Nisha Mandani’s organisation provides water and sanitation to neglected communities. The winner of the IWA 2022 Global Water Award talks to Erika Yarrow-Soden.
Nisha Mandani, founder and president of the AIM Foundation, has dedicated her time to delivering water and sanitation to the most difficult to reach and neglected communities. Her achievements were recognised at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition in Copenhagen, where she was awarded the IWA 2022 Global Water Award.
Nisha says: “It was an absolute honour for me to stand in front of the most respected global water scientists, experts and decision makers. The award belongs firstly to the people I serve. To the donors who enable us to deliver the service. To the dedicated volunteers and staff members who continuously reach out to those most in need. To the board members under whose guidance and support we operate. And of course, to my beloved family members, particularly my loving and most supportive husband. Because of all of them, we are able to transform millions of lives through hope and empowerment.”
The Foundation works to alleviate poverty and give hope to people, funding medical facilities, sanitary facilities, bore wells, educational centres, and meals for people living in poverty.
Nisha explains: “I never imagined that a voluntary service I created for my own satisfaction would bring me this far and that so many communities around the world would be in need of help. But I believe there is a reason for everything. Every award and recognition brings huge responsibility, but it also brings hope for more partnerships and support to undertake this noble work for millions more who are still in need of clean water.
“The award provides credibility and acknowledgment of our AIM Foundation’s work. The over 2000 water and sanitation facilities that we have built with the generous help of our AIM Foundation’s volunteers and donors are only a drop in the ocean. Because there are still millions more with the same need.”
Born in India, Nisha was surrounded by poverty from a very young age. She says: “When I moved to America, I became involved with the local community. When my son was in high school, we began helping isolated seniors by visiting nursing homes and hospices. When we saw the benefit of intergenerational bonding, we organised a programme where thousands of students adopted seniors, and this initiative grew into a national Intergenerational programme.
“We realised that our charitable work was growing and impacting the lives of thousands. Therefore, we needed a bigger platform. The seeds for the initiative had been soaked and a lot of passionate individuals nurtured it with love, commitment, and their services. Today, we see the fruits of those seeds. Truly, the credit all goes to our individuals, board members, volunteers, donors, and our well-wishers.
“We expanded our wings internationally to help ultra-poor communities, where millions are denied basic needs, such as education, health, and clean water.
“We made it our mission to help to ultra-poor communities in remote villages by joining hands with people who believe in this mission and ensuring that the maximum amount of funds go direct to beneficiaries. Now, 14 years on, we are still managing to follow our core values of going into remote areas where no one else goes. Making sure that more than 95% of funds support people on the ground.”
Today the Foundation focuses on education, women’s health, youth empowerment, water and sanitation, and hunger prevention in the USA, Malawi, India, Pakistan, the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh, Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, and most recently in Afghanistan.
Nisha says: “We are witnessing the fruits of the efforts we made 14 years ago not just for recognition but for the smiles of over four million individuals whose lives are transformed through hope and empowerment. My core beliefs are that if you are blessed you should share your blessings with others. It’s not about what you have achieved but how much you have helped others to achieve.
“During my visit to Africa, I came across a young boy of around three years old, all alone walking without shoes in the woods carrying a bucket. When we spoke to him, we found out his mother was sick with malaria and couldn’t walk the eight kilometres to get clean water, so he was taking water from the closest puddle. This is when we made water and sanitation one of the core missions. Each year thousands of children die of waterborne diseases. My heart broke to see how people were dying because they didn’t access to clean water and sanitation.
“It’s not easy to visit these remote villages and refugee camps. It is physically and emotionally draining to see people in such poverty. Many of these people are three or four hours away from the nearest city, there are no roads, no electricity, no infrastructure, and people are at very high risk of malaria and other diseases.
“In 2018 we went to the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh with doctors and volunteers. We would work from five in the morning until 10 o’clock at night visiting families, our schools and women empowerment centres, going through many sleepless nights after listening to terrible stories about child abuse, rape and murder. In this camp there were thousands of children who were walking naked and hungry, eating only raw flour. My heart broke when I saw a six-month-old child crawling and drinking out of the gutter. When we picked up the child and went into their home, we found out that the home was built from garbage bags attached to poles.
“There are so many people who don’t have basic facilities. They don’t even have any hope for tomorrow. Seeing the extreme suffering in the camps, affected many of us in many ways that we still cannot describe.
“The biggest strength of the AIM Foundation is the strong volunteer presence on the ground. The Foundation’s second biggest strength is the way communities are involved in our projects. We make them our partners. This not only reduces costs, as communities take ownership of the projects by becoming equal partners, but also the quality and long-term sustainability of our projects are enhanced by this approach.
“We are a small foundation and we try to put our global team directly in contact with our beneficiaries. We get reports and updates first hand from the ground on a daily basis. Since we are an individual donor-run organisation, we try to report to every one of our donors, so that they know how their funds are used. We try to hire and work with local volunteers and staff as they know their community’s culture best.”
With 2030 looming, much remains to be done to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Asked how progress can be accelerated, Nisha answers: “All the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are connected to goal #6, which is access to clean water and sanitation. This has to be prioritised first and foremost. The process of public services needs to be simplified. Here I am referring to the governments, international organisations and decision-makers who need to join hands and work directly with the ground-based non-profit organisations like our Foundation. We are complementing their work with free services, but when it comes to partnership it can be a very difficult and time-consuming process. At the end of the day, we all share the same common goal of providing access to water and sanitation for everyone.
“There are many unseen individuals, philanthropists and non-governmental organisations who are contributing daily to the Sustainable Development Goals. These countless efforts need to be recognised and acknowledged to empower more individuals to value the resources we have.
“Awareness and knowledge sharing to help people in remote villages to support themselves needs to be prioritised. Villagers and communities have to be empowered more and provided with more knowledge and tools on simple ways to purify water to prevent water-borne diseases. Communities in remote areas, refugee camps, and slums need to be prioritised. And water needs to be utilised properly in urban areas.
“We all talk about empowerment and financial independence, but the reality is that many communities don’t have access to clean drinking water. Women and children walk kilometres to quench their thirst. Not all of them make it back home safely. The journey is not easy. Some are sexually harassed; some may even die on the road. This is the reason why we made water and sanitation a core mission of our Foundation. We realise that every basic need is connected to water.” •