Interview: Jon Rose, founder of Waves For Water

This interview was originally published in Portuguese. Read it here.

For us, that have access to what is necessary to the survival of any human being, it is hard to imagine how are the lives of those who live without clean drinking water, for example. Yeah, but the fact is that in the world a child dies every 15 seconds due to the lack of this natural asset, which should be available to every person in the world. And it is an illusion to think that this does not occur in Brazil.

But someone has been fighting a war against the lack of drinking water. Jon Rose, who dedicated 13 years of his life to professional surfing, started in 2009 the activities of the organization called Waves For Water, which aims to bring clean water to every person in the world who needs it. He has traveled around the world and only in his last trip to Brazil helped nearly 85,000 people get access to safe drinking water with the project “Sede de Vencer” (wich means “Thirsty For Winning”, in Portuguese), in partnership with the brazilian soccer phenom Neymar Jr. and his Institute, that visited communities lacking in places where the Brazilian Team played in the recently finished Confederations Cup.

In this exclusive interview Jon tells how he created Waves For Water, talks about his travels, the partnership with Neymar Jr., his vision of the problem of drinking water and the ways to fulfill his main objective.

Zinabre: Jon, first, you’ve been a professional surfer and traveled around the world, had contact with different people and cultures. How this lifestyle led you to create the Waves For Water? How did you come out with this project?

Jon Rose: I spent 13 years as a professional surfer. I did the competitive tour for about half of those years and the rest was spent exploring for waves in remote locations. W4W was founded on the notion of going and doing things you love, and helping along the way. It was going to be nothing more than a pet project that would get me back to some of the more destitute and remote places I’d gone as a traveling pro surfer. It was a way to finally go back there and give back but honestly, to surf there again… I have no problems admitting the selfish nature in which this whole idea came about.

But then I was on a trip to Indonesia which was really just any other surf trip with friends, but when that ended I had planned on going to another nearby island I knew about to distribute 10 portable water filters and officially launch W4W. But I was caught in an earthquake in the Sumatran city of Padang before I ever got to that island and became a first responder – distributing the 10 filters to relief centers there instead. It was a life altering experience that taught me many things, first and foremost how practical these solutions (water filters) were and how big the need was for them. But the biggest lesson was really learning how much one person can do. It changed my life forever and from that day forward I have been focused on W4W.

ZNB: By the way, would you say that you created W4W, or it kind of “emerged”, “happened” naturally in your life?

JON: See above… Yes it was obviously a divine intervention of sorts that happened organically.

ZNB: After that tragedy in Padang, you got involved with help in disasters in Haiti, Chile, Japan… Tsunamis, earthquakes and even the Hurricane Sandy, in New York and New Jersey. Which situation or place has touched you the most? Why?

JON: Every project we do is meaningful because when it’s all said and done, people have access to clean water that didn’t before. So for me it is truly measured by the action and then the only thing that changes from project to project is scale.

ZNB: You’ve been through too needy places, more than 20 countries, and indeed one of the most degrading conditions a man can have is the lack of drinking water. In general, what is the reason that causes this problem? Environmental, social, financial? (Maybe all together?)

JON: The main reason is mostly economic/social. It’s unfortunate, but with the evolution of our species we have inundated our natural resources and turned them from what once was free and readily available to something of a commodity. Once this happened there was a separation of classes and people stopped getting their basic human needs met.

ZNB: You recently joined the soccer star Neymar Jr. and his Institute in the project “Sede de Vencer”, to bring clean water to poor communities in Brazil. How did this partnership came out?

JON: There has always been a big correlation between sport and W4W and there probably always will be. Due to my personal background, I will always see things through some sort of a sport-based lens – it’s how I relate and begin to problem solve. Because a game, a trick, or any athletic feat is just a series of problems/challenges that need to be solved or over come.

That said, the partnership in Brazil, with soccer phenom – Neymar Jr. and his institute – Instituto Projeto Neymar Jr., has already resulted in 85,000 people getting access to clean water. We named the project “Sede de Vencer”, which means “Thirsty for Winning” in portuguese. The whole project really is based around sport and water.

The main philosophy behind W4W has always been – go do what you love and help along the way, well that’s exactly what this is! Neymar Jr. is going out there and doing what he loves, soccer, and at the same time, through our program, he’s helping all the communities he passes through. It really is a great example of our model at work. Ultimately, we designed this model with hopes that it could be plugged into all walks of life – not just surfers, or adventurous travelers, but also soccer players, musicians, clothing manufacturers, chefs, and film makers to name a few – really anyone who is traversing the world for whatever reason.

I also want to say special thanks to Baruel, Hurley H2O, and Loducca for getting behind this project for whom without, this never would have happened.

ZNB: After visiting countries where we know that there are serious problems with drinking water, how do you see Brazil in a global context in this subject?

JON: Though it has been on a fast track of economic development Brazil is still far away from having a solid infrastructure… There are pockets of the country where that has started but what truly defines a country as “developed” is nationwide infrastructure. So any country that doesn’t have that wide level of infrastructure and a more importantly, a huge percentage of people living on or below the poverty line need our program. Bottom line – Brazil has a lot more promise than some of the other countries we work, but the needs at this moment are still the same.

ZNB: Especially in Brazil, drinking water and the end of the drought has been subjects for numerous unfulfilled promises of politicians. In other countries this also happens? What do you think about this?

JON: Yes it’s the same story in virtually every country we work. Water, because it is so vital to our survival, is power so it will always be used as a political weapon. But there are ways to work around it, and it always starts with education…

ZNB: You probably saw the protests that the Brazilian people have been doing against their governments. You see some kind of relation between this kind of popular mobilization and projects like W4W, concerned to improve the quality of life?

JON: Absolutely… I feel that clean water (for example) is not a luxury, but rather a human right. I feel that just by being born we are entitled to food, water, and shelter. I’m not saying it should be given to us by some higher power. This belief comes from the idea that the earth provides these things so therefore they are not a luxury. We can catch rain or find water in the ground, we can grow veggies & fruit or kill animals for food, and we can build a roof over our head. I understand I’m speaking idealistically, but the fundamental principle is what I’m referring to. Society has changed and it’s not as easy to do the things I just laid out, but it’s still my guiding light as I try and address the global clean water crisis.

ZNB: Your goal is “to bring clean water to every person who needs it.” How much do you think you are close to achieving this goal?

JON: Yes, our goal is to get clean water to every single person who needs it and Waves For Water works on the front-lines to provide clean water to communities in need around the world. It’s hard to say when we’ll be able to achieve this, but our organizational structure and work is built upon trying to get as many people as possible involved in this mission. The idea isn’t to get one person to drop off 100 clean water filters and call it a day. Let’s instead try to get 100,000 travelers to each pack 10 small filters, or team up with groups to implement projects with larger filters for an entire village. Then, the world will start to take notice and we’ll be that much closer to realizing the ultimate vision. But the biggest thing I like to highlight and remember is to always think about addressing this challenge in a decentralized way – a viral way… As a group, a movement, we can solve this problem… And in our lifetime no less.

ZNB: How do you feel knowing that you already saved and changed the lives of so many people, including children, throughout the world? Someday you thought you would be able to make a difference in the world?

JON: Obviously it feels great to know I’m making a difference. But I am less concerned about saving everyone and more focused on just doing my part. Everyone has their own destiny to realize and it will play out how ever it’s supposed to. But I believe in order for us to realize each of our destinies we all need to start from the same level playing field. That’s all I do – I help level the playing field.

ZNB: You always talk about “doing what you love and help along the way”, and you created W4W because of the surf. This sport is still part of your routine?

JON: Waves For Water was born out of realizing I could go to all the places I know from surfing and help – surfing, and sports in general, is part of the founding DNA for Waves For Water, surfing will always be a part of my life.

ZNB: Last one: Do you have plans of coming back do Brazil with W4W? Maybe during the World Cup next year, with another project like “Sede de Vencer”?

JON: Yes I’ll be back! We have many projects we are working on in Brazil and I would suspect I’ll be there for years to come. And yes “Sede de Vencer” is gearing up for phase two probably kicking off within the next 6 months.

And really wouldn’t take long for Jon Rose to return to Brazil. Shortly after this interview, Waves For Water has partnered with Mitsubishi to join “Rally dos Sertões”. The team, of course, will bring water filters to distribute to the poor communities through the path of the rally, which goes through the brazilian states of Goiás and Tocantins.

Zinabre thanks Jon Rose for the attention and wish Waves For Water success in this great goal in which it is engaged. The world needs more people who dedicate their works to those in need, with no false promises or illusions in pursuit of profits.

Know Waves For Water:
Official website
Instagram: @wavesforwater / @jon_rose

W4W // What We Do – 2013 from Waves For Water on Vimeo.