Rotarian Salvador Rico, founder of Cleaning the Rivers of the World, speaking at International Assembly. Credit: @Rotary International. All Rights Reserved.

A moving speech by ESRAG member Salvador Rico set the stage for Rotary President-elect Stephanie Urchick, Trustee Chair-elect and Past RI President Mark Maloney, and Rafael Peralta of the UN Environment Programme to unveil a new RI-UNEP global initiative, Community Action for Fresh Water (CAFW), at International Assembly Jan. 10. International Assembly is Rotary’s annual training conference for District Governors-Elect, the leaders who serve as the vital link between Rotary International and clubs on the front lines.

“Healthy freshwater systems are vital for flourishing and vibrant societies, but these systems are threatened by climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution,” explains Rotary’s new CAFW website. 

Community Action for Fresh Water incorporates, learns from, and expands upon the success of Rotary members who have been protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems under the pilot program Adopt a River for Sustainable Development which began with UNEP and Rotary District 9212 (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan) in 2020 and has expanded worldwide.” PP Jane Maonga’s 2023 article for ESRAG reports how Lavington Eco Rotary Club won accolades from UNEP for its Adopt-a-River project in Nairobi.

UNEP’s Rafael Peralta, Rotary Past President Mark Maloney, and 2024-25 RI President Stephanie Urchick announcing the Communty Action for Fresh Water partnership Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: @Rotary International. All Rights Reserved.

“Rotary members around the world have already been active in protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems. The partnership connects Rotary’s member resources and expertise mobilizing volunteers with the technical expertise from UNEP to make even more of a sustainable, long-term environmental impact,” Rotary’s CAFW website continues.  

“Rotary and Rotaract clubs, either individually or in groups, can decide to make a commitment to protect, restore, and sustain a local river, lake, estuary, natural reservoir, or wetlands area. Then, clubs can work with other community groups and residents to determine any major threats the body of water is facing and develop a plan of action in coordination with relevant local groups.”

Diana Schoberg’s thrilling article “Central to Life” in the February 2024 Rotary Magazine shares how Rotarian Salvador Rico, whose family was devastated by the death of his sister from water-borne disease, embraced the mission of cleaning rivers, eventually inspiring a multinational network of Rotarians to work passionately to prevent pollution and restore healthy watersheds for the rivers their communities depend on. She goes on to describe how this growing Rotary capacity helped lay the groundwork for the UNEP-Rotary Adopt-A-River initiative in East Africa.  

Rotarians’ groundbreaking Susquehanna River watershed work in New York State is another, rapidly evolving demonstration of how clubs and districts can play a transformative role. Led by PDG Jeff Smith, District Environmental Chair for D 7170, the Susquehanna project started with a river cleanup by one Rotary club, and has grown to a coalition of three Rotary Districts who are partnering with businesses, educational institutions, and local, state, and federal governments to advance habitat restoration, sustainable local economies, green workforce development, and food security.

ESRAG Solar Habitat leader Dr. Liz Henke, Lauren Marquez-Viso, and ESRAG Co-Founder and Partnerships Lead Karen Kendrick-Hands discussing CAFW at Rotary Headquarters in Evanston.  Photo by Ariel Miller.

The CAFW initiative stems from the strategic partnership formalized in November 2023 between Rotary International and UNEP. A planning team representing Rotary and UNEP is meeting regularly to support the partnership and implement the initiative.

This will include “figuring out roles, seeing what works and what doesn’t, training Rotary’s Cadre of Technical Advisors, finalizing technical guides, webinars in multiple languages, and a website dedicated to the initiative with the capacity to collect citizen science,” explains Lauren Marquez-Viso, one of Rotary’s four Regional Grant Managers, who is part of the team staffing the project for Rotary. She and the team will be working with ESRAG to publicize these resources and training events. If you are already working on freshwater projects, she invites you to register your project through a link on Rotary’s CAFW website. partnership. It will soon be available in all Rotary languages.

Marquez-Viso brings to this partnership many years of experience assisting Rotary global grant projects, plus her own ardent dedication to sustainability. She provided staff support to Rotary leaders’ discernment on how to engage in environmental action, leading to the adoption of the Environment Area of Focus in 2020, and she heads the staff Green Committee for Rotary headquarters. She also brings first-hand experience with community engagement in developing and implementing Evanston, Illinois’ Climate Action and Resilience Plan, delighting in the chance to collaborate on solutions with everyone from city council members to elementary school students.

Watch ESRAG’s news link and ESRAG’s social media for announcements of webinars and additional resources for UNEP and Rotary’s Community Action for Fresh Water!