Last week there were reports that parts of north-east England could run dry by 2035. London’s demand for water already outstrips supply with several areas in the South East – which supply the UK capital – classed as “seriously water-stressed”. Experts blame a decrease in rainfall thanks to climate change and a growing population for the UK drying up. The issue is yet to pick up the same activist traction as single-use plastics, for example, but there can be no doubt: Our water resources are at risk if we don’t take action.
Katie Alcott knows it. The founder of Bristol social enterprise FRANK Water is using the glass-bottled spring variety to help hundreds of thousands of people in India and Nepal.
If you live around Bath or Bristol you might have received some of their water in a local cafe. If you don’t, you almost definitely kept hydrated thanks to the FRANK refill service which was ubiquitous at music festivals this summer.
Alcott grew up on a farm in the middle of Herefordshire and had never really been abroad. That’s why aged 19, she went to India where she picked up a role teaching in Kashmir.
One of the first things she noticed was how few girls were in the school. She learned that water was key to this – whether because water had made them or a family member sick, or if they had to go such a long distance to collect water that it was too late to go to school by the time they got back.
It might be September but summer isn't over just yet!☀️We're still on the lookout for some amazing volunteers to help bring our FRANK Water festival #refill🚰 service to @TheLongRoadFest this weekend. Go to https://t.co/jQp3LvBZHK or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info pic.twitter.com/nw0fWOzNW4
— FRANK Water (@frankwater) September 2, 2019
A short while later she was invited to a teacher’s house, where she drank some water and fell ill within half an hour. Struck down by amoebic dysentery, she lost two stone in weight very quickly and was forced to return to the UK. Even after she recovered and started a degree in fine art at Bristol University, she would still get monthly bouts of illness.
It was “debilitating and embarrassing,” Alcott says, but also a reminder of what millions of less fortunate people risk every time they take a drink of water.
“We’ve got great running tap water, a number of taps in our houses, and you don’t really have to question whether the water is safe or not,” says Alcott, 40. “You’ve got great food, you’ve got the NHS – we have access to all this over other people just by being lucky with where we were born.”
She decided that if she could ever do anything to make a difference, she would. She imagined something like making a regular donation to a charity already working in the field. But in 2005, when “young and a bit naive”, she thought she could do something better.
FRANK Water was launched on a shoestring. Alcott managed to have some sample bottles made from a local sustainable spring and cycled round Bristol pitching to independent cafes and restaurants. She got “amazing support”. (The water was initially in plastic bottles – in early 2017 the company made the switch to glass only, which Alcott says had a major impact on their finances but “was the non-negotiable, right thing to do”.)
It was the programme her product funded that was important, Alcott insists, and she started working with grassroots organisations and NGOs in India that help people identify what they need to access safe water, sanitation and hygiene training. “We work very closely with our partners there,” Alcott says.
“We don’t just hand them donations. We cover their overheads, work with their staff, support them to lobby government.
“We see our role as facilitating innovation within the sector itself.”
FRANK Water has helped nearly 404,000 people across India and Nepal.
Alcott launched the refill campaign in 2010. The social enterprise backed a public water fountains campaign in Bristol and discovered just how hard it was to change policy. The founder decided festivals – “worlds of their own” – would be a great place to get people into good habits.
People get unlimited refills of chilled water when they buy a wristband (£3) or one of FRANK’s refillable bottles (£5). It has proven phenomenally successful among both festival-goers, who save money, and organisers, whose sites are left free of single-use plastic. The social enterprise has the equivalent of five full-time staff but takes on 400 volunteers during the summer.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
“The push to reduce single-use plastic is having its moment, rather than water as a resource,” Alcott says. “We want to raise awareness of that too. It’s all inextricably linked, of course. You have plastic polluting water, and generally it’s the world’s poorest who suffer most from depleted resources. People forget – looking after the planet and looking after marginalised communities is often one and the same.”