Opinion

How a Chance Meeting in Washington Provided a Spark of Hope in Flint

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Posted: Aug 08, 2019 12:01 AM
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How a Chance Meeting in Washington Provided a Spark of Hope in Flint

Source: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

At the gracious invitation of the Israeli ambassador, I recently found myself at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Israel's 71st birthday. As is customary at such events, there was a gift bag for attendees. However, this gift bag did not contain the usual swag one finds at these occasions. Instead, it held a one-liter bag of water with "Watergen" printed on it in bold letters. What was this all about?

As I was leaving, I noticed a gentleman outside the auditorium standing next to a blue machine also marked with the "Watergen" trademark. I walked over to inquire about the strange contraption and in doing so set in motion a series of fortunate events that would ultimately help bring much-needed hope and change to the struggling community in Flint, Michigan.

The man standing next to the machine was Yehuda Kaploun, Watergen USA's president. A humble and unassuming man at first glance, under the surface Kaploun was brimming with excitement and pride about the company's clean water technology — an innovative process that turns air into clean drinking water. The machine he was demonstrating was a Watergen mobile unit. "This truck," Kaploun said, "has been used in the last four or five major disasters in America, from the wildfires in Paradise, California, to Hurricane Michael in Florida and several other major disasters. This machine makes drinking water from the air."

It turns out Watergen has been at this for a long time. In fact, Watergen has been used all over the world to provide drinking water solutions in disaster-affected regions of Africa, Asia, and South America. Watergen has just begun a major rollout in the United States. As it turns out, America, the world's wealthiest nation, faces a dire drinking water crisis. Much of the drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. has become polluted because of lead pipe decay and groundwater pollution.

Watergen's solution is based on an Israeli technology invented by soldiers who were stuck in a tank without enough water. The technology was literally developed out of thin air. The company was acquired three years ago by Russian-Israeli entrepreneur and industrial philanthropist Michael Mirilashvili, who saw it as an opportunity to provide a truly revolutionary solution to the world's drinking water scarcity, which affects an estimated 1.2 billion people.

As an entrepreneur who operates a local television station in Flint, Michigan, I immediately thought of the people of Flint, who have been facing their own water crisis for the past five years. The Flint water crisis is still affecting over 100,000 residents. Kaploun was immediately excited by the idea of bringing Watergen to Flint.

We then reached out to Chad Conklin, the general manager of EYI NBC25, Howard Stirk Holdings' affiliate station in Flint. We wanted to get the local community involved. As it turns out, Conklin had cultivated close relationships with several community-based organizations. He introduced us to Bishop R.L. Jones, pastor of the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ.

Bishop Jones and his wife, Sandra, run a community outreach center adjacent to the church that serves over 800 local families weekly. The center also operates a large-scale water distribution center that provides the community over 10,000 bottles of drinking water per week.

When we contacted the Joneses about the potential to provide a Watergen system for their mission, they were elated. Sandra Jones, who is a chemist by training, had been exploring Watergen's clean drinking water technology for over a year when we reached out to her. So, when we offered to donate a Watergen unit to the church mission, it was literally an answer to her prayers. "I am just elated and so very thankful to the Lord!" Sandra Jones exclaimed. "[The Watergen unit] is exactly what I asked God for."

Bishop Jones sees the Watergen system as not only an efficient means of providing clean water to the community but also "a beacon of hope, for people who have no hope." The mission of the church, according to Bishop Jones, is to "solve the proposition of hopelessness. [Watergen] gives our church and community hope. It says, 'There is somewhere they can go to get clean water for their homes.' I've never seen so much excitement in the eyes and hearts of people."

Excitement is not a word that is normally associated with water in Flint. In fact, many of Flint's residents feel betrayed by their own government because of its failure to secure clean water for its residents. They feel as if the Flint water crisis were a manmade disaster caused by the government's incompetence and malfeasance. Trust between Flint's citizens and its government has not been fully restored since news of the polluted water system became a national scandal five years ago.

But local community organizations like the Church of God In Christ have earned the people's trust. They have distributed hundreds of thousands of bottles of clean water to the community over the past few years, which has earned them a large and vocal following. By partnering with a community organization, Watergen and Howard Stirk Holdings (owner of WEYI NBC25) gain a trusted ally in the Flint community.

With Watergen's technology, the community will be able to replenish its water supply — up to 234 gallons per day — without waiting for weekly bottled water deliveries. It can also serve as a model for other communities affected by poor water quality. Yehuda and I do not believe that ours was a chance encounter. It is a partnership to better the world. Most of us take water for granted, but people living in Flint cannot. That solution provided by Watergen is priceless in terms of its ability to bring hope to a community that often feels down, but never out.