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Climate Activism

The outdoor industry can help tackle the world’s water crisis

MSR and Flying Kites join forces to create a sustainable, scalable program that provides clean hydration—and human survival—in Kenya, and beyond.

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Chilled high-altitude air washes through my lungs and reminds me of home in Colorado. My hiking shoes are anchored down by thick mud, which stubbornly sticks to their soles, on the summit of 11,900-foot Elephant Hill in the Aberdare Mountains of southwest Kenya. Mist cloaks the range for most of the year, delivering up to 118 inches of annual rainfall: eight times more precipitation than what we typically see back home in the Centennial State.

Two Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers hiking with a group on a grassy hill under blue skies.
Our two Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers take a snack break at treeline: the first panorama of our hike, halfway up the ascent of Elephant Hill.Morgan Tilton

It’s my first time in Kenya and, based off of safari images, I’m surprised by this area’s cool mountain climate, dense forest, and abundance of water. A few days earlier, I visited Lake Naivasha National Park, a 54-square-mile body of water, 17 miles due west of here. From the shoreline, the water reached beyond the horizon. As the crow flies, Lake Victoria—the second largest freshwater lake in the world—sits another 150 miles west. The flourishing environment makes me feel optimistic for the ability of Kenyans, and adventure travelers, to be supported by these water sources.

From where I stand, freshwater flows from the mountaintop to lichen-draped heather trees, through boggy bamboo forest, and past lush jungle before reaching the countryside, 3,600 feet below us. Two affable Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers stand beside me with AK-101 assault rifles—a key piece of outdoor equipment when you’re guiding hikers through wilderness woven with buffalo, elephants, lions, rhinos, and poachers. On the immediate valley floor, I spot the starting point of our hike—surrounded by cabbage, potato and flower farms—and the campus of my host: Flying Kites (FK), a school, founded in 2010, that serves orphaned, critically-poor children and donates resources to uplift other regional schools. I’m here to learn about Flying Kite’s most recent objective: Enabling kids’ access to clean drinking water.

A group of excited school children from the Tulaga Primary School in Kenya.
Tulaga Primary School was the first school to receive a community chlorine water filter from MSR and Flying Kites—and the playful kids were extremely excited to meet us.Morgan Tilton

Clean water keeps kids in school

The clouds part and we don’t rush our time on the summit. I pull out my PB&J and sit next to Mike Chambers, Flying Kites chief strategist—who lives on-site three months per year—and microbiologist Zac Gleason, manager of the MSR water research lab in Seattle, WA. The two recently teamed-up to tackle a mutual goal of providing clean drinking water to children. Despite being 9,000 miles from my personal outdoor playground, I think the work that we, the outdoor industry, does here has the potential to influence the impact that we have at home. If we can develop dependable, efficient solutions for water management in a place with extremely limited resources and infrastructure, we should be able to utilize those technologies and methods anywhere including where we travel and recreate as outdoor adventurers. Chambers wants this work to have a wider reach, too.

“Flying Kites wants to help move the needle on a disparate education system. We want to help the government, non-profit, and private sectors collectively work together to create an exemplary school system,” he explains. He envisions FK’s positive impact reaching far beyond its headquarters, which lies 55 miles due north of Nairobi, where donkey trolleys, motorcycles, children in gumboots, and women wrapped in brilliant textiles speckle the cragged dirt roads.

A staggering list of economic and cultural barriers prevents the local children from attending class—like the price of government-mandated uniforms, and parents not being able to afford farm labor or childcare assistance—along with water-born illnesses, which cause kids to be sick and miss school, in which case, their financially-stressed parents miss work to pick them up. Even FK’s tap water doesn’t fare well, which Gleason’s portable water-quality test reveals that morning. A high level of E.coli bacteria is present: an indication of fecal matter.

Fortunately, Gleason brought a handful of MSR water filters with him, one of which I used to purify my water before the hike. It helps, too, that the FK campus has running water at all. As a global traveler, I’ve struggled with my role of mitigating my environmental impact while maintaining my health when I’m abroad. In Nepal, I treated my water while trekking but when I reached India, I didn’t have access to water sources and reverted to buying bottled water. After owning a reusable water bottle for 14 years, I feel incredibly guilty opening up a plastic bottle only to throw it away. As the adventure tourism industry grows alongside the outdoor industry, I see it as our responsibility to provide solutions and education for travelers in order to protect the places where we venture and our host communities. Plus, if the inherent brand promotion of water-based projects also influences the outdoors community to be better water stewards, I’m all for it.

Worldwide water management: Do you poop responsibly?

Our inquisitive group, which includes several U.S. journalists, turns the lunch conversation to human and animal waste, and how recreationists can mitigate our impact on public land and water.

“As more people enter the outdoors, there are many people who do not know how to mitigate human waste impact, which presents a greater risk to water,” says Gleason regarding the swelling outdoor recreation economy, which is growing at a rate of 3.8 percent in the U.S.—faster than the nation’s overall economy (2.8 percent), according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Icebound ‘toilets’ and climate change are a toxic mix, too: “As the earth warms, frozen snow from mountaineering locations—which contains human waste—will melt and pose a greater risk to water supplies downstream,” Gleason adds.

The U.S. maintains the safest, most reliable drinking water and wastewater management systems in the world, according to the Council on Foreign Relations—but, that infrastructure is naturally declining and stressed by weather swings and burgeoning populations. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that fixing our water facilities will necessitate $744 billion over the next two decades.

Meanwhile, global scientists announced that an uptick of 1.5-degree Celsius (about 3 degrees Fahrenheit) will occur between 2030 and 2052—which will be a threat to human life via heat waves, water shortage, and coastal floods, writes the New York Times. As a 28-year-old woman, it’s hard for me to envision having kids with these increasingly grim challenges that humanity will face—and soon. Given these harrowing circumstances, the global clean-water initiatives of outdoor industry brands like MSR and LifeStraw need not be labeled as cause marketing. Such work is aptly becoming necessity for human survival.

If MSR’s military-grade equipment verifiably prevents Kenyans from catching cholera, those tools can be trusted by everyday adventurers, Gleason explains. Furthermore, water systems that are on the verge of collapse, such as in the U.S., will eventually (and ironically) adopt the progressive purification systems that are being introduced in developing countries, such as Kenya, Gleason predicts.

Brand partnerships: Exponential human impact

We descend to the edge of the clattering bamboo forest, which dances in the wind, and rain begins to fall. Unfortunately, FK’s partner, Chania Primary School, which teaches 900 kids in grades 1 through 8, can’t completely benefit from the clean water falling form the sky, Chania Headmaster David Duranga tells us the next morning. He has only one 3,000-liter tank to collect rainwater, which provides enough water for one day. Comparatively, FK has a full water capacity of 50,000 liters (six 5,000-liter tanks and two 10,000-liter tanks), which supports the campus livestock, gardens, greenhouse, flushing toilets, full kitchen, faculty, main house, and 180 students. Chania’s collapsing pipes are also susceptible to leakage and infiltration of bacteria, and the supply isn’t sterilized.

Two teachers hold chlorine filters provided by MSR to help provide clean drinking water to schools and communities.
David Duranga, headmaster of Chania Primary School, and Warucu Kijuu, executive director of Flying Kites, are elated to partner with MSR; receive community chlorine filters; and to teach the students, parents, and teachers about the health benefits of purified water.Morgan Tilton

“Does it treat amoeba bacteria?” asks Duranga as we enter a classroom with 23 teenagers and open a small briefcase encasing Chania’s first-ever MSR SE200 Community Chlorine Maker, which we’re delivering today. This year, Chania’s faculty joined FK’s government-approved teacher training program, so Chambers is a trusted partner. The established relationship allows MSR an opportunity to introduce the water filter and, soon, new water storage (one 10,000-liter tank and one 1,000-liter tank) and pipes. Due to misinformation and unfamiliarity, Kenyans commonly have skepticism regarding the health effects of chlorine due to the pungent smell and strong taste.

The next few moments at Chania show me why this project between MSR and FK is a success. Our industry is chockfull of well-intentioned brands embracing cause marketing, which enables them to do good while doing business. For consumers, it can be hard to know exactly what level of impact a brand is having via a do-good project or product. It’s also a challenge for brands to measure or validate their positive impact.

Witnessing this grassroots effort in person allows me to understand the success that’s possible when brands team up and share resources in order to efficiently, quickly tackle pressing environmental and human health issues. Within 20 minutes, the faculty and students at Chania evolve from being hesitant about the water filter to being confident in the water treatment program and in MSR as a partner.

“Yes—the water filter treats everything,” confirms Gleason as he pulls out the beaker-shaped device, adds salt and water, plugs the container into the classroom’s electrical outlet, and presses the start button. Five minutes later, a flashing light and beeping indicates that the chlorine is prepped: enough to purify 200 liters of water from protozoan parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Most screen-based filters can’t capture the lattermost—the microbes are too tiny (between 0.02-0.3 microns)—and filters with small enough pore sizes quickly clog from soil and debris.

Each jerrycan of purified water enables another kid to be healthy, complete her coursework and ultimately graduate from school. The project’s trajectory is prolific: MSR is designing a community chlorine maker that will treat 10,000-liter tanks, and FK wants to expand its educational hub to include the region’s entire 45,000-student district.

A man from teaches a group of early teens at Chania Primary School how to use the community chlorine filter.
Zac Gleason, manager of the MSR water research lab, teaches a group of early teens at Chania Primary School how to use the community chlorine filter: The students are attentive, sharp, and fast learners.Morgan Tilton

Next, we invite one of the kids to demonstrate what she’s learned from Gleason about creating chlorine. Dorcas, dressed in her crimson-colored uniform plus a cheetah-print jacket and high-top sneakers, steps to the front of the class. Without hesitation, she runs through the process, step by step. The water filter is user-friendly and the steps are easy to learn, but Dorcas’s leadership is impressive. She engages her classmates, who are comparatively timid, and sprinkles jokes into a call and response: “What does this device make?…Avocados?” The kids laugh, relax a bit, and Dorcas continues: “Chlorine. And what does chlorine do? Cook potatoes?” Another wave of giggles goes through the room. The kids start to proactively react, and I can see that this new information clicks into place for them.

If only one kid per classroom, like Dorcas, teaches her peers—and her community, teachers, and parents—what she’s learned about clean drinking water and chlorine, it’s progress. Clearly, the knowledge shared in our single demonstration has a wider reach beyond this room.

Water is an increasingly precious resource, be it in the Rockies or Aberdares. As I stand on Elephant Hill and watch the storm clouds approach, I think about the overwhelming number of wildfires that our country’s communities and the outdoor industry faced this year, as well as one of the worst winters in Colorado’s history. Across seasons and locations, these natural events all link back to water.

We will continue to experience the rapidly evolving, devastating effects of climate change, evidence points, and water is going to be an even greater commodity. How nations manage our global water supply is a concern that should be prioritized. I think that we have a huge potential to drive the direction of water management in the U.S. from policy and product creation to cultural practice. Much like the instant progress that I saw in a single classroom, on the other side of the world, the ripple effect of a collective effort can be immediate.

In 2019, MSR Impact Project will offer a Kilimanjaro trek to fundraise for the Flying Kites program (dates to be determined at print) with Mike Chambers as the guide, and participants will deliver the water filters in person.