Global Water Center visits Kohler to advocate for cleaner water across the world

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Global Water Center's Mobile Discovery Center visits Kohler, Wis. Sep. 18-19 and 21-26, 2021. This immersive display helps educate and engage people in the discussion about access to clean water.

The Global Water Center's Mobile Discovery Center is visiting The Shops at Woodlake in Kohler Sep. 18-19 and Sep. 21-26 to help spread awareness about clean water disparities in developing countries and what ordinary people can do to help.

The Global Water Center, originally a subsidiary of the nonprofit Water Mission, is a nonprofit group founded in 2016 that seeks to provide resources and build connections between underdeveloped countries needing clean water and companies who can make it happen. Their 25,000 square foot Mobile Discovery Center has been touring the US since March 2021 and decided to stop in Kohler, Wis., the home of one of their sponsors, Kohler Co.

The mobile unit offers multiple immersive displays and exhibits that scientifically demonstrate the problem of clean water accessibility across the world. The exhibits feature "storytellers" from Mexico, Indonesia, Tanzania and Haiti who advocate for clean water in their own communities and beyond. Many of the exhibits are interactive, which makes it fun for people of all ages while also being educational.

"We're trying to be a central decision-making body and bring everyone together to agree on a set of standards," said Kyle Peters, a marketing project manager for GWC. He explained a brick and mortar center is on the books, but the group felt that the need to spread awareness was urgent, and they set off to create a mobile center that could travel anywhere, including Nashville, Atlanta, Houston and Minneapolis.

Executive director Chris Holdorf said the unit is able to interact with thousands of people per stop and make a real difference in the way they see global water disparities between developed and underdeveloped nations. He explained that GWC serves as a "non-threatening third party" to gather resources for these communities who desperately need change.

This display at the mobile unit talks about how water is used in the agriculture industry in the US, a vastly different reality from underdeveloped countries such as Tanzania and Indonesia.

"An organization like Global Water Center (is) the catalyst, to bring them together, because without that catalyst, organizations continue to work on specific projects (alone). They're siloed, they're not interrelated. They're not strategically aligned," Holdorf said. "There is a hunger to see an organization that is a third neutral party that can bring them together in ways that can help them be better."

The organization is also tied to agriculture in some ways, including work on expanding the technology for detecting groundwater levels and measuring the impact of high-capacity wells and other operations that use a lot of water. Those operations can also lead to threats against the local water system, Holdorf said.

Despite being far and away from many of these communities in need, Holdorf said the best thing people in the US can do is to help spread awareness of the issue and raise funds for organizations like GWC. He also hopes that people, especially youth, are inspired to enter into careers where they can help clean up the world's water.

"I would say that almost universally, people that come through this experience, they're moved. We hear things like, 'I never knew this was a problem.' We hear young kids saying, 'I want to be a water engineer,'" Holdorf said. "There's a lot of ways to get educated and involved to develop a heart for cross-cultural experiences, but also to develop a heart for helping people."

Cindy Howley, director of Kohler stewardship for Kohler Co., said they've had a partnership with Water Mission since 2004, and Kohler Co. made a donation of $200,000 to welcome the mobile unit to Wisconsin. Being a global company that makes water-related products, Howley said the partnership just makes sense.

"There's this generator that we provided to Water Mission in 2000 and it went to Tanzania. It's been in a refugee camp for years, and it's provided hundreds of thousands of people water over those years. It's been gifted back to us," Howley said. "We're excited. It's a really heartfelt story about how our products can bring assistance."

"Outside of Zizi (Tanzania), there's actually Nyaragusu, which is one of the largest refugee settlements in eastern Africa. ... There was a humanitarian crisis there in the early 2000s," Peters said. "Water Mission responded to that crisis, and Kohler was pivotal on supplying that generator, which powered the initial pumps that were pumping the initial water that was being treated."

From left to right: George Greene IV, CEO of Water Mission; Cindy Howley, director of stewardship at Kohler Co.; George Greene III, co-founder and executive chairman of Water Mission; and Chris Holdorf, executive director of Global Water Center.

George Greene III, the co-founder of Water Mission and a former engineer, said 2.2 billion people in the world – nearly a third of the world population – lack access to clean water. While many organizations go to these countries and install water equipment that's used to clean water, he said not enough organizations actually teach the community how to use and maintain the equipment. He said the knowledge is necessary for success.

"It's not just go in and set up a piece of equipment, leave and go set up another piece of equipment. You've really got to stay with that community long enough," Greene said. "So that system ... for a community can be set up in a day, but a project could be a year and a half to three years. And all that time is spent just developing relationships with people and breaking paradigms."