In 1985, I was just 11 years old and one of 17,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled the country’s southern region during Sudan’s two-decade civil war.
At age 16, I led 1,500 Lost Boys from Ethiopia to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where I lived for several years. I came to the U.S. in 1996, speaking little English and lacking formal education.
In 2002, I returned to Sudan to visit my father and learned he was suffering from a waterborne disease. I came back to the U.S. and founded Water for South Sudan, Inc., (WFSS) in 2003.
I became an American citizen and studied International Business in Rochester. I moved back to South Sudan following the nation’s independence in July 2011. I now serve as Chief Strategy Director for WFSS operations in Africa. The organization has drilled 456 wells in addition to providing hygiene education and sanitation services.
Water for South Sudan
One-line project summary:
Water for South Sudan provides access to clean, safe water and improves hygiene & sanitation practices for vulnerable people in South Sudan.
Present your project.
More than 5.1 million people in South Sudan live without clean water. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, lacks a stable government and basic infrastructure. Tribal conflicts over water sources, grazing lands, and cattle-raiding add another layer to this problem. Village residents are displaced and forced to live in poor conditions, preventing stable communities and economic growth.
WFSS works to solve these problems holistically. We meet the most immediate need by providing access to safe water in rural villages. Local governments are involved at every step, securing buy-in from the community. Village residents work alongside our team, participating in hygiene education and well maintenance training, thus ensuring long-term sustainability. Wells then become the property of the village, shared with those in need. WFSS elevates humanity by employing local staff to drill and repair wells, implement hygiene education, and provide sanitation services, bridging the gap between tribes and reducing conflict.
Submit a video.
What specific problem are you solving?
South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 after fighting the longest and deadliest civil war in Africa. With firearms left in the hands of civilians, tribes fight over grazing lands, water points, and cattle-raiding.
These conflicts have resulted in the loss of lives, property, and livelihoods, and caused displacements on a larger scale; people have been forced to live in horrific conditions as a result.
In addition to tribal conflicts, climate exacerbates the situation. During the rainy season, water is plentiful for villagers, their crops, and their animals. But during the six-month dry season, life changes for the worse. According to UNICEF, 5.1 million people in South Sudan (2.1 billion worldwide according to WHO) live without the most basic access to safe water, sanitation services, and hygiene education (WASH).
Lastly, a lack of access to media outlets, rampant rumors, and illiteracy make hygiene education behavior change most challenging. WFSS is continuously addressing the evolving needs of communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. WFSS directly addresses the need for WASH services by drilling new and repairing older wells, providing hygiene training, building latrines, and hiring local staff to work for the people in South Sudan.
What is your project?
WFSS seeks to water the seeds of change in South Sudan through our programs: drilling new water wells and repairing broken wells so villagers can access fresh water, and providing hygiene education and sanitation services. Using local leadership and staff, WFSS helps remote, rural villages develop, thereby helping to develop the young nation of South Sudan and bringing greater stability to the country and region.
Since 2005, WFSS has drilled 456 wells, serving more than 300,000 people. Prior to WFSS drilling a well, these isolated villages often only have access to contaminated water sources. WFSS works with local governments and community leaders to determine the placement of wells. The goal is to create sustainable systems, incorporating well maintenance and training as part of the well installation, and turning the well over to the community upon completion.
WFSS also provides hygiene education in each village we serve. To date, our team has trained 3,392 community representatives in 433 villages, impacting more than 287,000 individuals.
WFSS’s rehabilitation team returns to older wells and responds to community requests to repair wells drilled by other organizations. To date, 167 wells have been rehabbed, ensuring that water flows for years to come.
Who does your project serve, and in what ways is the project impacting their lives?
South Sudan is the newest country in the world, and is one of the poorest. It does not have infrastructure or support services for citizens—there is no safety net. Our work directly benefits people living in villages where WFSS drills or rehabilitates a well; we serve all tribes, genders, and religions. Each new well provides between 650-850 individuals with clean water for daily use.
Access to clean water saves families 100 hours of walking per month. A nearby water source allows children the opportunity to attend school, enables women to develop small businesses, and improves the health of entire communities. When WFSS provides access to water in a village, life flourishes.
Additionally, because WFSS aims to build local capacity by engaging, training, employing, and promoting local leadership and team members, we are directly benefiting the communities we serve by hiring local staff. South Sudanese employees receive fair wages, on-site skills training, and an opportunity to grow within the organization. This project helps remote, rural villages develop, thereby benefiting the young nation of South Sudan and bringing greater stability to the country and region.
Which dimension of The Elevate Prize does your project most closely address?Elevating opportunities for all people, especially those who are traditionally left behind
Explain how your project relates to The Elevate Prize and your selected dimension.
WFSS is elevating opportunities for all people, especially those who are traditionally left behind. Our work in South Sudan is directly impacting people who do not receive support and basic human services from their government. Citizens of the newest country in the world lack access to the most basic human necessities: water, sanitation services, and hygiene education. Without the support of WFSS and many other NGOs working to alleviate these needs, the people of South Sudan would continue to suffer with waterborne diseases.
How did you come up with your project?
As told in A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park:
I was born in a rural village in Sudan. When I was 11 years old, the Sudanese civil war reached my village and I joined thousands of “Lost Boys" to seek safety in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. In 1996, after 10 years in refugee camps, I received the opportunity to move to the United States, where I was embraced by a family in Rochester, NY.
In 2001, I became a U.S. citizen, had earned a GED and was taking courses at Monroe Community College. I learned my father was alive in Southern Sudan, but suffering from a waterborne disease. I journeyed to visit him—it was the first time we had seen each other in 16 years and the moment he learned I was alive. I left with a goal to drill one well for my father’s village.
A group of Rochesterians helped me establish a 501(c)(3) in 2003 and I began fundraising; we raised enough to drill the first well in 2005 in my father’s village. I realized the extreme need for water in South Sudan and continued to raise money and grow the organization.
Why are you passionate about your project?
I was fortunate to come to the U.S., get an education, and learn a different way of life. During all of my years away from South Sudan I knew I wanted to help my people. The South Sudanese people do not need anything new, they just need access to what so many other people in the world have—food, water, education, and an opportunity for a better life. I have seen how access to water can transform lives and entire communities. I have seen the transformation in a village when they have a nearby source of water. I have seen schools, markets, and clinics spring up. I know that someday there will be leaders in South Sudan coming from the very villages where we have drilled wells. I want to see my country grow up to take its place among the countries of the world. I have hope for my country, and I also have hope for our world, when I see all the young people around the world who support our work.
Why are you well-positioned to deliver this project?
I have a very unique perspective. I know what it’s like to grow up as a native boy in rural Sudan. I know what it’s like to struggle, and suffer, and still persevere, and survive. I know what it’s like to live in comfort in the U.S. I have learned so much in my life’s journey, but the biggest thing I have learned is to have hope, to keep walking, and to have a goal. I understand the people that we serve in South Sudan. I also understand our local staff, and I work to support them, and their leadership, so that Water for South Sudan can continue long after I am gone. I also understand our U.S. board and staff, and can help them understand the needs of the organization and how best to guide its growth. I know how much people can accomplish when they are just given a little help, like I received in the U.S. I want to see the people of South Sudan have that same chance for a better life.
Provide an example of your ability to overcome adversity.
I faced extreme challenges from a young age. I know what it’s like to think that the struggle will never end, and I also know what it’s like to keep going. I endured incredible dangers—risk of death from starvation and thirst, wildlife attacks, and disease. I faced the horrors of living in refugee camps for 10 years, not knowing if I would ever get out. I survived because I did not give up, and I have carried those lessons with me for my entire life.
I returned to South Sudan in 2005 to drill wells. The war-torn country had zero infrastructure—no roads, no fuel, no hospitals, no supermarkets, no communication. I recruited team members from Uganda and gathered the supplies needed to begin drilling. My team had never been to South Sudan. When we crossed the border into South Sudan with trucks filled with supplies for six months, communication with the outside world stopped. I spent the next six months sleeping in the back of a truck, not knowing what would happen. But no matter what obstacles came my way, I was determined to drill wells for my people.
I had faith, perseverance, and just kept walking.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
When I arrived at the Ifo refugee camp, girls were assigned to families, and the boys were assigned to the “orphan” section. I was made a leader, in charge of 50 boys. I learned how to organize, manage, and lead people, and how to take care of ourselves and survive. When Ethiopia’s civil war forced us to leave, I led a group of 1,500 boys when we walked 1,000 miles from Ifo to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. It was a very difficult journey—we lost hundreds of boys along the way. I was able to stay focused and continue on our journey, with the goal of surviving and reaching the camp. We faced the extreme challenges of death due to lack of food and water, injury, disease, wild animal attacks, and soldiers trying to recruit us. I knew that the other boys depended on me, and that motivated me to stay focused and handle all the challenges that came our way. I have carried this perseverance with me my entire life.
Children around the world read my story in A Long Walk to Water, and are moved to become global leaders and support the people of South Sudan.
How long have you been working on your project?
Where are you headquartered?Rochester, NY, USA
What type of organization is your project?Nonprofit
If you selected Other, please explain here.
Describe what makes your project innovative.
Over the past 17 years, I’ve observed that wells in Africa often fail. I realized early on that hiring local staff and establishing buy-in from the community was innovative, necessary and would lead to sustainability within this young country.
Working in a country where 70% of school-aged children are not attending school (unicef.org), employees come to WFSS with aptitude but little formal education. They receive fair wages, on-site skills training and an opportunity to grow within the organization. Using local leadership and staff helps us navigate the many tribes, languages, and customs, building a bridge of peace in the country.
Prior to project implementation, we first meet with local leadership to determine the best placement of new wells or locations where a well needs repair. Once sites are determined, we meet with village elders to better understand their village-specific needs, collect data about the village, and identify hygiene and well maintenance trainees.
What sets WFSS apart from other NGOs is that we involve community members at all steps of project implementation. Villagers show our teams where to get water needed to begin drilling. They clear brush and trees to make room for our vehicles. They dig mud pits to hold the water used for drilling, carry bricks and heavy bags of cement, and scoop gravel. They build a fence around the well to keep animals away from the water source. This buy-in allows residents to take ownership of their well, ensuring the flow of clean water for years to come.
What is your theory of change?
- South Sudanese villages lack access to safe water.
- Lack of hygiene education and access to sanitation.
- Tribal conflicts over land and water sources.
Steps to Bring Change:
- WFSS works with government, securing buy-in from village residents and ensuring long-term sustainability of wells.
- WFSS implements new and rehabbed wells, hygiene education, and sanitation projects.
- WFSS employs local people who then enter communities, showing that tribes can work together.
- Access to Water:
- Interviews with community members indicate a significant decrease in time spent walking for water. Girls who previously walked 6 hours a day for water now have direct access closer to their homes.
- After receiving a well, one village member reported receiving encouragement from WFSS to build a school. The village completed three classrooms for their children to receive education locally.
- Hygiene Education:
- Interviews with hygiene trainees report an understanding of how safe hygiene practices affect health.
- Messages are internalized and practiced by community members.
- 2018 pilot sanitation project (latrine) at Zogolona Primary School serving 800 students:
- School and surrounding village also received a new well and hygiene education.
- For two years, WFSS measured the sustainability of this project through weekly site visits.
- WFSS found all students and staff adhering to proper hygiene practices; facility is cleaned daily.
- Parents maintained their commitment to pump out the latrine, covering this expense collectively.
- Results of the project:
- Zogolona qualified for monthly food distribution from World Food Programme, classroom repairs by Peace Corps, and sports equipment from UNICEF.
- Tribal Conflict:
- WFSS Founder Salva Dut is Dinka and works with different tribes to implement projects.
- Access to water results in decreased conflicts over water sources.
- Village chiefs report everyone is welcome to use the well.
- With clean water readily accessible, overall health improves.
- Children attending schools with latrines accept this as the norm and call for latrines across the country.
- Access to education provides more opportunities for children, especially girls, to pursue higher education and gain skills.
- Economy and infrastructure develop, strengthening the country and leading to peace.
Select the key characteristics of the community you are impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your project address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your project currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
As of June 2020, our new and rehabbed wells serve more than 310,000 people in South Sudan. The hygiene education program has directly trained 3,392 people with vital hygiene information benefitting 287,472 community members. The Zogolona Primary School sanitation project serves 800 students.
This year, the team expanded their regular operations season to implement risk awareness communication and emergency hygiene education training in an effort to reduce the number of positive COVID-19 cases in this vulnerable country. To date, this training project has educated 17,602 people with detailed information about the coronavirus, its symptoms, and how to prevent its spread. In addition to the emergency training, the team delivered hygiene supplies to 25 rural primary health care centers and identified 10 centers lacking water. To mitigate this, WFSS repaired six broken wells and drilled four new wells to ensure water is available for patients and healthcare workers. These centers directly benefit 4,000 people.
As we continue looking forward and planning for future projects, we estimate that our standard projects will serve more than 389,172 people in three years. We expect to implement additional latrine projects within the next three years which would impact up to 1,000 beneficiaries per latrine. Within five years, we estimate that our projects will serve more than 450,000 people in South Sudan.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
As part of our strategic plan procedures, we identify meaningful projects to be implemented within the next three years. Due to the limited word count, I have only included goals for our programs and operations.
Programs and Operations
- Be recognized as a leading WASH provider, moving beyond the Bahr el Ghazal region as conditions permit, and distinguishing our work as developmental vs. relief.
Proposed Operations Projects for 2020-21:
- Drill 40-50 new wells
- Rehab 50-60 older wells
- Provide hygiene education in every village we visit (90-110)
- Create a standalone hygiene training program/team for COVID-19
- Improve hygiene program; enhance feminine hygiene education
- Construct second latrine project at a school in Wau (subject to funding)
- Implement water filtration pilot project (research being conducted this year)
- Complete work to build the monitoring and evaluation team to visit older wells
- Construct water storage system
- Furnish and equip multipurpose building
- Raise roof of inventory building for ventilation
- Fuel tank storage project
- Build shelter for vehicles to protect them from the elements
Proposed Compound Projects for 2020-21:
- Create additional space for offices and archives in storage building
Contemplated Projects for 2021-23:
- Explore establishing a second compound (location, share, rent etc.)
- Launch second rehab/drilling team for contract work (dependent on funding)
- Construct additional latrines
- Establish Education Institute/Training Center
- Add additional office space
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
WFSS operates in the newest and one of the poorest country in the world. South Sudan has been lacking in infrastructure for decades, and will continue to lag behind the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. Our local team has always found creative and innovative ways to overcome these challenges, but the realities of very limited paved roads, and whole areas of the country becoming inaccessible during the rainy season, seriously impedes our ability to serve more people.
The lack of roads, combined with an inefficient and overly bureaucratic government system, and very limited in-country supply chains, makes our work more complicated as well. Almost all of our supplies, and 100% of our vehicles and equipment, must be sourced out of country. Transporting goods in East Africa is a challenge which only grows once you cross the border into South Sudan.
South Sudan’s lack of infrastructure also includes an extremely low number of schools, resulting in a shortage of educated workers. As WFSS looks to grow, we will continue to provide the training necessary to help our employees evolve with us.
Although our goals for the next five years are ambitious, we continuously look to expand our financial budget. WFSS has been supported privately since our inception, with donors from faith-based organizations, civic groups, individuals, and also many school communities that were motivated to give after reading A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
WFSS’s local leadership and local workforce give it a unique advantage in navigating the many challenges of living and working in South Sudan—from overcoming bureaucratic delays, to navigating checkpoints on the road, our team has the experience from years of operating in country, in addition to speaking the local languages and using their awareness of local norms and customs to overcome challenges.
WFSS’s training program, and future plans for training, will allow us to bring out the potential of all of our team members. While WFSS may not always be able to hire individuals who operate at the level needed, we seek to hire capable, willing, and driven individuals who, with time, leadership, and training, can become the team members we need. We have already seen this occur with a number of our employees, some of whom started on the drilling team as interns before moving up and taking on more responsibility. Future training will strengthen our workforce.
WFSS has been actively seeking grants, partnerships, and collaborations to further our work. We have recently formed a new legal entity, Water for South Sudan Foundation, which is a National NGO in South Sudan. The new NNGO allows us to fundraise in South Sudan which will result in more robust funding streams. We believe that pursuing funding from both countries for our growing organization will lead to long-term sustainability for our programs in South Sudan.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
South Sudan WASH cluster
As a member we participate in inter-agency assessments, coordinate response to affected populations, share core pipeline supplies, and report work-related data.
In response to the pandemic, UNICEF asked WFSS to voluntarily begin delivering emergency COVID-19 hygiene awareness training to communities surrounding Wau, South Sudan. As part of this partnership, WFSS is utilizing messaging from the World Health Organization (WHO) to share the importance of being prepared for quarantine, best practices for handwashing, and social distancing in four languages: Arabic, Dinka, Luol, and English. WFSS began this campaign April 3 and it is ongoing.
As part of this campaign, WFSS delivered hygiene supplies (including soap for handwashing) to 25 rural primary health care centers (PHCCs). These remote health centers are the first line of defense for patients seeking medical attention and meet the most basic healthcare needs.
While visiting the PHCCs, staff identified six sites with broken wells and four sites lacking a well altogether—10 centers without running water. In order to provide access to clean water for these centers, WFSS launched a team to rehabilitate the broken wells and drill new wells to ensure that healthcare personnel have the resources to treat ill patients and practice safe hygiene.
As of June 30, WFSS has distributed handwashing buckets and soap to 25 PHCCs, trained 52 health workers on the Infection Prevent and Control (IPC) of COVID-19, and delivered critical COVID-19 messages to 17,602 community members. All monitoring and evaluation data is reported to UNICEF.
What is your business model?
Water for South Sudan: Empowering supporters, staff, and direct beneficiaries to water the seeds of change in South Sudan through implementation of our programs.
- Limited access to water, hygiene education, and sanitation in South Sudan due to instability of government and lack of infrastructure.
- Nearly 50% of the population does not have a clean water source.
- Children are unable to attend school due to spending their days walking for water.
- A lack of formal education prevents adults from securing employment.
- Residents of rural South Sudanese villages; all tribes, genders, and religions.
- Individuals, schools, civic groups, faith-based organizations and foundations driven to make an international impact in a developing country.
- WFSS provides people with the most basic human rights: water, hygiene education, and sanitation services.
- South Sudanese employees are trained to become leaders within our organization.
- Our donors have the unique opportunity to see the direct impact of their support. Project-specific sponsors receive photos of village residents their donations support, along with village and chief names and GPS coordinates of the village.
Implementation of Projects:
- With 17 years of experience, our team works with national and local governments to determine areas of greatest need for projects.
- Residents are engaged at all levels during implementation to ensure long-term sustainability of wells, latrines, and hygiene education.
- WFSS continuously evaluates and improves our projects to meet the needs of our beneficiaries.
- Donors receive monthly updates about our work via newsletters, social media, and video.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Securing National NGO registration will allow us to seek grant funding in South Sudan which will result in a more robust funding stream. Additionally, we are cultivating relationships with foundations to further supplement revenue.
Middle school students and teachers around the world fund twenty-five percent of our annual budget. This revenue comes as a direct result of reading my story as told in A Long Walk to Water. Understanding any revenue source cannot be guarantee, we created the Educators Advisory Committee (EAC); a group of dedicated teachers from around the country working to identify new ways to engage teachers (e.g., poetry and art contests) to ensure schools continue to support WFSS.
In 2019, we launched the WFSS Young Professionals to create a new revenue stream from an untapped philanthropic demographic. We have identified one gap within these groups: college-age students. A Long Walk to Water just celebrated its 10th anniversary; students who read the book in middle school are now entering college. To close this gap, the EAC has been tasked with creating a WFSS Young Ambassadors group to identify and engage students who have exceeded school fundraising expectations. Once established, these ambassadors will help generate new streams of revenue as they move into college and beyond.
We implemented a new event format to move fundraising outside of Rochester, NY. We are engaging long-time supporters and board members to plan and implement house parties in their communities. Virtual events will also be implemented until it is safe to travel.
If you have raised funds for your project or are generating revenue, please provide details.
All revenue totals are current as of July 8, 2020. Our fiscal year ends August 31.
FY 2019-20 Revenue Sources (Actual):
$2,285—Community groups including Kiwanis and WFSS Young Professionals
$4,411—Rotary clubs across U.S.
$191,844—Grants and foundation support
$19,174—External fundraising sites: Alternative Gifts International, GlobalGiving, GreaterGood, and One Day’s Wages
$323,683—School support from 43 U.S. states and 10 additional countries
$69,419—Hygiene, rehab and well sponsorships
$501,701—General support from individuals
Revenue Total $1,188,125
If you seek to raise funds for your project, please provide details.
Estimated 2020-21 Revenue Budget:
$5,000—Community groups: Kiwanis groups and WFSS Young Professionals
$40,000—Rotary support: Includes campaign to fund our next sanitation project
$60,000—Fundraising events: In addition to live events, we will be implementing virtual events
$200,000—Grant and foundation support
$40,000—External fundraising sites
$5,000—Colleges and universities
$100,000—Hygiene, rehab and well sponsorships
$50,000—Recurring donors: Launch campaign to increase monthly donations
$595,000—General support from individuals
What are your estimated expenses for 2020?
All expense totals are current as of July 8, 2020. Our fiscal year ends August 31.
FY 2019-20 Expenses (Actual):
$24,328—Juba coordination office
Expense Total $1,228,840
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
South Sudan needs so much. For the past 17 years, we have been working to help the people of this country acquire the most basic human rights: water, hygiene education, and sanitation. This work has only been accomplished with the help of amazing supporters. I believe winning The Elevate Prize would allow WFSS to reach even more vulnerable people through invaluable connections with other change-makers, mentorship opportunities, board recruitment, and revenue support.
Just as I have grown from my experience as a young boy living in South Sudan, I want to see my country continue to grow up and take it's place in the world.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
Board Members or Advisors: We are always looking for commited volunteers to serve as board members and advisors. It is my hope that the relationships created through The Elevate Prize will help us make more connections, expand our reach in South Sudan, and improve our projects.
Mentorship and Coaching: I have learned so much from people who have supported me over the years. I know how important it is to have the right people helping. It is my hope that mentorships and coaching from The Elevate Prize will help me become a better leader for our staff and supporters.
Funding and Revenue Model: Like so many non-profits, finding new and creative ways to support projects is vital. We are no different. Support in this area is always needed and welcomed.
Marketing, Media, and Exposure: I believe The Elevate Prize would help us grow our brand and visibility in the marketplace.
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
We look to continue and grow our partnership with UNICEF. WFSS has worked hard through the pandemic to show our ability in hopes this will bring greater opportunities to serve the people of South Sudan.
- International Organization for Migration (IOM)
- Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
- GIZ (Rural development, sustainable infrastructure, and project management)
Salva Dut Founder and Chief Strategy Director, Water for South Sudan