Money & Career

How a former engineer is bringing clean water to millions

She launched the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) from her basement and now provides clean water to 69 countries

Camille Dow Baker

Roberto Caruso

Occupation: Petroleum engineer and founder of CAWST
Age: 55
Hometown: Kaslo, British Columbia
Education: BEng, McGill University; master’s in environmental science design, University of Calgary

Q: You left an ultra-successful job as a petroleum engineer. Why?
A: It was my son’s teenage rebellion that pushed me. He was always protesting against this or that, and I told him, “Don’t look for what you’re against. Look for what you believe in.” It was part of a shift in our household; we wanted to do the best for humanity and for the earth — and for me that meant recognizing the great need for clean water worldwide and doing something about it. So I launched the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) from my basement. Now we’re in 69 countries.

Q: How did your engineering skills translate?
A: Engineers are very practical, pragmatic people. We’re planners. We learn that if we don’t get it right the first time, we will the second. The solutions I work toward today don’t come immediately. But I know they will eventually.

Q: Has your training helped you solve problems differently?
A: Definitely. CAWST is an engineering consultancy — which means we take a developmental approach. We start by educating communities on what they can do right now (harvesting rainwater, bio-sand filters, safe water storage) and build from there to make people as independent as possible so they can meet their own water needs.

Q: What’s the hardest part of your job?
A: There’s always tension and uncertainty because the need for clean water is so prevalent it can mean life or death: About 4,400 children under the age of five die every day from water-related diseases. It’s a job of really high highs and really low lows.

Q: You’ve helped 4.6 million people get clean water. How does that make you feel?
A: Relieved! Just because you think an idea will work doesn’t always mean it will. When we first hit our target of one million I realized, “Wow, we’re making a difference.”

Q: When did you feel most proud?

A: I was just in Peru, in the Andes, where women have a subsistence living. I was proud to see how they felt empowered and how in a hard-to-reach community we changed things for the better. People appreciate the ability to be independent much more than when you just give them things.

Q: What would you tell someone who wants to get involved in a non-profit?
A: Go for it. If you’re passionate about a cause, volunteer. Passion is the most important part. Believe you can make change — because that thinking pushes you forward.