to water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Unlike most water-focused NGOs, ROCKBlue focuses on working with utilities. Why do you believe that is one of the most effective ways to provide clean water and basic sanitation to people in developing countries?
It’s simple, we want to maximize our impact on SDG6. To do this we need to be working in heavily populated areas where service is sub-standard and help those water service providers to both improve existing service as well as to expand service to a larger proportion of their community.
What would you like people to know about your work?
Please learn what we are doing and how we are doing it. If it makes sense to you, try and replicate what we do. More effort is required by many. Second, please support us financially or through partnerships. We need to scale up to have a larger impact on SDG6.
What obstacles does the world face in tackling the global water crisis?
Durability of interventions and investments and greater value for money for the efforts applied. This is the only way we can address the growing gap between supply of water and sanitation versus the demand of a growing population. The other obstacle is accountability – there’s not enough of it. In this case, the result is that, succeed or fail, the consequences to individuals and organizations are the same. And, ultimately the ramifications are failed or marginally effective efforts and low value for money.
Although ROCKBlue currently focuses on African countries, are you open to working with utilities in other water-troubled regions like Asia and Latin America?
Absolutely. We started in Africa and started small to hone our model further and ensure excellent quality of work. We developed our base of operations. With that established, having matching staff and financial resources we want to replicate the model throughout the developing world.
Shannon Roxborough is chief marketing officer of ROCKBlue and a longtime freelance journalist. He writes frequently about international development, world affairs, global trends and cross-cultural issues.