Xylem Volunteers Continue Relief Work in Puerto Rico

Xylem volunteers share stories from the frontlines of hurricane recovery efforts

“So I don’t have to wait for the water truck to take my medicine now?” Outside the Roman Colon Correa school in Rio Jueyes, a village in southern Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria last year, a young boy in a yellow school uniform shirt looks up at Dirk Kenny with beaming eyes.  

Dirk, a branch manager at Xylem’s Dewatering operations in Mira Loma, CA, has been on site with his colleagues Jeff Clark, Mainor Vega and Austin Huskerson helping build an AquaTower, a water filtration system to provide clean water to the school and neighboring village. The project is part of a water relief initiative being done jointly by Planet Water Foundation, a U.S. based non-profit focused on addressing global water poverty, and Xylem, a leading water technology provider, through its Watermark corporate citizenship program.

It is the first stop of a five-day tour to build ten towers in all at schools and community centers across the territory, but the middle school student’s question will echo through Dirk’s mind throughout the trip and for weeks after he returns. The boy’s words underscore the urgent need for clean water that so many villages there continue to face – and how their water challenges impact each and every person in the area, making something as simple and as critical as a child taking his medication each morning an obstacle that requires careful planning and reliance on a water truck that may or may not arrive, depending on the day.

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This is the painful and personal reality of water insecurity, and how it impacts the most vulnerable around the globe.

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria may have hit more than a year ago, but thousands of people continue to grapple with a lack of access to a reliable source of clean and useable water. Without a safe drinking water supply, communities have been forced to turn to polluted wells or streams rife with sewage, dramatically increasing the risk of an outbreak of serious illness or disease.

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In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Planet Water began responding to this urgent situation by deploying AquaTower systems, water filtration solutions that can eliminate all types of dangerous microorganisms – and create clean, safe drinking water from nearly any available source, including contaminated wells, canals and rivers. AquaTowers can operate without the use of electricity when equipped with Xylem’s Saajhi stepping pumps, a human-powered alternative to petrol or electricity powered pumps. Each AquaTower can produce up to 10,000 liters of potable water per day, supplying around 1,000 people.

Xylem is playing a critical role in helping make possible Planet Water’s efforts across Puerto Rico. We have previously supported the Foundation through charitable contributions and employee volunteer hours in more than 325 locations around the world. In late 2017, Xylem funded 10 of the first 12 AquaTower installations in Puerto Rico to provide immediate relief in remote, heavily devastated areas and sent a team of employee volunteers to help provide manpower. Since then, Xylem has funded an additional 12 AquaTower systems and deployed additional teams of employee volunteers to provide support on the ground. In total, these projects are providing clean water access to more than 22,000 people.


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For Dirk, who joined Xylem nine years ago and previously served in leadership positions in manufacturing, as a senior mechanic and recovery vehicle commander for the U.S. Army in Bosnia, seeing the human toll that Puerto Rico’s water crisis is taking on its citizens has had a profoundly personal impact: “I served in Bosnia in 1996 and 1997. I’ve taken incoming sniper shells and driven through mine fields. I have seen some bad places. Seeing the challenges that the people of Puerto Rico are facing reminds me of that devastation.”

He continued: “In Bosnia, people would have to walk through town with buckets to find water. It was so frustrating. There was so little we could do. But in Puerto Rico, with Planet Water and my Xylem colleagues, we could do something. We are doing something. It is so inspiring, and I have so much pride in my company. When we talk about wanting to solve water, it’s not just words or a slogan. It’s doing the right thing for the right reason, and it’s getting things done.”

Dirk has returned to work at Mira Loma, but Puerto Rico and his work to help those dealing with urgent water challenges are never far from his mind. On the wall of his office, across from his desk, he has hung a framed map of Puerto Rico with the locations where he and his team, working with Planet Water, installed the clean water towers. With his colleagues at his local Xylem branch, they took up a donation to start a fund to put up a similar tower in a water-challenged community in Thailand – everyone made a contribution for every member of their family. They also held a Watermark event at the local water district next door to educate children in the area about water conservation.

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And Dirk says he’s ready and eager to be deployed again to help any community devastated by water challenges: “If the opportunity arises, I’ll be gone in a second. I am here to help.”

No child should have to wonder how he or she can get clean water to take their medication or wash their hands or have a drink. In Rio Jueyes, thanks to the efforts of Planet Water and the Xylem team, Dirk was able to tell that young boy that he no longer had to wait for a water truck that sometimes didn’t show up – he finally had the reliable access to the water he and his community needs.

That’s the power of water security, and that’s our goal at Xylem. It’s our company’s mission, one that drives each one of us, every day. As Dirk Kenny, Xylem employee and dedicated Watermark volunteer says, “It’s personal.”

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Watermark Words: “We talk about Watermark and solving water issues at the dinner table”

“When I first heard about Xylem’s water relief efforts in Puerto Rico following the hurricane, I decided to volunteer to go. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve in this way. So often you read about these catastrophic events around the world, and while you want to help, there is usually not a way to contribute outside of donating money or necessities. It really is a life-changing experience to be there in person, and to provide something as basic as clean water to people who have gone without for months on end. I certainly gained a greater appreciation for the convenience of having fresh water readily available at any time.

“The best moments of the trip, outside of the camaraderie built with the outstanding team I worked with, are the conversations I had with the children at the ten schools where we installed the clean water towers over the course of five days. One child commented that now they won’t have to carry a bunch of heavy bottles of water around all day long, just to have something to drink while at school. Another notable moment was when a young child in grade school volunteered to translate for me while I was explaining to the younger kids how important it is to wash their hands with soap and water before they took a drink. Every child who came up to the water tower was so appreciative and happy to have us there, and to have access to clean water during the school day. It’s amazing how much we take for granted.

“The relief trip dates ended up conflicting with a planned family vacation. My wife said to me, this is important, we will make it happen! I’ve worked for other companies throughout my career, but Xylem is different in that they really take social responsibility to a whole other level. We believe it, we live it, we breathe it, and we discuss it. We even talk about these types of issues at home around the dinner table with my wife and teenage daughter, who is also very passionate about environmental issues. Mostly, I’m humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to serve, and I can’t wait to do it again if given the opportunity. The clean water towers that Xylem has configured are outstanding in both design and speed of installation. If I had magic wand, I would install these towers in every location on the planet where access to clean water is limited.”

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"It really is a life-changing experience to be there in person, and to provide something as basic as clean water to people who have gone without for months on end... I’m humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to serve, and I can’t wait to do it again."

Jeff Clark, National Manager, Aftermarket and Service Tech Support, Americas Commercial Team for Xylem, based in Charlotte, N.C.

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