Marla Smith-Nilson

(Published in 2003)

Plumbing is not a new problem.

Case in point: the aqueduct of Segovia, Spain. One of the greatest surviving feats of Roman engineering, the aqueduct once transported water from a mountain river some 14 kilometers to the east to a Roman colony with a population measured in the tens of thousands. Today, 2,950 feet of the structure survive, a persistent reminder of the effort sometimes required to provide a population with the basic requirements for survival. Marla Smith-Nilson knows something of such undertakings.

A Flinn Scholar alumna (’87) and co-founder of WaterPartners International, Marla has spent a significant portion of her life working toward the day when everyone in the world will be able to take a safe drink of water. She has gone to great personal and professional lengths to realize this dream, yet remains to this day humbled by those she seeks to help—and by the lengths to which they must go to survive. Marla says that she was inspired to make a difference in global water issues during her Flinn travels in Turkey and Egypt, but Marla’s itinerary also took her to Spain; perhaps her efforts today can be seen as the construction of her own kind of aqueduct, one built not of granite blocks, but of fundraising, hard work, and dedication. Marla has been so busy in this enterprise, in fact, that we were barely able to get a hold of her before she left for Ethiopia. She responded to our questions via a last-minute email from a Web cafÌ© in Addis Ababa.

You have gone from a small-town girl of Benson, Arizona, to the co-founder of an international nonprofit organization. What would you say to a young person today who feels that accomplishments of such magnitude lie beyond their reach?

I think its all about taking baby steps. Anytime I have a big task to accomplish, I like to break it out into smaller pieces that I can reasonably accomplish. In WaterPartners’ first year, we raised enough money to support a water and latrine project in a Honduran village with a population of 400 people. This year we will support water projects that benefit over 100,000 people. Every year brings us closer to our goal. I think I also tend to have a glass-is-half-full attitude towards my life. In that first year I could have become frustrated with what was really only a drop in the bucket; but for those 400 people, having safe water was a life-changing experience. I like to rejoice in that, rather than constantly calculating how far we have to go. You also have to be willing to take a risk, and I think it’s probably that first step towards your goal that is the riskiest. It takes courage; you may not succeed, you may be going against the advice of close friends and family. I was told many times that I was throwing my engineering degree away. It was extremely difficult to hear when WaterPartners was struggling and I was working another job to make ends meet. During these times, I made the strongest voice in my life my own. I knew that I didn’t want to live a life of regret, so it was actually easier to commit myself to this path than to go another route.

You met your founding partner, Gary White, in graduate school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992. You began fundraising that same year. How did the concept of Water Partners International finally come together?

Gary and I both came to North Carolina because we were interested in the water and sanitation problems of people living in developing countries. We were both searching for the response that we wanted to take because we both felt that the current, traditional response was inadequate and ineffective. Initially we searched for another organization that was already in existence that was addressing some key issues in this field. We quickly discovered that our ideas must be new and radical because our search for another organization with these same ideals and operating principles came up empty. Our second route was to join forces with another organization and change it from the inside. This did not work either, but the experience motivated us to immediately go out on our own and start WaterPartners. The decision to found our own nonprofit organization was actually very easy to make at this point. We already had a clear idea of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.

It was during the course of your Flinn travels to Turkey and Egypt that you found your calling to provide safe water throughout the world. Describe the role the Flinn Scholarship played in finding your own way to your passion, and, ultimately, your career. Growing up in the desert in southern Arizona, I was raised with the knowledge that water is necessary for life. However, it was during one of my Flinn summer travels, to Turkey and Egypt, when it became very clear to me that my 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. The Flinn Scholarship opened doors for me that wouldn’t have been open otherwise. My Flinn mentor carefully helped me research a graduate school that would fit with my interests, even though that clearly meant I would leave Arizona for my graduate degrees. Knowing what I do now about how difficult it is to be part of this particular field, I’m actually surprised that my Flinn mentor never tried to point me in a different direction. In fact, it was my Flinn mentor, Dr. Robert Arnold, a civil engineering professor at the University of Arizona, who told me at a time when I needed to hear it, “Marla, you can do whatever you want to do.” The Flinn Scholarship gave me the resources, and, more importantly, the confidence to pursue my passion. As a Flinn Scholar, I felt that I was being told, in many different ways, to follow my dreams, to find my life’s purpose. I was surrounded by a group of unique and extremely talented individuals who were all searching for their passion. In this environment, you feel that nothing is beyond your reach.

Passion is only the beginning of a grand undertaking; determination and commitment see it through to fruition. The going has not always been easy for you since starting Water Partners International. What has kept you going through the hard times?

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. During one of my first trips to Guatemala I met a woman, Dona Hermina, in the town of El Molino. She has probably been my largest single source of inspiration for these projects, especially now that I am a mother. Dona Hermina has watched 7 of her 13 children die because their only source of drinking water was an extremely contaminated water hole that also served as their kitchen sink and bathtub and a toilet and drinking fountain for cattle and pigs. I am also motivated, and humbled, by the commitment of the people we support. I have witnessed sacrifices by parents that are greater than any I can imagine making: fathers who toil in the heat from dawn to dusk, tending to crops that produce only enough food to feed their families; mothers who bear children on dirt floors without a doctor or pain medication, and who in early labor carry water uphill from a river for washing their newborn infants; fathers who every day gather heavy loads of wood to be used as cooking fuel; mothers who somehow find the strength to go on when they have lost children to diarrhea–the number one killer of babies who do not have safe water. In a project we supported in San Antonio, Honduras, in 1996, the source of clean drinking water was over 30 miles away. The farmers in this community devoted three to six full workdays each week for nearly two years to dig the 30-mile-long pipeline trench using only hand tools. These families are incredibly committed to making their lives better. In my work, I try to match the commitment of the people we serve.

What advice can you give to someone who feels they have much to offer, if they could only find their own passion?

I think that the more experiences you have, the more likely you are to discover your passion. I think you need to be willing to accept new ideas and new experiences and go beyond your comfort zone. The Flinn Scholarship will give you opportunities to discover new things. I also think that I am fortunate to have been able to combine my career with my passion. I don’t think this is true for everyone. I know many people who are passionate about their families, their volunteer work, their hobbies or their spiritual beliefs.