IN MARCH 2011, a team from the international nonprofit RainCatcher visited a school in Uganda that had suffered from a lack of clean drinking water since its founding in 1988. The only way to ensure the water didn’t contain cholera or other waterborne diseases was to boil it—which required often-scarce wood. So, sometimes, students just had to take their chances. The RainCatcher team arrived at 8 a.m., gave a clean water demonstration, donated a few filters, and wrapped up by 10 a.m. A week later, David Zielski, EEE ’86, EEC ’88, executive director of RainCatcher, got an email from the school’s pastor. “In two hours, you solved a 23-year-old water problem,” he wrote.
The village’s water problems aren’t isolated. “One in seven [people] don’t have access to clean water. That is one billion people, right now, today,” says Zielski. The results are tragic: 4,500 people a day die of water-related illness—and 90 percent of those are under five. RainCatcher aims to stem this tide one community at a time. Their rooftop systems harvest the rainwater, filter out all potential contagions, and collect the resulting potable liquid in a massive plastic storage container. The key, says Zielski, is the filtration system, which is based on engineering principles used in kidney dialysis. “There are these little pinpricks in the filters] that are .1 micron in size,” says Zielski. “Cholera molecules are .5 microns in size, so they can’t fit through—only clean water can.”
Zielski moved from the board at RainCatcher to executive director two years ago, following a career that included 15 years in software engineering and then a few years running startups. While the entrepreneurial experience translates into running a nonprofit—both requiring playing myriad roles—the new field has its challenges. “When I owned my own businesses, [I was] managing people paid by the business,” says Zielski. “They had a vested interest.” At RainCatcher, his staff is all volunteers—people with careers, families, and other commitments competing for their free time. What keeps everyone in line, says Zielski, is the mission.
So far, he calculates that RainCatcher has given more than 450,000 people access to clean water. They have about 60 sites in Uganda ready for system installation this year and another 60 that are waiting on climate and infrastructure evaluations. They are planning on expansion to Kenya and India soon, and Zielski gets calls every day from interested communities all over the world—Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam. “The only issue now is funding,” he says. Some recent celebrity backing may help on that front, including endorsements from 24 star Dennis Haysbert and volleyball pro Gabby Reece. Zielski says the celebrity endorsers like RainCatcher for the same reason as the priest in Uganda: instant results. “That’s what everybody gets charged up about with RainCatcher,” says Zielski. “They see how easy it easy for us to go into these places and make a difference.” —DAN MORRELL