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A Clean Water Breakthrough

ACF interviews Dr. Greg Allgood about Procter & Gamble's lead philanthropic initiative
ACF-Cambodia, courtesy: J. Lapegue

Dr. Greg Allgood is head of Procter & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program, which has helped guarantee millions of liters of clean water to children and families during periods of crisis. In recognition of its extraordinary efforts on behalf of distressed communities around the world, Procter & Gamble will receive the 9th annual Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award on November 18th.

What first got you interested in clean water?

Wow—I have to go back quite a distance to explain that. I remember studying the Clean Water Act in school as a child in the 1970s, and I was fascinated with the water adventures of Jacques Cousteau. These early experiences led to my academic training in ecology and water quality and a life-time love of scuba diving. But my trips to the developing world in the late 1990s really opened my eyes to the reality of the global water crisis.

The PUR® Purifier of Water packet, which you were instrumental in developing, has been described as a miracle powder. What makes the PUR® packets different from other water treatment technologies? How did they come about?

It’s important to remember that because more than a billion people do not have clean water, we need a variety of solutions. There is no single technology that will meet everyone’s needs. That’s why I helped create and lead the World Health Organization’s International Network to Promote Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage. The PUR® packets are unique in being extremely effective in removing dirt and pollutants like arsenic while removing greater than 99.9% of parasites, 99.99% of viruses, and 99.9999% of bacteria. PUR® packets are also proven to reduce diarrheal illness by up to 90% in particularly vulnerable people like those living in refugee camps.

More children die from unsafe drinking water than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

We developed the PUR® packets in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2000 and 2002. We were working together in Guatemala, and the women who collected drinking water from open wells told us that they wanted a product that would make their water visibly clear. And, from a technical perspective, we wanted a product that would not only kill the bacteria and viruses but remove chlorine-resistant parasites. We ended up creating a small four gram powder that contains the same ingredients used in municipal water treatment—essentially a mini-water treatment plant in a packet. It is truly miraculous to see the look on mothers’ faces when the PUR® packets change water from dirty to crystal clear. And, we can do this for pennies per packet.

PUR® packets have been used in some of the largest crises of the last several years, including the recent cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe and the Asian tsunami. Why is this product so critical, especially in emergency settings?

During emergencies, people are particularly vulnerable to contaminated drinking water. Normal drinking water sources may be more heavily contaminated than usual, and refugee camps can be breeding grounds for the spread of infectious diseases. Humanitarian groups like Action Against Hunger have used the PUR® packets to provide more than a billion liters of safe drinking water. These organizations tell us that the PUR® packets are well-accepted by people during emergencies and can be provided effectively with minimal training. Because they’re light-weight, can be safely transported, and are easy to use, the PUR® packets make for an effective tool in emergency response. Many groups have used PUR® packets to fight cholera outbreaks all across Africa, and Procter & Gamble is very grateful because these efforts have saved thousands of lives.

You’ve been traveling to villages around the world assessing PUR®’s impact. What have you found?

Humanitarian groups like Action Against Hunger have used the PUR® packets to provide more than a billion liters of safe drinking water.

I travel all over the world and spend a lot of time in Africa. I wish more people knew about the global water crisis. Most people do not know that more children die from unsafe drinking water than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. I believe that if they knew this, there would be more action and support of proven solutions like the PUR® packets. I’m extremely grateful for partners like Action Against Hunger who are making a real impact on the ground and hope that we can do more to build awareness of these effective programs.

You’re going to be hiking Mt Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of the global water crisis. Tell us why you're doing that.

I’ve been asked to join an effort called Summit on the Summit: Kilimanjaro. We’re going to hike the highest mountain in Africa in an effort to build awareness of the global water crisis and inspire action, particularly among young people. Along with the musician Kenna and his celebrity friends, including Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas, I’ll be joining the climb as a water expert and teaming up with educators like Alexandra Cousteau. I’ll lead a visit of the climbers to see our work in villages near Arusha prior to the climb. And as part of this effort, the PUR® Water Filtration Brand will provide a sachet of PUR® in the developing world—enough for a family’s drinking water for a day—for every PUR® Water Filtration unit purchased in the United States. I’m very excited about this historic climb and hope people will learn more about it on our website or by following me on twitter @DrGregAllgood.

PUR® has recently been used for the first time in South Sudan. Can you describe some of the initial results?

We’ve started providing PUR® in South Sudan because of the extreme filthiness of the drinking water. I was amazed that almost everyone in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, gets their drinking water from the Nile River. This is the source of water for bathing and washing clothes, and with very little sanitation in Juba, the water is extremely contaminated. It’s not surprising that there is a lot of cholera in the area every year. Of all the places I’ve visited, it seems like South Sudan is one of the most appropriate places for the PUR&reg packets. We did demonstrations of PUR® by the Nile, and people were amazed to see the clear and safe drinking water within minutes. Many of these people are returning after years in exile during the country’s civil war, and they were desperate to have safe drinking water with the PUR® packets.

Action Against Hunger’s teams integrate clean water programs with sanitation and hygiene initiatives, including latrine construction and health education activities. How does PUR® fit into comprehensive strategies to prevent and control illnesses like the ones ACF uses?

Partners like Action Against Hunger ... are making a real impact on the ground.

A core strategy that I’ve adopted in leading our Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program is to focus on providing the PUR&reg packets in ways that are synergistic with existing programs. For example, we’ve found that the PUR&reg packets can provide synergy in school programs and in broader sanitation and hygiene efforts. Specifically, our partners have found that providing the PUR® packets in school programs in Malawi and Kenya resulted in a reduction in school absenteeism by about a third and a large increase in the number of latrines provided in the schools. Community programs in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo measured an increase in latrines and proper hand-washing behavior when PUR® was provided to communities. The leaders of these programs told me that they believe they’re seeing this synergy because the benefits of PUR® are literally so visible, which helps promote the adoption of these other positive behaviors.

We’ve also seen this type of synergy in programs to help malnourished children. If a child has persistent diarrhea, he or she is not able to take in many of the nutrients that are critical for treating malnutrition. We’ve found that if we provide the PUR® packets along with nutrition therapy, children can recover more quickly. There’s a very large effort now in Ethiopia and the broader horn of Africa to provide PUR® to people who are suffering from malnutrition. Because of the highly contaminated sources of drinking water in this area, this effort will save many lives and make the treatment and prevention of malnutrition much more cost-effective. It only takes two pennies to provide PUR®-treated water to a person for a day, so it’s a very inexpensive way to combat malnutrition.

Thousands of families have benefited from the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program, but what has been its impact on Procter & Gamble?

The impact of the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program on Procter & Gamble has been dramatic in terms of employee engagement and retention, as well as recruitment of new employees. This generation of young people is very active in wanting to help change the world. The best recruits are demanding to work for companies that are giving back to society and the environment. We’ve found that our Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program not only saves lives, but it’s essential in recruiting the best new talent to keep our company growing for another 170 years.

Dr. Greg Allgood is the Director of the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Initiative at Procter & Gamble and a Senior Fellow in Sustainability. Dr. Allgood has been with Procter & Gamble for 23 years and leads the company’s efforts to provide safe drinking water in the developing world. He has a PhD in Toxicology from North Carolina State University and a Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he did research in the water area.
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