Leading the (water) way
Young alum George McGraw works for water access in the U.S. and around the world
By Anastasia Busiek
George McGraw (BA ’09) hadn’t done his research. Part of his honors capstone at Loyola was a research project on a human right chosen from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “I picked water at the last minute and turned it in to [Associate Professor of Political Science] Alex Grigorescu. I got it handed back with a big ‘See me’ on it,” McGraw says. Water, as it turns out, was not on the list and was not, by the dictates of that document, considered a human right.
Grigorescu said, "As punishment, you are going to write about how water should be a human right and how you would protect it,’” McGraw recalls. “I assumed, because there was water running through my taps, that water was a human right. But that hasn’t been the case for most of human history.”
Now, several years later, McGraw is the founder and executive director of DIGDEEP, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to making clean water more sustainable and more accessible in every community. McGraw extended the capstone project into his graduate work at the United Nations University for Peace, where he earned a master’s degree in international law.
“I looked at all treaty-based law that had anything to do with water access—prisoners of war rights, children’s rights, anything that applied,” McGraw says. “Through legal construction, I mapped what would be an international plan for water access rights.”
McGraw published that research in Loyola’s international law review—the only academic without a JD to have done so to date. His research is now required reading in some college classes on human rights.
After he graduated, McGraw consulted with the United Nations Development Program in Afghanistan, sending out graduate students to investigate water projects, such as wells, that the UNDP had invested in.
“That was a pivotal moment,” McGraw says. “We found that the projects were failing at a very high rate, for very simple reasons. The planning was done out of the country, and we were basically sending cash and GPS coordinates. Researchers would find villages with a hole in the ground but no pump, or a pump with no holes in the ground. They found wells that weren’t deep enough, or that no one had been taught how to sustain them.”
McGraw found the results demoralizing, particularly in the areas where fresh water did exist. “Some people lost children because they had kids when fresh water was there,” he says. “With compromised water sources, they died.”
Still, he says, this high rate of failure is not atypical.
“Water projects fail at 50 percent all over the world, by everyone,” McGraw says. “I decided to refocus not on building wells, but on instructing the community to do so.”
He founded DIGDEEP in 2011. The organization currently has field programs in New Mexico, South Sudan, and Cameroon.
“Each project is completely unique,” McGraw says. “If there’s a basic process, it’s that we form relationships with communities. We set up locally run partner organizations, and we have no field office. We channel our funds and expertise to build capacity there, using suitable local technology. Those projects are empowered to continue with or without us. That is important because communities change, sometimes quickly.”
DIGDEEP is the only global water organization in the United States. The Navajo Water Project serves the Navajo community of Smith Lake, New Mexico, located miles from the nearest water or sewage line. Most water is hauled in trucks and kept in drums outside the home. DIGDEEP is partnering with the community to build a new well, deliver clean water via new routes, and build small water towers with solar heaters near every home. The towers will use gravity to feed clean water into sinks and toilets.
Because McGraw views water access as a right, he doesn’t consider DIGDEEP a charity organization.
“If we continue as Americans to look at water poverty as a charity problem, we overlook a lot of places that don’t fit so neatly into the charity model,” McGraw says. “In South Sudan, for example, we are working on access for villages and schools and clinics, but also for a prison. It can be hard to explain to donors why prisoners need water. But if you look at it as a right, it really is something that’s an injustice to prisoners and people who work there.”
McGraw also seeks to draw attention to the ways in which Americans consume water.
“As a country that consumes the most of any other country per capita, we need to take this more seriously, not only because it will help us treat others as equals, but because we’re facing our own water crisis here at home,” McGraw says.
“When you understand water’s true value and what it takes to get to you, it’s like an astronaut seeing earth from space for the first time. You see how small the planet is and how connected.”
To help demonstrate this, DIGDEEP encourages a “4 Liter Challenge,” in which participants attempt to use just four liters of water a day over a span of five days—the amount of water many people in the world (some in the United States) regularly live on. The idea is not just to demonstrate how accustomed most of us are to abundant water and how difficult life can be without it, but to raise awareness (and even funds) for the communities that live without it.
DIGDEEP is now reaching out to schools, corporations, and other organizations as partners in education and advocacy. DIGDEEP is also actively fundraising to expand its water projects to other communities, including scaling up in the United States.
“We’re not just trying to bring clean water to communities, but to change the way we look at water on the whole,” McGraw says. “We don’t have to be the organization drilling every well, but we want to help others to do more sustainable, human-rights-focused work. We can’t solve these problems alone.”
Together, McGraw and the organization he founded, along with new partners and the people they educate, will help bring water access and infrastructure to those who need it most.