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An hour down a dirt road stands the most beautiful natural treasure in Kenya’s Western Province—the Kakamega Forest. The forest is a fraction of its former size, and it grows smaller every day because of the insatiable demand for firewood.
One reason for that demand is people need to boil water from local rivers and streams so it’s safe to drink. Not only does this deplete the forest and release CO2 – a contributor to climate change — but often, those who go looking for firewood and carry it home are young girls, spending time in the forest instead of in school. With little money, many people make unfathomable choices every day between buying food to feed their children, or buying firewood to boil their water.
In 2010, my husband Evan Abramson and I had just completed “When the Water Ends ,” a documentary on the water crisis in East Africa. We were looking for a story that offered solutions when Mikkel Vestergaard of Switzerland-based Vestergaard Frandsen described his company’s Carbon for Water campaign, which is run in collaboration with the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, at a conference at the U.N.’s Digital Media Lounge in New York City.
The company hired 8,000 community workers in Western Province to distribute for free nearly 900,000 advanced LifeStraw Family water purifiers . The filters are designed to filter water for a family of five over three years, reducing risk of disease and the need for firewood.
When we heard how a for-profit company could bring so much good to so many people just by doing things a little bit differently, it made us realize that there is still a lot of hope to solve the problems of the developing world. So we partnered with Vestergaard Frandsen to tell the story of Carbon for Water .
Evan and I went into the field, interviewing nurses, doctors, environmental experts, clergy, civil servants, and program staff, as they compared their experiences before and after the distribution of the water filters. The difference, even within six weeks of the initial distribution, was marked. Every home Evan and I visited had a new filter. One nurse raved about how she had already seen a reduction in typhoid among children in her district. (Health impact studies are underway, and anecdotal evidence is already pointing to improvements in several indicators.)
Now over 4.5 million Kenyans have the ability to purify their water at home. No family, government, or donor has paid for this. The program, which will last 10 years, is financed by carbon credits, earned by Vestergaard Frandsen for effecting a decrease in the demand for wood.
Third-party auditors found that almost 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions were avoided  in the project's first six months. These offsets will be sold on world carbon markets and much of the proceeds reinvested in ongoing community education efforts.
One of the reasons we love this project is because it is so self-sustaining. And a survey has indicated that more than 90 percent of families that received the filter have been using it regularly, so we’re looking forward to some positive health impacts once the data is obtained.
Telling this story in a short documentary format (only 22 minutes) was a challenge—I spent many nights whittling footage under a bed net. While making the film, I learned that I was five weeks pregnant. Malaria, along with pneumonia and diarrhea, is a major killer of children in Western Province, and is also especially dangerous for pregnant women. I avoided bites by using mosquito repellant, hiding under the mosquito net promptly at sundown, and wearing long sleeves and trousers despite the heat—taking every precaution.
The story was just too important, and of course the five million people who live in the province confront these dangers daily.
Since we returned from Kenya, the documentary has sparked important conversations in Paris, Durban, Geneva, and New York about the intersection of public health and climate change, and we were thrilled to learn that it will be screened at The World Bank on March 22, 2012 for World Water Day . We’ll be bringing our brand new baby Luz on her first film festival circuit and we’ll continue to raise awareness of the complex issues surrounding water and climate change in the future. Our goal is to inspire business leaders, policymakers, and consumers to challenge themselves to do things a little bit different towards the common good.
You can learn more about the film at www.carbonforwaterfilm.com .
Photo: Evan Abramson