FRANK water: An interview with the Bristol charity helping sanitise India

Bristol Charity FRANK water has funded safe drinking water and sanitation for more than 325,000 people in 300 communities. We spoke to the lady behind it all, Katie Alcott, who realised that by selling her own ethically sourced brand of bottled spring water, she could use the profits to fund safe drinking water for those communities that needed it most.

Last year Frank celebrated it’s 10th birthday – has your vision changed since starting out?

My vision for FRANK Water has always been the same – to fund safe water – safe water for all.

When I started out, I had no personal experience in development – other than what I’ve learnt along the way, so I’ve had to employ experts to support the development and growth of the charity, and keeping expenditure in mind, we now have two part time programme staff in India, who coordinate the work with partners and provide them with ongoing support, which means that the UK team don’t have to spend our hard earned donations on as many field trips.This means that I rarely get to see the amazing work that we do first hand.

However, late last year, I packed my bags and set off with my nine year old daughter for a three week visit to India where I caught up with the partner teams, saw the progress made so far and discussed the next stage of our work. We visited dozens of villages at different stages of development, met hundreds of people and spent many hours on planes, trains and automobiles.

Our programmes are always part of a wider village development plan, which is explored and planned by the community themselves with our support. Is it critical that access to safe drinking water is part of a wider WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – programme as these three areas are inextricably linked.

What the trip brought home to me was how water is inextricably linked to overall development. Nothing happens without safe water – health, education, livelihoods, rights, gender equality, access to safe water changes everything.

Could you tell us about how the charity came to be in the first place?

In 1997, I travelled to Kashmir in Northern India – as part of a student internship scheme to teach English in a school out there. It was emphasised to me from the word go only to drink bottled water or safe water and I took these warning seriously! A couple of months passed and I slowly got to know the children I was teaching – but this was made hard by the fact that the class was ever-changing. Every day, there would be a different group of children. When I asked why this was, the headmistress explained that the children were often sick – with diarrhoea, vomiting and fevers, all caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. As soon as one child recovered, another would fall sick.

Not long afterwards, I was invited to lunch with one of my fellow teachers at her house. I asked whether the water was ok to drink and she assured me it was – assuming I had meant was it polite and acceptable for me to drink the water. It was acceptable but it certainly wasn’t safe. I came down with what was eventually diagnosed as dysentery and was so ill that I had to return to England. It took a couple of years to recover completely – by that time I was halfway through a degree in Fine Art at Bristol’s UWE.

I had also done some other travelling – during the long summer holidays from university and wherever I went, I’d seen the problems caused by lack of safe water. At around the same time, the trend towards drinking bottled water was just starting to take hold. Brought up in the countryside I couldn’t really understand why people drank bottled water – what was the matter with tap water? But the fad was here to stay – and it occurred to me that by selling an ethical brand of bottled water, I could make a small profit and donate it to an NGO working on safe water. I found a small, family run spring in Devon (that we work with to this day) and bought a single pallet of water. I sold the water, case by case to local bars, cafes and restaurants and donated the profits. Then I bought another pallet, and another! FRANK Water started life as a social enterprise. It was only in 2007 when people started to raise money for our work that we set up our registered charity. The rest is history!

You’ve reached over 300,000 people in India with safe and clean water, tell us about the current situation in the country?

There are 663 million people in the world without safe water and 77 million of those live in India. That’s more than 1 in 9. In terms of sanitation, there are 2.5billion people in the world without safe sanitation. More than half of them live in India.

Whilst there’s no denying that there are pockets of great wealth in India, the country’s water crisis remains an inescapable fact. The Indian government are taking steps to improve matters – particularly through sanitation but India is so vast and so diverse, that it is difficult to reach the most rural and remote areas. These are often inhabited by tribal people and those designated Scheduled Caste who lack the confidence and knowledge to claim what is rightfully theirs – whether that’s access to safe water, sanitation or the land they live on. It’s here that FRANK Water comes in. We work with the communities to build their capacity and secure their rights.

We discovered the charity through your partnership with Friska in Bristol – that seems wonderful…

Bristol is full of exciting organisations – and Friska is a shining example. They’ve always supported FRANK Water – by selling our bottled water when they first opened, stocking our refill water bottles and offering free refills from a FRANK Water cooler – and now, by selling their own brand of bottled water (which still features the FRANK Water stamp) and donating for every bottle sold! It’s a great model and one that we’d like to explore with other stockists.

How can people get involved?

There’s always so much going on at FRANK Water that there are loads of ways to get involved. We’re always on the lookout for volunteers to support our FreeFill initiative – serving chilled, filtered water at festivals and events throughout the Summer. We love people who want to fundraise for us – whether it’s by signing up to one of the swims, treks or runs on our website or by organising their own party, race and event. We’re on the lookout for like-minded companies to work with – both in Bristol and beyond. Partnerships like this allow us to help showcase a company’s work whilst at the same time they can better engage their employees and fulfilling their CSR objectives.

What are your plans to push things even further in 2017?

2017 sees FRANK Water take its next big step. As we move into Nepal, our second country, we’ll launch a pilot programme for communities similar to those that we work with in India. We’ll share our knowledge and learning, reach out to new and different supporters and develop our understanding of the wider WASH sector. In India, we’ll keep working with our trusted NGO partners, to reach a further 84 communities and 24,000 people over the next year.

We’ll keep monitoring, evaluating and learning from our successes, challenges and failures and we’ll work hard to disseminate our research into the wider WASH sector to influence and support further change.

We’ll keep refilling! By expanding our restaurant water initiative (Drink Me Save Lives) and developing our FreeFill initiative, we aim to reduce plastic waste and change behaviour towards drinking water in the UK. And we’ll keep working with our patrons, ambassadors and volunteers, including the UK’s green poet to extend awareness of FRANK Water, raise funds and reach new audiences.

For more information check out the Frank water website here and watch their film below:

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