Interview with Sarina Prabasi

WaterAid America's new CEO talks about what drives her passion to improve access to water and toilets in the world's poorest communities.

Jun 23 2014 | New York
Sarina Prabasi, CEO, WaterAid AmericaSarina joined WaterAid America in May 2014. She is a seasoned leader with 20 years’ experience in international development. She most recently served as Deputy Chief of Programs at Orbis International, and as Country Representative at WaterAid Ethiopia.

Prior to that, she spent nearly ten years at Pact Inc., serving both in Washington, DC and overseas. Originally from Nepal, Sarina is now based in New York City. 

1. How did you initially get engaged on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues?
I first got involved in WASH in Ethiopia, and worked there as the WaterAid Country Representative for five years. This was a really formative experience for me.

2. What inspires you to do this kind of work?
I have seen up close the transformation in individuals, families and communities that results from access to water, sanitation and hygiene. It is such a fundamental thing, yet so often overlooked in development. I think of our work as unlocking people's potential and what could be more inspiring than that?

3. How much progress have you seen over the last two decades in the realm of safe water and hygiene education?
I've worked on different issues in the last two decades: WASH, education, health, conflict resolution. One major shift in the sector is in the role of international NGOs and their value added. The shift from direct services by international NGOs to one of advocating, influencing government (and public opinion) for expanding services, particularly to the poorest has been a dramatic one.

4. What kind of progress do you hope to see in the next 20 years?
Sustainable WASH services for everyone, based on an understanding that there are no quick fixes here. Investments in WASH need to be forward-looking, considering demographic changes, climate change resilience, principles of equity and inclusion. WASH is inter-related with health, environment, livelihoods, gender -- almost any area of development you can imagine.

5. What do you think is standing in the way of progress?
Resources are not going to the areas that need them most, and in many cases there is a need to galvanize political will to prioritize WASH and change the current picture. Also, the deep links between WASH and human development tend to be overlooked as much of development thinking tends to be "siloed" and vertical, rather than interlinked and connected.

6. What was your most memorable experience working on WASH in Ethiopia?
Definitely an early visit to Konso in Southern Ethiopia. I was part of a planning visit for a new investment in WASH in the area. During the consultations we heard about so many women and children who died in search of water when they climbed down the deep traditional wells and the wells collapsed on them. It was really such a stark illustration of the fact that WASH really is a matter of life and death.

There are of course, so many great memories from working in Ethiopia, which is now like second home. But, the stories I heard in Konso, powerfully reinforced my commitment to working on WASH.

7. How can millennials have an impact on access to WASH globally?
There are so many ways that millennials can get involved, donating, writing to Congress, spreading awareness on the crisis of water and sanitation, generating momentum and action on social media among others. A great current example is the #Girlstrong campaign by WaterAid that celebrates girls who exemplify strength.

8. Where did you work prior to WaterAid America?
Before joining WaterAid America, I worked with Orbis International, as Deputy Chief of Programs based in New York. Orbis is focused on eliminating preventable blindness. There are linkages between WASH and preventable blindness – most notably trachoma and river blindness both have roots in poor WASH. 
WaterAid Chief Executives
Left to right: WaterAid Sweden Chief Executive Cecilia Chatterjee-Martinsen; WaterAid America Chief Executive Sarina Prabasi; WaterAid UK Chief Executive Barbara Frost and WaterAid Australia Acting Chief Executive Rosie Wheen.

9. You’re joining WaterAid at an exciting time as the new global strategy is being developed. What are some of the priorities you would like to see in the new global strategy?
In the new strategic period, I would like to see a continued emphasis on WASH being a key part of health and human development, and more focus on the linkages between sustainability of water resources and sustainability of WASH services. Increasingly we must pay more attention to water as a resource and the competing demands for water.

10. You are a true global citizen and have lived in four of the countries where WaterAid has offices: the US, Ethiopia, Nepal and the UK. How do you think your experience of living in different countries will help you in your role?
Actually, I’ve lived in India too, so that makes five! I think being exposed to different cultures, languages, ways of living, prioritizing, valuing, has really shaped who I am today. I’d like to think it helps in being adaptable and flexible, being able to think on my feet, and not take myself too seriously.

11. What do you enjoy about living in New York?
There is an incredible energy in New York and no matter what your background, you can be a New Yorker. Unlike many parts of America, everyone uses public transportation. I love the beautiful parks and public spaces, the views of the rivers; the seasons are beautiful, though I may never really get used to winter here!

12. What are your interests outside of work?
I’m a mom of two girls, Juneli, four, and Muna, six months. They have changed my life and world view! My husband and I are also co-owners of Buunni Coffee, specializing in fair trade, organic Ethiopian coffee. We think of Buunni as our third child. Once upon a time I was an avid reader of novels, and I hope there are lots of novels in my future. Actually, I’ve always wanted to write one, too.

Follow Sarina on Twitter at @SPrabasi