Alum Marla Smith-Nilson honored for increasing access to clean water

September 13, 2013

By hammersmith

Marla Smith-Nilson, a Class of 1987 Flinn Scholar, is a SELF Magazine Women Doing Good Honoree for her work in bringing clean water to impoverished communities around the world through the nonprofit Water 1st.
Smith-Nilson was interviewed about her work by the Today Show Sept. 11 because of the SELF Magazine honor. The Benson, Ariz., native graduated from the University of Arizona with a civil engineering degree and has been working on water issues for about two decades.

Water 1st, which she founded in 2005, benefits the poorest of the poor— people living on less than $1 a day and in some cases less than $1 a week. The Seattle-based organization works in four countries: Bangladesh, Honduras, Ethiopia, and India. The group builds water systems that can be supported and maintained by the community. To date, Water 1st has completed nearly 1,000 projects impacting nearly 100,000 people. And all of the systems are still operational.

In a 2003 interview, Smith-Nilson told the Flinn Foundation that it was during one of her summer travels as a Flinn Scholar to Turkey and Egypt when it became very clear that her passion was safe water.

“My life has never been the same since the time I saw a young Egyptian mother, carrying a child on her back and a bucket of water on her head, walking barefoot in the sand back to her shanty home. She made this trip several times each day just to bring water to her family,” she said. “My commitment to this work grows stronger with each trip I make to a village to see a finished project, and to witness the amazing transformations in the lives of the people.”

To learn more about Marla’s work, visit

For more information:

The Lifesaver: Marla Smith-Nilson, SELF Magazine 

Today Show Interview, 9/11/13