Surfer Charity Makes Waves

Attention to North Korea’s water problems comes from an unlikely source.

nkorea-waves-for-water-305.png Waves for Water members demonstrate the use of water filters at a cooperative farm in North Korea, Oct. 2012.
Photo courtesy of Waves for Water

A U.S. charity organization founded by a surfer has taken a novel approach to addressing North Korea’s water woes, encouraging travelers to the reclusive country to donate water filters.

By contributing water purification equipment, tourists can help more North Koreans have access to clean water, according to Waves for Water, which began work on the project during a recent trip to the country.

Waves for Water, which works on providing clean water to disaster and crisis areas in 16 countries, distributed water filtration systems at two cooperative farms during the visit in October last year to North Korea, where aid groups say water supply infrastructure is deteriorating.

Three members from the group, including its founder, American former pro surfer Jon Rose, visited the Chonsam and Dongbong cooperative farms—in Kangwon and South Hamgyong province, respectively—and showed the community members how to use the water filtration systems.

Each of the 50 water filters they provided at the two sites can be used to provide enough clean water for at least 100 people per day for five years, the group’s director Christian Troy said, calculating that their filters could help 5,000 people at each site access clean water.

“We spent a couple hours at each of the farms discussing how the filters work, how to maintain them, how it actually removes the biological contaminants, and [our work] was understood and welcomed,” Troy said, adding that they had talked with workers on the farms who confirmed residents had difficulty getting their hands on clean water.

Troy said that North Korea was an odd choice for Waves for Water’s project because the organization has its backbone in the Western surfing community—fans of a sport virtually unheard of in North Korea.

One of the group’s main programs focuses on getting surfing tourists to pack portable water filters in their luggage to give away to needy communities where they go to ride waves.

Troy said the set-up for the trip, which the group made after receiving an invitation from a tour agency based in Beijing that arranged tourist visas for them and set them up with the guides in North Korea, was also unusual.

“How often do humanitarians get tour guides? It’s not very traditional.”

But Troy said the group wanted to work in North Korea because there was a clear crisis in the lack of access to a clean water supply that meant people were resorting to contaminated sources.

“There’s a lot of remote areas where people are pulling water from the ground, and so often that water is contaminated,” Troy said.

Deteriorating infrastructure

International aid agencies say North Korea’s water supply systems are falling into disrepair and most health and education institutions in the country do not have functioning water systems.

Aid groups have also said the deteriorating water supply systems are a major cause of diseases such as diarrhea that kill young children.

A report by UNICEF on water issues in the country late last year said many North Koreans lack access to functioning water supply systems due to energy shortages and decrepit facilities and are forced to use less clean alternatives such as wells and springs.

Aid agencies provided emergency assistance to tens of thousands left without clean drinking water in August of last year, after summer flooding contaminated supplies.

Hopes to return

Troy said Waves for Water’s trip had laid the groundwork for a larger-scale operation in the country and hoped the group could travel to North Korea again in the spring of 2013.

“Now that we’ve done this smaller-scale distribution …. we laid some groundwork for a larger-scale operation,” he said, adding that normally the organization works by scaling up their projects after local communities get behind them.

“If we go back, it would be to go to other areas and provide more clean water to different people.”

But they would also explore more options for surfing on their next trip, since they hadn’t had much success riding North Korean waves during their last visit.

“The surfing part was funny, because they didn’t know exactly what it meant when we said we wanted to find a beach where we could surf,” he said.

Reported by Jinkuk Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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