Local kite-surfer undertakes worldwide mission for clean water

Date Published: 
Dec. 8, 2017

Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Scott Gordon delivers supplies to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. His non-profit, Kite4Water, is currently fundraising to return to Puerto Rico.Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Scott Gordon delivers supplies to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. His non-profit, Kite4Water, is currently fundraising to return to Puerto Rico.Imagine having the family home flooded by a hurricane, losing transportation and power, and having to ration food. Now, imagine trying to survive all that while also having no access to clean drinking water.

“There’s a global water crisis going on — probably a billion people around the world who don’t have access to clean water,” said Bethany Beach native and Indian River High School alumna Scott Gordon, one of the co-founders of Kite4Water, a group of kite-surfers who have joined together to “collaborate with NGOs around the world to focus on sanitation and clean-water projects.”

Gordon went on a humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico from Oct. 13 to Nov. 1 after hearing of the destruction there following Hurricane Maria.

“As far as how things appeared when I first got to the island… It looks like a bomb was dropped,” he said. “Everything is devastated. A lot of people’s houses survived, but they’re missing part of their roof, or something like that. It seemed like every single house was affected in some way.

“Power lines are down everywhere, and then we get into the communities and you get the sense of urgency and desperation. People don’t have what they need. People with kids or people who are caring for their bedridden grandparents… It was heavy, to say the least. It was very heavy.”

Gordon was able to travel to Puerto Rico due to a large donation from the company Meggle.

“I was only supposed to be there one week, but somebody donated the flight. They bought me a one-way flight to Puerto Rico, and I got caught up in the first couple of days working, and I didn’t book my flight out right away and ended up staying for three weeks.

“Originally, the guys at Meggle were going to ship water down there, but after discovering the price for containers and shipping costs, they decided that donating this money to us was the better option. And they didn’t want to donate to an organization like the Red Cross, where a large percentage goes to administrative fees.”

The Sawyer water filters from Kite4Water were shipped to Puerto Rico prior to Gordon’s arrival, although the group usually take the filters in luggage on their flights.

“Then the work began — training the team, getting the strategic plan together, and then we went out into the field,” he said. “Jeff, my partner, knows a lot of business leaders, and a lot of people who care and want to help.

“In the case of Puerto Rico, we connected with a group that was already mobilizing. It was a group of local Puerto Ricans — they know their country, they know their people well and how to get the job done. They were planning to go up into the mountain and distribute supplies, and we introduced the water-filter aspect. It’s the same thing we did in Nepal, Mexico, Fiji…

“The key to sustainability is working with leaders in each community. We don’t just drive in and drop off filters. We drive in, talk to members of the community, talk to the leaders of the community and work with them.”

Gordon said he was hesitant, at first, about his trip to the commonwealth.

“To be honest, I was kind of scared at first, because the whole economy of the island is devastated. Tensions are high, people are desperate, crime was definitely on the rise... And there was the fear of getting sick or getting an infection,” he said.

“You just keep hearing what bad shape all the hospitals are in, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Man — if I get cut while I’m in the field and it gets infected, I’ll be in big trouble.’

“In Nepal, where we were sending the filters was way, way, way, way up in the mountains — hours and hours away from any town or city where there’s a hospital. The regions we work in have access to fresh water, but it’s contaminated biologically with bacteria…”

Once in Puerto Rico, Gordon was able to purchase cleaning and hygiene supplies, as well as bottled water to take to those affected by the hurricane.

“I drove around San Juan for half a day, because each store would only let you buy two cases of water — that’s it. So, I would drive around from store to store, picking up as much bottled water as I could, and then drive it out to these remote areas — because there’s literally no bottled water in the stores out there.”

Access to clean water is imperative, said Gordon — a fact that many who have unfettered access to it may not think about.

“Not only is it about drinking-water — most people should know that within three to five days, you’ll die without drinking water. The level of desperation is really high in times when there’s no access to safe water.

“In Puerto Rico, we’re driving to Utuado one day, and there’s a car parked in the middle the street on one of these mountainous roads and they’re collecting water from a small stream on the side of the road. We stopped to ask them if they’re using this water to flush their toilets or to clean themselves, or drinking it. They said all of the above…

“On that particular day, we didn’t have any water filters, but we had some bottled water, so we gave it to them.”

“As far as needing water for hygiene purposes — that’s really important. It’s what keeps people from getting sick. It’s not only about trying to save people’s lives, but it’s also about preventative care when it comes to clean, safe water.”

Though he worked out of San Juan, he was able to travel to more remote areas outside of the city center.

“We did a lot of our work up in the mountains. We tried to get to the most remote places we were capable of getting to,” he recalled. “We were going house to house… The people we were bringing supplies and water filters to were receiving virtually no aid — maybe a little bit of bottled water or maybe a little bit of food... It blew my mind.

“I saw the government, FEMA, military, in town centers, delivering some food and some water… You’d see a military truck pull up with a tank of water, but the issue there is … there’s not enough for a municipality of 45,000 people. One 500-gallon tank of water isn’t going to serve the entire municipality.

“From what I saw, the aid relief was only going to the town centers,” Gordon said. “For one, it wasn’t enough, and, two, you had to be the lucky person who happened to be in the town center when the military came in distributing meals in the town center. That same day, we drove 30 minutes outside of Camuy, and people were getting nothing.”

He noted that many of the homes they visited housed large families, including bedridden elderly adults and adult handicapped children.

“Up in the mountains, these people have no help. There was one woman who broke down crying when we brought her water and a few supplies. She had received nothing for over a month but a little bit of bottled water. She had a three-year old mentally-handicapped daughter, so life before the hurricane was hard enough. She had nothing to eat but eggs and a little bit of pumpkin that she was rationing.

“These people have spent their last dollar on rebuilding their homes, finding what supplies they can, because most people lost everything… Up in the mountains, a lot of the stores run out — they don’t even have bottled water. The situation is still desperate. They’re still in crisis mode, and they will be in some areas for the next six months to a year. Some of the people we went to visit hadn’t had electric or water since Irma.”

Filters allow people to create clean water where there is none

Gordon said the beauty of the Sawyer water filters is not only in their simplicity, but in how efficient they are — and at a low price.

“We’re following the footsteps of hundreds of other NGOs that work with Sawyer filters. It’s all about the price point and what you get for it. Typically, the filters sell for $50 retail — we get $30 wholesale. In the situation we’re in now, with all the different natural disasters all over the world, Sawyer has dropped the price by another 60 percent,” he said.

“So, for $12, we were getting Sawyer filters, and then you have to get a 5-gallon plastic bucket or a faucet adaptor, which is $5 to $8. For that price, you’re getting, on average, 290 gallons of filtered water per day. You can’t even buy that much bottled for that price.”

According to Sawyer’s website, the filters are “small, portable, easy-to-use, reliable and inexpensive, and can last a decade without needing to be replaced.” The proprietary water filters are composed of tiny U-shaped micro-tubes that allow water to enter into their core through tiny micro-pores. The high number of those tiny tubes and their surface area allows the filter to have one of the fastest flow rates in the world. The high flow rate eliminates the need to store water, reducing the possibility of water contamination after the filtration process.

Gordon said they can simply fill suitcases with the filters, travel to an area in need and then set up them up.

“When you get in-country or in the region where you’re distributing, you usually buy the 5-gallon plastic buckets or larger… You simply drill a hole in the bottom of the bucket, attach the filter,” he explained. “The bucket serves as a water reservoir for the contaminated water. It’s gravity filtration. Basically, you put the bucket outside and the filter hangs from the bottom, and gravity does all the work.”

Gordon said the filters are rated at a 1-million-gallon lifespan, but he believes they can last even longer.

“They just made the filters able to withstand backwash after backwash after backwash, which makes them last so long. A $12 filter plus a $5 bucket, and the cost of distribution — that’s it. It’s one of the most advanced water filters in the world that you can teach someone to use in about five minutes.”

Once all the supplies are gathered, Gordon said, they train groups on how to use the filters, so they can, in turn, teach others and troubleshoot any problems they may come across.

“We like to say one filter will provide 100 people with clean water for five years. The technology has been around for eight years, and pretty much all of them are still out there, still functioning,” he said.

“As far as how long they last… we don’t know. It’s new technology. The goal for sustainability is setting up the local contacts and being able to check in, and giving our contact information so if something goes wrong with a filter, we can figure out how to fix it.”

Gordon, who was in the San Francisco Bay area for the last four years, had started his own kiteboarding school on the West Coast, where he met his future Kite4Water co-founder, Jeff Kafka.

“I started networking with local businesses to see how I can make a positive impact on the local community,” he said. “I discovered a much larger non-profit organization working in the surf industry, working with the Sawyer hollow-fiber membrane filters, and I was inspired by them… Then I met my partner, and we decided to go for it.”

The non-profit was founded in 2015 and has offered support in varying parts of the world in need of access to clean water.

“We only respond in areas that have been hit by natural disasters. We’re not first-responders at this time — though, in Puerto Rico, it felt we were first-responders, even though we were there three weeks after Maria hit. We focus on regions of the world devastated by natural disasters. So, in Nepal, there was the earthquake of 2015 — they’re still recovering from that. Cyclone Winston that devastated Fiji…”

Through their work, filters have been delivered to places including Mexico, Nicaragua and Nepal.

“We were working with a group called Volunteer Initiative Nepal. They were working in sanitation and wash projects, which is basically hygiene and hygiene education. They were building toilets and septic systems, and we were able to provide them with close to 100 filters,” said Gordon.

“We did our own trip to Fiji, partnering with another NGO out there — Give Clean Water. They have a much larger project going on with water filters. They actually had thousands of filters donated from the manufacturer.

“When I was in Fiji personally delivering filters, there were lots of schools, different buildings, people’s homes — still missing roofs. UNICEF had large tents set up at a lot of these schools. They had water tanks, so they had access to water but no water filtration. Then, a lot of areas where we went, in the more remote parts on the main island, many people lived without electricity or running water.”

Although Kite4Water is a small group now, Gordon said they hope to grow, with the generous support of businesses and private donors.

“In the nonprofit world, it’s all about trust, and we’ve worked really hard over the last two years to gain people’s trust and to show people we mean business. We want to work efficiently and put pretty much all of the money toward the project.

“We’re trying to raise a large amount of money so we can go back with more filters. I’ve been communicating with a bunch of grassroots groups down there who can help in distributing the filters, just like the first group we worked with there,” he said. “We’ve distributed close to 1,500 filters, with an impact of close to 50,000 people, with very limited funds.”

“We’re looking to have our own Kite4Water team go back with enough funds so that we can have large 4-by-4 trucks and all the resources we need to go to even farther remote areas,” he said. “Right now, the best way is, we’re looking for large businesses to sponsor our work. We are a 501(C)(3) charity, so all donations are a tax write-off.”

Gordon said donations can be made directly to Kite4Water or may be purchased directly through Sawyer with Kite4Water selected as the benefactor, and the filters will be shipped to them.

“We want people to understand that the money is going directly to the work. All of our administrators are volunteer. Staff only gets paid for working directly on projects,” he said.

Gordon, who is now back living in the area, said getting involved in providing water filters to areas in need was an eye-opening experience, and he hopes more people and organizations will get involved, and help the cause.

“It definitely changed me… We were going house to house, asking if they needed anything, and they’re like, ‘Yeah,’ and they just have a little bit of water. When you were going house to house, you could see the desperation on people’s faces, wondering, ‘Are they going to come to my house?’

“For the most part,” he said, “life is beautiful out there. And then you have these typhoid red-zones — a major issue usually because of human fecal matter in the water supply. These people are getting their water from streams which would normally be fairly clean, but with improper sanitation and sewage, a lot of the runoff ends up in their water supply… It’s a crisis.”

For more information regarding Kite4Water or to donate to the organization, visit www.Kite4Water.org.