In September 2009, California surfer Jon Rose was sailing toward the island of Sumatra, carrying ten water filters that he planned to deliver to a rural community while enjoying a surf trip in Indonesia. Rose was looking to move on from his career as a Quiksilver-sponsored surfing pro. Inspired by his father’s nonprofit, RainCatcher, which teaches African villagers how to filter rainwater, he hit upon the idea of recruiting surfers to deliver water filters in their travels through developing countries. He thought it would be a pet project. Then, on his first mission, an earthquake hit nearby, devastating the city of Padang. “It was like divine intervention,” Rose says. “Like, ‘OK, this is your life. This is what you’re doing.’ ”
Rose’s organization, Waves for Water, has since provided some 2.5 million people access to safe water, delivering more than 75,000 simple portable filters, which can be used with local water supplies and whatever buckets are at hand, cutting out the need to dig wells or use purification chemicals. The group is one part viral campaign—looking for volunteers to buy and distribute filters abroad—and one part action squad, running relief and improvement programs in Haiti, Brazil, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, India, and Liberia. It’s a style that Rose refers to as “black ops” or “guerrilla humanitarianism,” which he defines as working “under the radar and around the red tape.” That means a lean budget and a skeleton staff that coordinates with locals on the ground and moves into and out of target areas quickly.
Those years he spent far off the beaten path prepared him for his new job, Rose says. “It’s sort of the same way I felt about surfing as a kid,” he says. “But it’s greater.”