Cousteau’s Water Crusade

"Six thousand kids die each day because of water-related diseases. That’s like 12 full 747s crashing every day." The speaker was Ryan Hreljac, age 13, addressing a room full of adults gathered for the launch of the Water Culture Network (WCN) at the Chelsea Piers in New York City. "I dream of a day when everyone in the world has clean water," Hreljac said.

Ryan and Susan Hreljac in New York: fighting the water wars.©Jennifer Veilleux

Despite his youth, Hreljac was speaking as a dedicated campaigner in the water wars. His Well Foundation is an active partner in WCN; he began raising money at age six after hearing that $70 would buy a critically important well for a community in Africa. After four months of extra chores around the house, Hreljac raised $70 to bring to a nonprofit group that does international community work. "When they told us that it was not $70, but $2,000, Ryan said he would do more chores!" his mother laughs.

Hreljac didn’t stop there. He began public speaking at age seven, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and established his own website, raising more than $1 million for wells and related projects in seven African and two South American countries.

In New York, Hreljac teamed up with Jean-Michel Cousteau to announce the launch of WCN, which intends to confront the world water crisis head on. Cousteau, son of famed undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, exclaimed, "I am doing this out of my heart…and will dedicate the rest of my life to the water crisis."

Cousteau believes that the West takes fresh water and other vital resources for granted, but that’s changing. "I have been to Africa," he said, "and I cannot stand what I see. We know what the problems are, and we know what to do. The Water Culture Network will look at the best possible solutions to solve water problems, and we will not allow our work to get lost in the pipeline."

At the event, WCN showed off the Mobile Filtration System designed by the Florida-based Ecosphere. The large-scale water filtration unit can purify 60,000 gallons of heavily polluted water each day, an ability demonstrated with glasses of sparkling pure filtered Hudson River water that were passed out to the assembled throng. The demonstration unit (there may also be solar-powered versions) will be sent to Southeast Asia to aid in tsunami disaster relief.

"When the tsunami hit, our shareholders called concerned about how we could help," says Stephen Johnson, CEO of Ecosphere. The firm’s $1 million donation includes technicians for the first six months to train local people in its operation.

Cousteau believes that young people like Hreljac are a key element. "The youth are absorbing information like sponges," he said. He added that Hreljac’s work has helped more than 160,000 people. "He has set the mark, and we have to catch up!" Cousteau concluded.