Guerrilla Humanitarianism: How a Non-Profit is Bringing Clean Water to Kathmandu

Photographer Artu Nepomuceno journals his experience with Waves for Water as they provide water filters to Nepal’s hardest-to-reach

It was our last night in Kathmandu, and the first day of our engagement. My fiancée and I spent our last hours in the city FaceTiming with our parents and closest friends—we were finally getting married, and that’s all we could think about. Time flew by and after our nth call, we agreed to call it a night and just wake up early the next day to pack and be ready for our departure at 8 a.m. We were going to spend the next four days on mission and camping around the Yangri River by the Malemchi Valley, completely out of reach.

I forgot to set the alarm for 6 a.m.

The cold sunrise of Kathmandu peeked into the frosted window behind our bed. With the air conditioner humming out what was supposed to be hot air, we buried ourselves under thick comforters to stay warm. The early birds (literally) started chirping, and a semblance of a morning found its way to my consciousness.

“Hon, your alarm.”

“Those are the birds!” I said, obviously annoyed from being woken up.

A muffled giggle came from under the sheets as she realized what had happened. We finally woke up to what would be our first day as an engaged couple—at 7:30 a.m.

Morning view of Kathmandu, overlooking the rest of the city.

Panic filled the room, we were about to begin our trek and our bags were empty. The rest of our team was having breakfast, and all their bags were packed and set up at the lobby. We raged through our things and managed to get everything in order, and rushed to grab a semblance of a breakfast. Two bites in and a sip of boiling hot coffee as our bus arrived. A quick goodbye call to our parents and we were off.

The bus would be best described as a disco turned into a speakeasy on four wheels. You’ve got surround sound connected to a TV mounted near the ceiling, red velvet seat covers, green tinted windows, and a horn resembling a bingo bell. The whole team is together—Jon Rose, founder of Waves for Water; Christopher Smith, a Waves for Water core implementer and volunteer from the US; Paul Rai, local champion of the organization for Nepal; Binod Rai, Waves for Water logistics head for South East Asia; Meg Manzano, implementer, writer, and photographer from the Philippines (also my fiancée); and myself, together with twenty other local porters and all-around guys for the mission.

Early morning in the marketplace of Kathmandu. Many of the locals overload their bikes and carts with their merchandise.

A local going through the narrow roads of Kathmandu. Motor bikes are the most popular mode of transport, followed by bicycles and cars.

When the big 8.1 earthquake had hit Nepal in 2015, our founder, Jon, was in the area. He was doing some work at The Hotel View Bhrikuti (the same hotel we departed from in this story), and recalled how he held on to a pillar telling himself that this was it—this was how he was going to go. Escaping death that day, Jon found himself as an immediate first responder to the near 20,000 dead, 20,000 injured, and 3.5 million homeless. Jon, together with Binod and Paul, hopped on a bus (the same bus once again in this narrative), and began their mission. Jon spent months away from home doing what he could to help, going as far as the Malemchi Valley through Raithane, four to five hours away from Kathmandu; the same place where we were headed for our current mission.

Our bus driver sneaks his way through the broken little streets of Kathmandu. As we sway left and right, cars, buses, and motorcycles make their way around us on both sides, half an inch away from an accident. The chaos reminded me of Divisoria, but way worse. Without air conditioning and the windows wide open, the dust of ongoing construction layers our skin. The noise of frustrated horns replaces conversations. The visuals, however, was an absolute delight; textures over textures, gray toned eyes and cold burnt skin. Red brick buildings and muted aged cars. The new photographer’s India, but completely different.

The city proper was finally behind us. Jon pulls out his auxiliary cable and asks the driver to plug us up; ten minutes in and not a sound out of this seemingly pimped out system. Jon notions me to help out, and after some time of figuring it out we finally get music. The sound system doesn’t disappoint, and the upcoming adventure’s mood is set with Jon’s well-traveled Spotify playlists.

In the temple of an Aghroi, dark magic practitioners of Hinduism.

Jon Rose, Meg Manzano, and Christopher Smith by a very dry and dusty path on our way to the Yangri River. Most of our clothes and gear were covered in dust by the end of the day.

“There’s always going to be at least one thing that fucks up in a trip. But that’s what makes the story.” - Jon Rose, founder of Waves for Water

This is the typical way a Waves for Water story would begin—a mess. Back in 2017 when we did a mission in Mongolia, Jon said, “There’s always going to be at least one thing that fucks up in a trip. But that’s what makes the story.” The mess we go through in our missions isn’t born from a lack of planning, but rather from the sheer difficulty of how hard it is to get to the places we have to get to. We do our missions in the most remote places around the world, introducing our water filters to communities that never understood the diseases they were getting from dirty water. It’s with that rawness that the organization has been able to do all that it has accomplished, bypassing the headache of government.

Rebel With a Cause

Waves for Water was born out of disaster. Jon had been a professional surfer and champion for thirteen years when he took a trip to Sumatra back in 2009 to catch some waves—little did he know that history was about to be made. An earthquake of 7.6 magnitude hit the city of Padang, killing more than 1,000 people and leaving more than 100,000 homeless. Jon was on his way to Bali to do a personal initiative with 10 water filters, but ended up being one of the first responders in Indonesia.

From then on Jon had a new mission in life. He retired himself from the professional surfing world and dedicated his time to providing people access to clean water. Shortly after Indonesia, tragedy hit Haiti, an earthquake killing more than 200,000 people. It was there that Jon truly applied his Waves for Water program, partnering up with existing relief organizations as well as the United Nations, touching the lives of around three million Haitians to date.

Our trusty bus about to go through a break in a river. Above is an unfinished bridge which would have served the purpose of our route.

“One can say that it was through Jon’s ability to adjust to situations and rebellious tendencies born out of his love for surfing that made him intolerable to the political opportunity born out of natural calamities. He bypassed all that and went straight to helping those in need, without any expectation of gratitude.”

A local Nepali hiking towards his home with wood on his back. In most places in Nepal, the government monitors illegal logging tightly. Because of this, there are certain areas within the local vicinity where the community can get firewood. No matter how far they live, these locals carry the wood to their homes with their local backpack—a basket with a padded strap wrapped around the forehead of the carrier. 

One can say that it was through Jon’s ability to adjust to situations and rebellious tendencies born out of his love for surfing that made him intolerable to the political opportunity born out of natural calamities. He bypassed all that and went straight to helping those in need, without any expectation of gratitude. “Disaster Tourism,” as Chris would call it.

“Skipping all the bureaucratic bullshit through guerrilla humanitarianism.”

Meg and I got involved with the organization back in 2015. We were doing a story on Carlo Delantar, country head of the Philippines for Waves for Water, for Southern Living Magazine. The story revolved around World Water Day and the #nofilter campaign of the organization—volunteers from all over would go online and post our initiative, with the hashtag. The campaign was a success, with our posts dominating the popular hashtag for a time being. It was from that assignment that Meg and I fell in love with W4W, taking it as an opportunity to give back. The organization’s motto is “Do what you love and help along the way.”—this was exactly what we did. Together, Meg and I spearhead the documentation and storytelling division for the Philippine team, helping build a narrative on modern humanitarian work.

No tarps, no parades—we come in to educate local champions on how to use our simple water filters, and hope that they get to use them for years to come. For four days we hiked around the Yangri River, camped behind farms, by the river, or on rice terraces. Accompanied with the visual nirvana provided by the local villages was the open mind of the Nepali people—everywhere we went we were welcomed with so much hospitality. Coffee in the morning, bonfires at night, chicken curry for lunch and Bolognese for dinner—despite the need to rough it out, Binod’s trekking company, Insight Himalaya, gave our camping experience a million-star treatment.

A local family residing in the Malemchi Valley. Most houses are built by brick and left bare and exposed. Only recently have families decided to finish their walls with cement.

Jon Rose as we finished crossing a 300 meter steel cable bridge. The reactive structure hangs around 40 meters above a raging river. Locals use it everyday to get from town to town, especially students for school. 

A Chance Reunion

Back in 2015 when Jon had done his response in the Yangri river area, he and Paul came across this young girl named Anjali. The earthquake’s epicenter was just a few miles away, and Anjali was one of the many who suffered greatly; her husband had been killed, and she was pregnant with their child. In the attempt of providing aid, Jon and Paul taught the shell shocked Anjali how to use the filter, in the context that her coming baby would need clean water to grow up with. Hopeful that she managed to absorb all that had been taught, Jon and Paul moved onwards with their mission.

As we hit the midpoint of our trek, we came across a construction site by a cliff, which seemed to have been a school in the making. We were walking by it when Jon brought up the story about Anjali, and thought out loud how it would be cool if we could see how she was doing. Without hesitation, Binod and Paul went down to the site and spoke to the locals about this girl named Anjali. Confused by the specifics of who we were looking for, one local instructed us to go up the hill behind the school. Surprised with the lead, we didn’t question—up the hill we went, and within minutes, we came across a little makeshift shelter with a tiny garden patch out front. The dog tied by the front barked as we approached, and a young beautiful girl came out to see the commotion—it was Anjali, carrying in her arms her three-year-old daughter, Ravika, as healthy as can be.

Jon and Paul Rai sit inside Anjali's humble abode, with Ravika sitting on Paul's lap. Anjali prepares tea as we all hear what she's been up to since the earthquake.

Anjali shows Jon and Paul how she's been using the filter.

Meg photographs the filter being used, while Anjali, Ravika, and Anjali's sister and child observe as well.

Overwhelmed with the chances, we absorbed the situation as we sat inside her little home as Anjali narrated the events that had happened since the last time she had seen Jon. As she prepared us coffee and tea, Anjali points us to the filter sitting on the shelf by the door, and explains how the filter has been an essential element in her lifestyle, and more importantly, her daughter’s. Paul then asks Anjali to show us the condition of the filter, and to our delight, the unit ran perfectly. Her daughter, Ravika, has been using the filter since she was born, and has shown significant differences in health in comparison to the other children we had come across in Nepal. To some of us, we only knew the story about Anjali, but we would have never have known the hardships she went through in the past; she was full of life and full of spirit.

As we made our goodbyes, Anjali pulled out her Nepali customary welcome scarves and put one around each of us. As she put one around Jon, he said, “I am so happy that we found you.”

Anjali replied, “I am happier.”

Anjali thanks Jon for finding her again by practicing the local tradition of welcoming guests with scarves.

The Waves for Water team with Anjali and Ravika, Anjali's sister and child, and a friend of Anjali's sister (L-R): Nima, Paul, Anjali's sister and child, Binod, Anjali, Ravika, Jon, local friend of Anjali's sister, Chris, and Meg.

Nepal is quite known for their bottomless pit of old wives’ tales; being greatly influenced and occupied by Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, cultures and practices are greatly mixed. One of which is the case of being a single mother. It is believed that despite it being from a natural disaster, the death of a husband is born from the bad luck of the wife. Because of this, Anjali does not receive visitors from the community because they believe her misfortune would transfer to them. She is a single mother outcasted by cultural stigma. Her little makeshift home is all she can do for now, as she balances raising Ravika while making a semblance of income by selling crop from her little garden patch.

Anjali is one of the many single mothers in Nepal suffering the fallout from this old wives’ tale. The government has even tried to fix this problem by offering men a $5,000 incentive for marrying a single mother. To this date none have taken the offer.

Waves for Water is currently initiating a new program starting with Anjali. Our mission? To build her a home. If anyone is interested in joining in the program, please stay tuned by following W4W on social media: Instagram (@wavesforwater) and/or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/wavesforwater).

Words and Photos by

Artu Nepomuceno

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