Shilpa Alva knows an awful lot about water: the sticky politics of water, the widespread shortage and contamination of water, and the overwhelming challenges of trying to provide clean water to the countless people — one in six worldwide — who desperately need it.
Alva, 32, is executive director of Surge, a small non-profit that’s focused on raising awareness of and helping to alleviate the global water crisis. By day, she’s a management consultant in Chicago; at night and on weekends she’s focused on water, or, rather, the lack of it in so many places. “Water-related diseases are a leading cause of death around the world,” she tells anyone who’ll listen.
Alva’s passion for water issues actually piqued after she and her friend, Ummul Banin Yamani, formed the charity a little over three years ago. They created it with a broad goal: “to do something good.” But one of their first fundraisers in late 2008 focused on water projects and included a screening of “FLOW: For Love of Water,” a documentary on the world’s dwindling fresh water supply.
“It reminded me of my experience in India,” says Alva, who grew up in Dubai but is ethnically Indian. She spent three months of her junior year on a Johns Hopkins?funded study abroad working in a remote Indian village. “We could only shower once in four days,” she recalls. “We couldn’t flush the toilet, we’d go to the river to wash our clothes. You didn’t want to waste water.”
“That experience was about giving, and of course, at that point I didn’t realize I would work with water in the future. But I did realize then that eventually I would have to do something bigger. And when I became aware of the facts of the world water crisis, I was able to understand what it really means to people.”
Surge now had a focus. At its next cocktail party/fundraiser, all donations went to water projects in Bangladesh. More recently, Surge donations supplied filters for a small Haitian community and its medical center, and more filters for several families threatened by a cholera outbreak in Dominican Republic. Since the floods in Cambodia, they’ve been working on water-cleansing projects at poor schools along the Mekong.
At Johns Hopkins University, Alva says, she considered a career in bioengineering, “but it was a short-lived goal.” After graduation, she earned an MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. The business degree has served her well during the establishment of Surge and now as she’s begun to set up corporate partnerships, while her engineering education allows her to understand the science behind complex issues like water filtration technology. Surge board member and Alva’s longtime friend Marta Keller says, “Her background really marries well with this philanthropic side of her. She definitely cares, but also has an understanding of how an organization should run.” And it’s more or less run virtually, and entirely by volunteers — some are based in New York, others in Chicago, Toronto and Minneapolis. Meetings are conference calls or, less often, in coffee shops.
Alva is partnering with the Johns Hopkins Office of Early Engagement to host a Day of Service on March 24 in Chicago, two days after the UN-designated World Water Day. “Water: The Global Passport” will be an interactive educational summit for Chicago-area alumni, parents and friends and local students ages 13 to 18. Alva explains that a Johns Hopkins volunteer will be paired with multiple teens, who “will go through a water journey,” learning about different aspects of the global water crisis, and developing creative solutions.
Surge’s priority is raising funds for water projects, a goal that is buoyed by educational efforts like this one, Alva says, since few Americans have experienced a water shortage firsthand: “Water’s not an issue in the U.S. in general, you open up a tap and it’s there. It’s ridiculous how we take it for granted.”
There are over a billion people in the world who don’t have access to clean, safe water, and so far Surge has helped over 30,000 people in seven countries. “It’s nothing in the scheme of things,” Alva says, “but yet it’s so much, because it’s a start.”