Where – central Beijing; we met at Thirst’s very contemporary open plan offices which they share with a few other organisations. It felt like a great collaborative ‘incubator’ kind of space that I have visited in the UK even though none of the organisations are actually social enterprises. They also have an informal office in Shanghai, where a couple of staff and some active volunteers (often previous interns) are now based. Their activities mostly happen in the vicinities around these offices at the moment, based on where the staff can reach.
When – we met on Wednesday 8th October. The organisation was set up in 2012, in the year of the water dragon.
Who – I met with Steph (from Canada) who has worked with Thirst since February, Danielle (from Australia) who has been an intern with them for 5 months, Will (from the UK) who has just started a 3-month internship with them, and YoYo, from Beijing who is their education manager. There are 9 staff plus around 40-50 volunteers (a conservative estimate).
What – Thirst’s activities centre around education, awareness raising and behaviour change amongst young people (predominantly 22-20 years) to encourage sustainable water use. Their current focus is on giving presentations about water issues – scarcity, pollution, etc. They go into schools and (a few) universities to give presentations, presenting to anywhere between 20 and 800 students at a time depending on the school. They are doing a massive push on this at the moment and are setting themselves ambitious targets!
Why – Thirst’s mission is to create a water-wise world, starting in China. Steph gave me a few statistics about the seriousness of the situation in China, and especially the north – China has 7% of the world’s freshwater but 20% of the world’s population, and of this water only 30% is north of the Yangtze River despite having 50% of the poulation and much more of the country’s agriculture than the south.
Impacts/success – last month they reached 3800 people through the presentations they are doing – pretty impressive! They are tracking how many people attend presentations; they administer a quiz to ascertain if they have learnt anything as a result of the presentation; further follow up is normally down to how pro-active the teacher or students are, which gives more qualitative information and potentially deeper impact, amongst those who are interested.
Some examples include students coming to do internships with Thirst; one student made a CD of music mirroring some of the great rivers of the world (which Thirst turned into a CD. I have been given a copy – I am looking forward to having a listen!); a group of students have done shower timer experiments which Thirst have supported the teachers to do; and some students have taken it upon themselves to learn the presentation to be able to give at other schools. This latter example is a model which Thirst are hoping to pursue further to increase scale, reach and depth of impact.
Find out more – www.thirst4water.org
Personal reflections –
I asked Steph, Danielle and Will what they think the grestest challenge for the organisation is; they gave various but related answers:
– the culture, with the focus on exams, targets and results due to societal/family pressure, making it hard to continue to engage the students beyond the presentation;
– getting the balance right between educating about the problems but not scaring people;
– the sheer scale of the problem they are tackling and the limiting factor of quality of staff (and the money to pay lots more people) to do it; and
– the ability to collaborate with others and keep track of what they are doing to create solutions to fit the scale and create something greater than the sum of its parts.
The majority of Thirst’s money is currently from the Foundation of UNESCO, lasting for 3 years. They get a few small grants here or there – their time and capacity is focused on achieving results at the moment but they will look at alternative funding models when it becomes necessary to do so. From my impression, it is a very dynamic organisation with a social enterprise kind of feel so I was expecting a more social enterprise model of funding – give it a few years when they are more established and maybe they will be as they scale up further. For now though, they are comfortable and increasing the work they do with the government too, so it bodes well that they may be okay without having to generate their own funding.
The Chinese government is supportive of Thirst’s activities since it recognises the issue of water scarcity as a major challenge. Just next week they are due to sign an MOU with the Ministry of Education to trial introducing it into the curriculum – that would be a huge success if it rolls out. It reminds me of the importance of interlinking scales of action i.e. for individuals to not only live their own lives sustainably and encourage others to do the same, but also to work with people at larger scales too, in government and business. In this way it creates the infrastructure necessary to support individuals’ activities and to generate efforts that match the size of the problems – Thirst seems to have this working very well!