Four years ago, when NFL player and former University of Virginia star Chris Long climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, he discovered a new passion and purpose beyond football: providing clean, accessible drinking water to rural communities in East Africa.
As he spent time in the local villages during that trip in 2013, he witnessed not only the beauty of the region and the graciousness of the African people, but also extreme poverty and a dire need for drinking water. It is estimated that 23 million people in Tanzania lack access to this precious natural resource.
“If you saw where they were getting water from, it’s disgusting,” Long told University of Virginia Darden School of Business students while leading a discussion in Professor Peter Debaere’s “Global Economics of Water” course.
Never having traveled to a developing country, what Long observed in the sub-Saharan region changed him. He knew he needed to act and decided that “clean water was it” for him.
In 2015, Long founded the Waterboys Initiative, which unites NFL players and fans to raise awareness and funds with a goal to install 32 deep borehole wells in East Africa, representing the 32 teams in the National Football League. Each well costs $45,000 and serves up to 7,500 people.
To help reach their goal, Long and Waterboys partnered with WorldServe International, a Missouri-based nonprofit that drills and installs clean water wells in sub-Saharan Africa. Every day, 1,000 children under the age of 5 die because of unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to the organization.
In Debaere’s class, the defensive end described his experience with Waterboys and his ultimate goal to provide clean, accessible water to more than a million people and fundraise across all four major professional sports. To date, the initiative has raised more than $1 million.
In addition to providing villagers with clean drinking water, Long outlined other social, environmental and economic benefits of his work.
“When you implement clean water, it’s not just giving people something to drink,” he said. “Health improves, hygiene improves, the economy improves, agriculture improves, education improves and kids aren’t missing school.”
Small towns and villages in the sub-Saharan region will often send women or young girls to walk miles in extreme heat to fetch water, leading to educational and economic opportunity gaps for women and girls. “So clean water is also a gender-equity issue,” Long added.
Despite a successful NFL career and his 2017 Super Bowl win with the New England Patriots, Long credits his work with Waterboys as one of his proudest accomplishments and a meaningful way to contribute to society. “Clean water is an efficient way to change the world,” he said.
In addition to hosting distinguished guests in his course, Debaere conducts research on water markets and the global economic impact of water. With environmental science professor Michael Pace and associate civil engineering professor Teresa Culver, Debaere leads efforts to address global water concerns among UVA’s Darden School of Business, the School of Architecture, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering. A team from those schools, in collaboration with the Center for Global Health organizes UVA’s observance of World Water Day on March 22. A full schedule of panel discussions and activities related to water infrastructure are planned from March 15 through April 13.