George McGraw

Ashoka Fellow
george_mcgraw_headshot.jpg
United States
Fellow Since 2019
This description of George McGraw's work was prepared when George McGraw was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

Through DigDeep, George McGraw works with marginalized American communities to build access to water and sanitation in an open, participatory way. In doing so he is catalyzing a wider U.S. ecosystem of innovation and support.

The New Idea

At least two million people in America live in homes without access to clean, safe drinking water or indoor waste and sanitation systems. While billions of people facing a similar situation in countries around the world are the subject of lots of problem-solving and support (some of it problematic, to be sure), this population in the US - mostly very remote communities of color - is largely ignored. George is working to completely erase the problems plaguing these two million folks who lack physical access by championing a model of developing community-led, human-centered, decentralized water and sanitation for health (WASH) infrastructure. In so doing, he is infusing the water services sector in the U.S. with more innovation in general and these values in particular.

His path to this point has had a few distinct phases. First, George has piloted a model that worked. Inspired by the culture of innovation and diversity of approaches abroad, George and his team at DigDeep facilitated a community-led effort bringing clean indoor running water to nine towns in Navajo Nation. The solution - a micro-municipal water system with central cisterns re-filled by truck - is the first of its kind in the U.S. But copying this one success is not the goal. Rather, George is using this success to push for more community-led innovation across the U.S.

When it comes to water and sanitation in the U.S., there is a very limited set of solutions, no strong presumption of need and, in general, “Americans are so removed from this problem” even though many millions more are increasingly at risk of their current systems failing. George has therefore developed a hotspot study with support from EPA, NAACP, University of Michigan, water-focused foundations, and many others that has his team members on the ground in six of the hardest hit communities around the US, doing research on the problem and lifting up creative community-led solutions. In so doing George is helping unleash a culture of innovation in this sector at a time when the U.S. is actually going backward on measures of water access as infrastructure crumbles, weather events intensify, and resources are compromised.

The Problem

In the U.S. (and many other industrialized nations) there are just two ways to get access to indoor water and sanitation: Either you live in an area with industrial water and sanitation supply lines and pay for service from a public/private utility, or you live in an area without service and are responsible for digging a private well and installing a septic system. But this “two-sizes-fit-all” approach leaves out many millions of people. According to George, “If you’re too poor to pay a water bill or to dig a well, if you live in an area without sufficient population density, with the wrong soil type or without economic development, or if your community doesn’t have a voice in planning, [these two solutions] don’t serve you.”

Census data conservatively puts the number of people failed by our current system at 1.6 million people. These are people living in the U.S. in housing units without complete plumbing facilities, many of them in remote, rural, low-density “Hard to Count” areas where studies have shown the residents to be more likely to distrust the government and less likely to answer census surveys accurately. For this reason George believes the true figure could be much higher. And this doesn’t even account for the tens of millions who lack safe drinking water, nor that fact that these populations experiencing “water poverty” in the U.S. are growing. It is estimated that the U.S. has a trillion-dollar water infrastructure deficit. Add to the mix the fact that city-wide systems in places like Chicago and Flint are degrading and the U.S. earns the unflattering distinction as one of the only nations – developed or developing – where the water access gap is widening.

George believes that part of this problem stems from the fact that water poverty is largely invisible in the U.S., but also that the message to those without access to these basic services is typically “wait for infrastructure to catch up.” But given the limitations of today’s two solutions, many U.S. communities will never be good candidates. More importantly, according to George, “these messages of ‘just wait’ strip these communities of their visibility and agency by normalizing their plight and convincing them there is little they can do to better their situation.”

This leads George and his team to assert that “a lack of access to water and sanitation isn’t a problem itself, it’s a symptom of social and economic marginalization and a lack of agency.” And our current two-sizes-fit-all approach, as George puts it, “tends to diminish agency by treating individuals as rate-payers and not decision-makers. Americans are now so far removed from decision-making around their water resources that many communities without access simply don't know where to start.”

The Strategy

George comes to this work in the U.S. after staring his career in the global Water and Sanitation for Health (WASH) sector. The fact that 2.6 billion people around the world lack access to improved drinking water is met by a global industry of top engineers, creative problem-solvers, community organizers, and hands-on organizations large and small. For several years in the early 2010s, George helped catalyze and support community-led solutions in South Sudan and Cameroon, but when he shifted his attention to the U.S. in 2015 he realized that – while there was in fact a significant need here, too – domestic innovation in this space was all but non-existent. Today DigDeep is exclusively focused on working in the U.S. and on equipping all Americans with the tools to develop and manage their own water access networks in an open, participatory way by utilizing low-cost technologies that are easy to deploy and manage. George and his colleagues at DigDeep believe communities in need can increase their agency, putting themselves back at the center of decision-making around their water resources.

George’s confidence stems for the fact that he’s helped introduce a dramatically different, community-led, and locally-relevant WASH solution in one the U.S.’s most disenfranchised and “water poor” areas. Over the last few years, George has worked with community groups across Navajo Nation to pilot a model that brings clean, hot-and-cold running water to off-grid homes for the first time using a series of wells, water trucks and solar-powered Home Water Systems. This project currently serves 550 clients across 12 rural “chapters” in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. In this particular model, families work with DigDeep’s Water Techs to install stand-alone Home Water Systems that feature a 1200-gallon underground water cistern, pump, filter, heater and solar power unit. Community members operate water trucks, filling these systems from a series of wells developed by DigDeep and owned and operated by the community. The entire project is guided by a council of local leaders, is finically sustainable, and creates much-needed jobs.

The “Navajo Water Project,” as this effort is called, is just one example of a participatory model for water and sanitation that restores individual’s agency and that can inspire and inform further innovation around the country. Of course, George’s goal is not for the U.S. to have three discrete models instead of two; rather he is working to unleash a culture of innovation in this space and advance myriad novel, community-led solutions. To do this he is simultaneously working to develop an evidence base documenting the domestic need and lifting up local solutions, inspiring people across the country to solve this problem, and building an ecosystem of change by facilitating high impact collaborations to lead <br>a diverse, sustainable movement.

To draw attention to the issue of water poverty in the U.S. and to inspire action, DigDeep has launched a national “hotspot” study. In collaboration with Michigan State University, the U.S. Water Alliance, and several national foundations, DigDeep is studying the root causes of water poverty in the California Central Valley, the Four Corners area (which includes Navajo Nation), Appalachia, the Texas colonias, rural counties in Mississippi and Alabama, and Puerto Rico. They’ve already begun compiling and – where necessary – re-coding and combining existing datasets to get the best possible “360-degree view of affected families”. On top of that, DigDeep researchers are currently embedded in each community gathering stories and qualitative data so that, when the report is launched in Fall 2019, it’s accompanied by stories of real people, rural resilience, and examples of changes bubbling-up. While DigDeep helped their partner communities get featured on many national media platforms from PBS to CNN and the New York Times, the collateral from this report will be a foundation for a new wave of awareness raising around the need and opportunity here.

So far, we’ve shared how George is working to pilot community-led solutions and raise awareness off the problem. But these two things alone aren’t enough. In fact, George is the first person to point out the inherent unfairness in expecting the hardest-hit communities to shoulder the extra costs of building missing infrastructure that almost everyone else takes for granted. For this reason, George is also focused on ensuring other WASH organizations, funders, policy makers and the American public take action, and modeling ways to do so at scale. This is why George is focused on cultivating and sharing innovative models of how to create and support multi-stakeholder initiatives that effectively bring public funding to the table. An example of this is taking shape in El Paso County. After creative engagement with communities, DigDeep has mobilized funds to install a water line that the county will match with funds for a road. As these are pre-requisites for bringing all the area’s off-grid residences up to bare minimum standard that recognizes these dwellings as housing units, a housing-rights organization is then able to organize residents to access HUD grants to further improve their homes, in total unlocking public funds equal to massively multiply the initial investment made by DigDeep. George calls this format the “Golden Triangle” approach.

George is also working to inspire U.S. WASH organizations and funders operating abroad to redirect some of their efforts home<br>and advocating for changes to census questions, funding statutes, and municipal regulations so as to better address this set of challenges.

For the foreseeable future George will remain focused on the communities that have been completely left out. But in acknowledging the wider relevance of his work he points out an interesting paradox. While the people in Navajo Nation, the colonias, or in Puerto Rico, for example, experience the greatest water poverty, they are quickest to come up with an answer to this question: “If in need, where could you get a bucket of clean water?” Most American’s have never thought of this, but they should. A new study found that over the last decade, 1 in 5 Americans had their water dip below EPA standards for 1-2 years at a time. And as episodes of extreme weather, groundwater pollution, failing infrastructure, and income inequality increase, so too will water poverty, and not just in remote rural areas. For these reasons George believes this whole space is ripe for change, and will benefit from a culture of innovation, an appreciation of community-led solutions that unlock individual agency, and proven pathways to engage essential government funding, necessary given the scale of this challenge.

The Person

George grew up as a “navy brat” in Illinois, Georgia, Mississippi, California, Indiana and finally, rural Wisconsin. Like everyone he met in all these places, he took access to clean water for granted. In college, he was “fascinated by the bizarre fact that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, water was completely omitted from the text,” observing astutely that, “evidently everyone took water for granted then too.” <br>His capstone thesis and subsequent work (with the UN and in getting a law degree) focused on how a “human right to water” might be constructed and leveraged. In 2010, when the UN General Assembly ultimately recognized water and sanitation as a basic human right, George’s graduate thesis on the “minimum core” of the right to water quickly became required reading in human rights programs all over the world.

Naturally, many doors were opened to him then, but he was compelled to get closer to the solutions, and launched DigDeep in 2012 as an organization helping communities launch innovative solutions in Africa. George has reflected that “that work taught me that real change happens from the bottom-up, and that while frameworks like rights are critically important, human community can be a far more powerful tool for change.” It was in seeing the thorough disempowerment of U.S. communities living in water poverty that he shifted his attention to the U.S., and re-launched DigDeep in 2015 as the first – and only – community WASH organization in the U.S.