As Executive Director of Waves For Water, Christian Troy’s job description varies. In hurricane-ravaged Guerrero state, Mexico, he led about 75 people in what was essentially a human chain across a wide river. Floods had taken down a bridge, cutting off a hillside village’s access to food, water, and supplies. Along with delivering filtration systems, Christian’s job was to oversee the passing of boxes from hand to hand, a feat that looked like it belonged more to the insect world than the human. In the outermost islands of Vanuatu, after it was devastated by a category 5 cyclone, he literally swam buckets and filters to shore, lugged them up steep, muddy slopes, and brought them to the native inhabitants, many of them wounded.
But his real job is getting clean to water to people in need. And while it is literally lifesaving, it also contains a certain abracadabra. Demonstrating how the filtration systems work to a camp of Syrian refugees in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, I watched him spill a couple ounces of brown, wretched-looking water into the filter, then pour the clear water into a glass, then hand it to a young boy, who gulped it down gleefully and gave a thumbs up. The entire camp cheered.
Waves For Water has implemented clean water programs in 38 countries. Much of this work is enabled by partnerships with the U.S. Army, BMW, and the World Surf League. Christian is a goofy foot. He rides an egg-shaped displacement hull single fin, never wears a leash, never wears a wetsuit. “The fewer things that I can operate with the better,” he said of his surfing ethos. When he’s not on the road, he tries to put in as much water time as possible, typically at Malibu, where this conversation took place.
How did it start?
I went to Haiti shortly after the earthquake in 2010 to help problem solve, and in problem solving I was immediately thrust into this chaotic environment, and Jon Rose (Founder of Waves For Water) and I worked really well together, I think we complemented each other with different skills and different approaches, and I think in that brief time together we realized we were a good ‘two hander.’ Six months after the Haiti earthquake there was a major flood in Pakistan, and through some sort of cavalier evening in Haiti sitting around talking about how much help was needed in Pakistan, and how the world wasn’t responding in the way that they were to Haiti, I was nominated to go to there and do what we were doing in Haiti. So there it was, it was like a spring, the natural disaster kind of called for it. So I went to Pakistan in July of 2010 and it was a quick launch into being a humanitarian.
What do you do exactly?
We provide access to clean water. The technologies to convert contaminated water supplies into something potable, something useable—we get those technologies from where they’re made and we get them into the places that desperately need them. And really, it’s like producing in a way. There’s lots of adventure and tricky components to doing it. It requires funds; it requires the ability to navigate all those adventures and the hazards. So we problem solve. And the biggest problem is access to clean water.
What does a typical day in the line of duty involve?
Every one of these projects has its own nuance. I can give you an example in Afghanistan, or in the Amazon in Brazil, or in North Korea. Each of those has something so different. There’s always a curve, so we’re always ready to pivot suddenly—it’s a lot of thinking on the go. When I land at the airport, when I hit that ground for the first time, what am I going to see? Who’s going to take advantage of what? Where might I hit a hurdle, starting with immigration and customs onward? It’s always exciting. The North Korea trip, the mysteries of what goes on in a country that’s so not participating with the rest of the world, and you’re about to go into this place and go off the grid, off the map, off the radar—that’s a new experience. There are so many unknowns, but we think of them as manageable unknowns. We try to be tactical in how we approach those manageable unknowns.
Six years since you first went to Haiti and began this whole odyssey. Has the work changed you at all?
I would say it certainly has grown me. I gravitated toward this work because it hits on so many of my interests—politics, helping people, travel, adventure. I think in all those areas I’ve definitely grown. Have I changed? I still think that at my core I’m doing this for the same reason I started it. I’m still me, but I’m probably a savvier me. When you learn something about yourself that you didn’t have so pronounced or expressed before, do we change? All those parts of me that were there before are just amplified.