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

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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.