This year, while the focus has been on the pandemic, other crises have continued to play out — and sometimes fly under the radar. LifeStraw, a part of Swiss-based company Vestergaard Frandsen, has been responding to these humanitarian crises, weather-related disasters, and forgotten communities around the world this year.
“2020 was a challenging year for emergency relief efforts,” says Tara MacDowell, Social Impact Manager at LifeStraw. “The biggest challenge has just been the fact that many natural disasters that happened in 2020 took a back seat to the news and media attention of the pandemic. This has meant less mobilization of resources and logistics to support these communities, and more challenging awareness-building to leverage additional supplies and resources.”
The Swiss company is famous for their water purifier, which continued to see strong sales in the pandemic as more people went camping, enjoyed the outdoors, and needed a reliable source of clean, drinking water, but it’s also a global health company at heart, she says.
In fact, Vestergaard has been working for 15 years with the Carter Center on eradicating another disease: the guinea worm, a parasite that thrives in bodies of water and continues to be a source of illness, particularly in Africa where Vestergaard works. Therefore, through a partnership with the Carter Center, the company has donated over 390,000 Guinea worm filters, in hopes of one day eradicating the parasite and the disease it inflicts.
In addition to the guinea worm project, Vestergaard helps in humanitarian crises, ensuring that vulnerable communities get access to drinking water when resources are limited, damaged, or completely wiped out. Doing that in a pandemic, this year, MacDowell says became even more critical:
“While LifeStraw did continue to respond to natural disasters, every emergency situation was complicated by the COVID pandemic and our teams had to adapt. Each response strategy had to manage the additional risk COVID posed to our teams as well as the communities impacted by disaster.”
For instance, last year’s earthquake in Puerto Rico had left many without a steady supply of safe drinking water. So in February and in September, MacDowell traveled to the region with a team from the University of Rochester and non-profit organization People 2 People 4 Puerto Rico to distribute LifeStraw purifiers, and their larger, LifeStraw Family and Community purifiers, which the company uses solely for their humanitarian work, allowing more people to use one device for drinking water. Over 1500 individuals, she says, will have benefited from these new devices, installed in hospitals and neighboring communities in Puerto Rico.
But as the pandemic was making its way around the world in April 2020, Kenya, where LifeStraw has a year-round program to provide these filtration units to schools, saw a series of floods wiping out farms, homes, and schools. During these floods, clean water was in scarce supply. LifeStraw re-oriented their local staff, headquartered in Nairobi, to address this calamity.
“2020 has shined a light on the intersectionality of so many global issues from social justice, racial equality, climate change, water scarcity, to viral pandemics – everything is interrelated and the most low-resource communities inevitably carry the most significant impact,” MacDowell points out.
The next month, in May, India faced a cyclone. In June, El Salvador was hit by a tropical storm. And by August, it was back in the US when Hurricane Laura made landfall. The natural disasters didn’t stop. In November 2020, when the world was fixated on politics, central America was hit by two powerful hurricanes.
Thus, throughout the year, as communities battled weather events and subsequent shortages of clean, drinking water, LifeStraw still had the challenge to deliver on their mission as a public health company.
“The pandemic exacerbated safe water accessibility issues around the globe, from unsheltered communities and indigenous populations in the US to our school-based programs in Kenya. It also added significant challenges to our disaster response efforts and community engagement,” she says.
As the pandemic made its way through East Africa, LifeStraw’s Give Back Program, its primary initiative to provide safe water through schools in the region, came to a halt because most schools have been shut down since March. The Kenya team, of about 40 individuals, instead pivoted to work with county public health offices to provide COVID messaging to their respective communities, install hand-washing stations, distribute soaps and other supplies, and disinfect public places.They also developed protocols to make water filtration accessible through other public communal places while also observing sanitation and distancing protocols.
A lot of this is possible, she says, because of the “nimble” nature of the company, composed of staff who have a history of working at grassroots organizations around the world and in the humanitarian sector.
The company has donated over 10,000 units through its Give Back program and in natural disasters around the world. Though Lifestraw has a give back model embedded into the sale of each of its products, they have also always maintained discretionary funds and product to respond to disasters, MacDowell explains. “This was critical in 2020 to allow us to continue to do our humanitarian work. We believe that in times of crisis, it is critical to adapt, change and lean in, not shy away from our mission and our DNA as a public health company.”