The Thirst Project: Mobilizing youth to tackle the global water crisis

From tiny bacteria to the gigantic blue whale, life as we know it would cease to exist without water. Water supports the health, resilience, and development of people and planet alike. It is the lifeline of humanity.

The role of water in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflects this importance. Falling behind on SDG 6—ensuring access to water and sanitation for all—means falling behind on nearly all of the other 16 goals, including human health, gender equality, climate change and the environment, food and nutrition, and poverty reduction.

When Seth Maxwell, CEO and founder of the Thirst Project, learned that more than a billion people on our planet didn’t have access to safe drinking water and even more lacked basic sanitation, he gathered seven of his closest friends and built a company dedicated to improving global access to water. I sat down with Seth and with Abby Wolfe, the Thirst Project’s director of school programs, to discuss why age is just a number and you’re never too young to start making positive change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About Seth Maxwell, Abby Wolfe, and the Thirst Project

A storyteller at heart, Seth is a 30-something social entrepreneur who decided to tackle the global water crisis head-on at just 19 years old. Seth has spoken internationally at more than 300 schools and numerous conferences—including TEDxYouth@Hollywood and the NEXUS Global Youth Summit—has addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and has met with Obama administration officials at the White House. Seth has also been named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list, has been honored with the VH1 DoSomething Award, and even rang the opening NASDAQ bell on Wall Street. He believes that students are the most powerful agents for social change.

While Abby Wolfe only recently joined the Thirst Project in 2023, she was an active advocate and ambassador for the organization since 2016. As the director of school programs, Abby focuses on educating students about the scope of the water crisis and how they can take action to create global change.

Today, the Thirst Project works to educate and inspire young people all over the world, with the aim of ending the global water crisis. The organization is currently active in 400 schools and has, to date, completed 3,579 water and sanitation projects in developing countries, including building freshwater wells.

Clair: Many college students have things like finals or parties on their minds; your group of friends instead built the Thirst Project. What was the impetus?

Seth: We believe that young people are the most powerful agents for social change in the world. And that’s not just a fun slogan—we’ve really seen it lived out.

What inspired me to act was the intersectionality between water and other issues. You can’t educate a community, for example, if all your youth are out walking six to seven hours a day to collect water. So if you care about education, you need to care about water. Similarly, you can’t develop meaningful agricultural initiatives or a strategy to combat food insecurity without factoring in water.

We started our work in Eswatini, and the ROI there was so massive that I immediately saw the potential for broader impact. These ideas resonate for almost everyone. It’s not a political or religious issue; no one gets up in arms about the idea of bringing safe water into a community.

“What inspired me to act was the intersectionality between water and other issues. You can’t educate a community, for example, if all your youth are out walking six to seven hours a day to collect water.”

Clair: What was it like to build your first water well?

Seth: The way we approach projects has changed dramatically over time. In the beginning, the Thirst Project was exclusively a funding organization. We would raise money and identify third-party groups that were actively building projects in communities. It was a bit haphazard for the first year or so. We started asking questions about the inconsistencies between the different organizations we were working with. Why did that group perform hydrogeology or groundwater surveys before drilling, but this group didn’t?

By year two, we had pushed pause on funding any projects to start ideating on how we could build our own water wells. We built the first iteration of what’s now known as our Water Project Technical Board, a group of civil engineers and hydrogeologists, many of whom have done this kind of work in water, sanitation, and hygiene in developing countries. They wrote our processes and have continued to review and amend how we interface with communities, as well as how we go about hiring hydrogeologists, drilling companies, and the full-time staff on the ground who are nationals of the country concerned and have lived there their whole lives.

If I have ever done anything remotely well as a leader, it is identifying all the things I know nothing about and then finding people who are really good at those things and bringing them to the table. Then I do the one thing I know how to do well: tell a good story and convince them to join, build, and lend their acumen to what we’re doing.

“If I have ever done anything remotely well as a leader, it is identifying all the things I know nothing about and then finding people who are really good at those things and bringing them to the table.”

Clair: Does your involvement end once the well is in?

Seth: Water is most effective in reducing disease when paired with sanitation and hygiene projects, which are also part of our process. Our sanitation projects are usually pit latrines, some type of handwashing station, and hygiene training. The project gets carried out by our staff on the ground and covers everything from safe water transportation practices to proper sterilization of the jerricans that get used to collect clean water.

About Into the Weeds

We at LEFF are, at heart, storytellers. We are dedicated to amplifying voices and causes from all over the world, regardless of gender orientation, race, or economic background. And the stories we tell as part of the Into the Weeds interview series are particularly important to us. We interview inspiring individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level to bring you insights from the leaders of global organizations, renowned experts and academics, and innovative local businesses.

Our goal for this series is the same one that underpins all of LEFF Sustainability Group’s client work: to use our storytelling skills to build awareness of the issues that threaten our planet and to draw attention to all the people, initiatives, and innovations that are fighting back.

Clair: Talk us through your decision to employ residents from the communities you serve rather than bringing in your own people.

Seth: Prior to flying to Eswatini in southern Africa in 2009, which is where more than 90 percent of our impact is, we set up a series of meetings with government leaders. We were introduced to Sibusiso Shiba, who works in the Rural Water Affairs Department, which effectively does what we do but for the government. He cares deeply for his community and has an impressive background in water scarcity. We knew immediately he was “the guy.” We spent days driving around the country assessing the needs of the different communities, and now he leads our groundwork.

Our team has built more than 400 wells in Eswatini, which is a lot for this country given that its population is only about 1.2 million [according to the World Bank]. On average, one well can serve about 500 residents.

Clair: Knowing how vast the water crisis is, what made you choose Eswatini as your principal focus country, and how do you choose which communities to serve?

Seth: Our Water Project Technical Board is the main determinant of where and how we build projects. We chose Eswatini for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to make a significant, measurable impact in one country. Eswatini is very small, so we could potentially see a point in the not-so-distant future where we reached 100 percent coverage in terms of access to clean water.

Second, Eswatini also has the highest-density HIV/AIDS population in the world. And again, the intersection between water and public health means that working in this environment can lead to a positive impact on two very real issues at the same time. If individuals with HIV or AIDS drink from contaminated water sources, their compromised immune systems make them much more likely to catch—and be killed by—waterborne diseases.

On a micro level, staff on the ground collect the data required for a needs assessment for different communities, and we then prioritize based on variables like population size, distance to collect fresh water, and waterborne disease rates and prevalence, among other factors.

Clair: You also educate students here in the US about the water crisis, right?

Abby: That’s right! The Thirst Project has a huge presence in high schools across the United States as well as in Canada, Peru, and Portugal.

We teach about the scope of the water crisis. The fact that more than a quarter of our planet’s population does not have access to clean water [according to the UN] is often new to students. We teach how water affects every aspect of daily life—such as how far people are walking to collect water, gender inequality, the spread of waterborne diseases—and how everything changes when communities gain access to clean water. We also educate students on how they can take action, whether by starting a fundraiser at their school, planning an awareness event, or donating $1 toward clean-water projects.

Most importantly, we teach students that they’re never too young to take action and empower them to use what they have to create global change.

“We teach students that they’re never too young to take action and empower them to use what they have to create global change.”

Clair: Are you able to measure your impact?

Seth: The franchised public-health systems on the ground in Eswatini—or even a much more developed country like Kenya—are not spectacular. It’s not uncommon for us to go into a community and find there just aren’t historical or current health records. We’ll often have to conduct surveys and collect other data to try to identify what issues the community has and what impact we’re having. We can sometimes use reports from local clinics that serve a cluster of communities, but the data certainly is not as sophisticated or robust as in the US public or private health systems.

Clair: What message do you both want to leave our readers with?

Abby: This project has educated more than half a million students about the water crisis. All of them have the power to make a change. And really, I would say the biggest issue about the water crisis is that not enough people are talking about it. If people feel that they don’t have money to make a change, just using your voice is equally powerful. The more people are talking about the water crisis, the more people will do something about it.

Seth: I believe both from a prioritization perspective and an impact perspective, the water crisis is probably still the most pressing humanitarian crisis we face as a global community because of how it affects so many other issues. This is not in any way to say that we shouldn’t be investing time and resources in finding a cure for cancer and tackling food insecurity. But we know what we need to do to solve the water crisis, which is why investing in water-related solutions guarantees a dramatic positive impact in a way that isn’t necessarily true for other areas.

And, to come back to our mission, we believe that young people are the most powerful agents for social change. Know that right now, wherever you are, you have the capacity to make a significant impact in the lives of the people around you.

Behind the scenes

This interview is part of LEFF’s Into the Weeds interview series—a series that amplifies individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at every level. We bring you insights from renowned experts and the leaders of global organizations and innovative local businesses. Clair Myatt (she/her) is the manager of LEFF Sustainability Group, for which Katie Parry (she/her) is the director.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of LEFF or have its endorsement.