Marc Yaggi

  Marc Yaggi


Without water, there is no life. Without clean water, there is no healthy life. Water is the resource that is most taken advantage of and fought over. Since the population and technological booms of the 20th century, pollution from manufacturing, farming, mining, energy production and human waste has taken a toll on water supplies. Climate change impacts are shrinking those supplies even farther and have increased competition for freshwater sources. Water is the next great global crisis. It will take innovative solutions and an army of dedicated individuals to put an end to this path of destruction and preserve our precious water resources and planet. Environmental advocate Bill McKibben says that we need a movement with “thousands of leaders in thousands of places, connected like the solar panels on the roofs of an entire planet.”

Waterkeeper Alliance is a global network of grassroots leaders protecting everyone’s right to drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water. Since 1966 when commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized to reclaim the Hudson River from the hands of polluters, the Hudson, despite continued challenges and threats, has become an icon of ecosystem revitalization. Riverkeeper’s success spurred an explosive growth of similar grassroots organizations around the world. Founded in 1999 to support those groups, Waterkeeper Alliance is made up of more than 300 Waterkeeper organizations and affiliates, protecting waterways in 34 countries.

While other nonprofit organizations work effectively on water issues, Waterkeeper Alliance is unique in combining a singular focus on clean water with an action-oriented model connecting grassroots activists to a powerful global network.

Growing a Global Network of Grassroots Leaders

Waterkeepers, ordinary citizens who courageously work full-time to ensure drinkable, fishable and swimmable water for their communities, are the core of our movement. Waterkeeper Alliance superpowers their work and turns individual local efforts into a unified, global entity. Anyone carrying the Waterkeeper name must meet the Alliance’s high standards for ethics, conduct and effectiveness. Waterkeepers patrol waters, hold polluters accountable, advocate for protection of clean water, strengthen legal protections, and raise public awareness about threats to local waters to increase pressure for action.

Waterkeepers in Australia, Bangladesh, Chile, China, Colombia, India, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Sweden, Togo, the United Kingdom, and more patrol and protect nearly 2.5 million square miles of watersheds. They are the boots on the ground making sure that water is protected and that communities are safe.

Employing a Unique Model to Address our Most Critical Water Issues

Contaminated water sickens and kills. Pollution and shrinking access to water is alarming:

  • 40% of U.S. waterways are not safe for swimming or fishing, 60% of China’s groundwater is polluted, and 85% of Bangladesh has contaminated groundwater.
  • More people die from unsafe water annually than from violence, including war.
  • The U.N. estimates that 48 nations will face freshwater scarcity within 10 years.

Current resources and efforts to solve these issues are woefully inadequate. As municipalities, regions, and nations increasingly grapple with determining and implementing solutions, other entities, often including industrial forces, aggressively and sometimes illegally undermine the basic human right to clean water.

The U.S. Clean Water Act would ensure clean water for drinking, fishing, and swimming if it were implemented and enforced. A common theme around the world is the failure to implement and enforce the meaning and spirit of laws protecting waterways. Corruption is the usual reason behind this failure. Waterkeepers give meaning and force to these laws. When government fails to enforce the laws designed to protect us, Waterkeepers are often the last line of defense.

Leading with Best Practices

Waterkeeper Alliance has a 13-person Board of Directors and a staff of 25 full-time employees, seasonal interns, and volunteers. The Alliance is organized into five departments with individual directors: Legal & Advocacy, Support (training, collaboration, recruitment), Communications, Development (fundraising, strategic partnerships, strategic planning), and Operations.

We measure our progress by utilizing a three-year strategic plan to work toward our long-term mission and vision. The goals from our strategic plan, which are each supported by clear metrics, are detailed in annual work plans for each department. These plans are reviewed monthly for progress and challenges, and reported at Board meetings. The Board uses a defined, measurable effectiveness assessment policy to evaluate the success and impact of our programs in fulfilling the organization’s goals and objectives.

Our sound fiscal policies have brought 4-Star Charity Navigator status, GuideStar Platinum Status, Top-Rated status from Charity Watch, and we have met the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau, assuring donors that we are effective stewards of their donations. This is key in attracting and retaining supporters.

A Proven Record of Success

Waterkeeper Alliance brings economies of scale and experience to local clean water battles, providing expert training and capacity building, legal and scientific expertise, communications support and broad-based campaigns. Around the world, our Waterkeepers and staff work to achieve lasting impact.

Examples of Waterkeepers in action:

  • Waterkeepers in North Carolina helped achieve a $102 million fine against Duke Energy and a $3 billion cleanup of its coal ash sites;
  • Waterkeepers in China developed a protocol for resolving water problems outside the courts to improve water quality more quickly;
  • The Maule Itata Coastkeeper in Chile halted construction of the Los Robles coal-fired power plant;
  • Waterkeepers in California settled a $2 billion lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles after years of sewage spills polluted the Santa Monica bay, requiring the City to replace 488 miles of sewer lines, clean 2800 miles of sewers annually and pay $8.5 million to projects dedicated to improving local water quality.

The best proof of our success comes from our Waterkeepers’ community achievements. In 2005, I went to Senegal, West Africa, to meet with villagers in Hann Bay, the most polluted place I had ever been, about starting a Waterkeeper there. This is a fishing village of 40,000 people with no sanitation service, and the villagers haven’t been able to fish in the bay for more than 25 years.

The village’s football club ASC Yarakh actively educated villagers about hygiene, HIV/AIDS, and other topics; they also dreamed of restoring the bay’s glory. One of the club members had lived in Toronto and learned about Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, and realized that Hann Bay needed a Waterkeeper. I told the amazing group of individuals that I wasn’t sure we could support their work, as we did not have anyone on staff who spoke Wolof or French and they would be the only Waterkeeper on the African continent. But their leader, Mbacke Seck said, “You have an international brand, you have a model that works, I will learn English and we will come to the Waterkeeper conference every year to learn from others and bring home to apply what we learn.” So we embarked on the journey together. Shortly thereafter, we helped them secure a $10,000 donation to turn their office into an internet cafe, making their office a village hub, giving them a voice to the outside world, and creating a sustainable source of revenue.

Mbacke learned fluent English and they came to our Annual Conference every year starting in 2006. In 2014, Hann Baykeeper convinced the Government of Senegal, the French Development Agency, and the European Investment Bank to commit $68 million to fund a cleanup of Hann Bay. Their work inspired the creation of more Waterkeepers in West Africa. In 2015, their ongoing work and partnership with key local advocates led to the suspension of construction of two coal-fired power plants in their region. Hann Baykeeper has been a leader in the fight against the pollution that has long impoverished fishermen, sickened villagers, and fouled Hann Bay’s beaches.

These successes happen every day because of dedicated Waterkeepers working on the front lines to save and protect their waterways. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all of the Earth’s habitable watersheds are protected, and we endeavor to provide Waterkeepers with the tools that will enable them to be the best and brightest advocates on the planet.

Marc Yaggi is Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest and fastest growing nonprofit solely focused on clean water. Marc has dedicated his entire career to environmental advocacy and has been instrumental in expanding the Waterkeeper movement around the world. He works daily to raise public awareness about the issues central to Waterkeeper Alliance’s vision for drinkable, fishable, swimmable water worldwide.

This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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