Grassroots activist brings clean water to Afghanistan

PERKIOMENVILLE, Pa Wed Jan 6, 2010 10:08am EST

Aldo Magazzeni, who has provided clean water for thousands of improverished Afghanis, is shown in Afghanistan's Panjsher Valley in 2005. REUTERS/Qaiss Narim/Handout

Aldo Magazzeni, who has provided clean water for thousands of improverished Afghanis, is shown in Afghanistan's Panjsher Valley in 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Qaiss Narim/Handout

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PERKIOMENVILLE, Pa (Reuters) - Aldo Magazzeni leans across the table in his farmhouse kitchen and explains why, when it comes to supplying clean water to thousands of impoverished Afghanis, small really is beautiful.

During the last five years, the 60-year-old co-owner of a New Jersey manufacturing firm has arranged for some 75,000 people in remote areas of Afghanistan to be connected to community water systems.

His efforts helped to end the toil of fetching water and to reduce water-borne diseases, particularly among children.

The key to his success, he says, is not large sums of money or the involvement of international aid organizations, but his willingness to cultivate relationships with communities and to persuade them to donate the labor that has reduced costs to a fraction of what a commercial contractor would charge.

Magazzeni estimates the total cost of 12 water systems built so far at $80,000, in contrast to at least $500,000 that he says would have been charged commercially.

"With less money, and keeping things small, I have accomplished more than I would have done if I had a ton of money," Italian-born Magazzeni said.

His work started after a solo mountaineering trip to Afghanistan in 2004 when he stayed in the remote village of Kwalkoo in the Panjsher Valley, an area rarely visited by outsiders. Villagers had to walk a mile or more to a spring for clean water.

Sensitized to the needs of poor communities after working in Haiti, Kenya and Mexico since the late 1990s, Magazzeni struck up relationships with village elders, who told him they wanted a water system. He found water engineers to help install a system, and won the backing of the local governor.

He sold his BMW back home in Pennsylvania to pay the $7,000, the average cost of his projects, for piping, pumps and engineering advice for the first system. He financed other projects with his personal savings -- he once withdrew $30,000 from his retirement fund -- while travel expenses were paid by his company, Champion Fasteners, of Lumberton, New Jersey.

Now he has a nonprofit, Traveling Mercies, and his costs are met with funds raised from individual donations, local schools, and Rotary clubs. The nonprofit's budget is set at $100,000 for 2010, up from $60,000 in 2009.

He works full-time for the non-profit but takes no salary, living off income from his company, and his savings. In any spare time, he helps his wife Anna run their 80-acre farm some 40 miles north of Philadelphia.

Much of the fundraising and promotion of Traveling Mercies is done by Magazzeni, in keeping with his belief that there is no substitute for strong personal relationships.

Suraya Pakzad, an Afghan women's activist who was among Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2009, has worked with Magazzeni and said his insistence on working at a grassroots level explains his success.

"He sits on the floor. He has no bodyguards. He has no black-window cars," she said in an interview from Afghanistan. "He trusts people and his trust protects him."

With a long beard and a tousled mass of shoulder-length gray hair making him look like an Old Testament prophet, Magazzeni stresses the spiritual nature of his work.

Underpinning the benefits of providing clean water is the link that his projects create between people, he said.

"What they are eventually going to see is that it's all about human beings seeing their common divinity," he said.

Magazzeni acknowledges his similarities with Greg Mortenson, another former mountaineer who has built more than 100 schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan since the mid-1990s, described in his best-selling book "Three Cups of Tea."

Like Mortenson, Magazzeni sees his efforts in Afghanistan as complementary to the U.S. war effort in helping to win the hearts and minds of local people through peaceful means.

But unlike Mortenson's Montana-based Central Asia Institute, Magazzeni has no employees.

By keeping it simple, Traveling Mercies shows that helping to alleviate suffering in the developing world need not be the preserve of governments, corporations, or international aid organizations, but should be focused on individuals.

"It's not going to get solved by institutions," he said. "I want to be a story that can be read by anybody who could say 'I could do that.'"

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