“Whatever your cause is, whatever your passion is…whether it’s education, or health, or women’s rights, or whatever. None of it matters if you don’t have water. There’s no sense in building a new school if young girls don’t have time to attend because they’re spending their whole day fetching water.” - Justin Arana
Long Beach native and Millikan High graduate Justin Arana has had a different post-grad life than most. After graduating USC in 2005 with a double major in International Relations and Business Administration he joined a medical humanitarian group headed to assist the victims in Darfur- at a time when conflict was heating up. In Darfur, his life changed.
“Many heavy things happened [in Darfur] that changed my perspective on life and the way I view the world.” said Justin over a WhatsApp phone call from Mozambique, Africa where he now lives. “It’s a very powerful thing to be with people where you know they’re going to be dead in the morning.”
Through what Justin calls “a story for another day” he ended up arrested in Darfur and facing execution, charged with “crimes against the state.”
“Thankfully, the African Union came to my aid and I was able to get out of that situation,” said Justin.
Unable to go back to Darfur, Justin traveled around Africa where his SoCal surfing roots led him to the beaches of Mozambique. It was in Mozambique where he started to examine the “clean water” problem more closely. It had been weighing on his mind. He was noticing the water problem more and more in his travels.
One day while on his way to surf he saw three women walking to get water. He asked if he could go with him and that’s when he discovered the harsh reality of water in Mozambique. Justin still rages with passion thinking about the poverty cycle created by the lack of water in so much of the country. The women walk 4-6 hours a day just to get to a water supply from a murky lagoon full of gross particles you can see, not to mention the thousands of germs and microscopic contaminations invisible to the naked eye.
“There’s literally no other option other than this in a woman’s life,” said Justin. “Girls start at 12 years old and they’re walking 5-6 hours a day. They’re walking their whole life to fetch water that is at the same time making them sick and giving them water-borne illnesses. It’s literally the definition of a poverty trap.”
Justin has made it his life’s work to improve the clean water conditions in Mozambique. His non-profit Water Underground not only works to provides access to clean water through water wells, but also aspires to maintain water, sanitation, and income-generating opportunities through a platform of empowerment, self-reliance, and sustainability.
“Too many organizations that donate or build water wells in Africa neglect the end game. Over half of the wells end up abandoned. We’re trying to change that through total training and self-reliance.”
Justin is also working to create a unique and inclusive experience for donors to his non-profit. Through an extremely transparent and all-access online platform, Justin can show philanthropists how 100% of their donations go toward the cause and they can come along on the journey of seeing lives changed through something so simple as clean drinking water.
Justin credits Long Beach and more specifically Temple Israel, where his family attends, for helping him get this life transforming non-profit off the ground. “We would literally not be here without the extremely generous support of people at Temple Israel. Almost our entire first year of donations was paid for by people associated with Temple Israel and they are still a huge part of our support.”
So in that way, Long Beach is a big part of Mozambique’s success. Water Underground now runs 24 wells in Mozambique—all out of schools throughout the country. Justin watches how these wells completely transform people’s livelihood.
“You just can’t ever make any progress if you spend your whole life looking for water,” Justin emphasizes. Now one of the most important goals at Water Underground is helping villages take the next steps. Things that come so natural to us such as sanitation (no defecating in public), and working to generate income, are things that need to be taught and reinforced.
Justin tries his best to spend half a year in Mozambique and the other half in Long Beach and the rest of the United States fundraising. He has a team that helps to run and train the locals at new wells. However, Justin is very hand-on. He’s currently in the midst of a seven-month stay in Mozambique.
Justin’s story and that of Water Underground are too limited in this article. However a documentary produced by Sharon Stone called “My Name is Water,” dives deeper into this incredible project started by a Long Beach kid with the backing of a Long Beach temple.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Justin’s organization or interested in donating is invited to visit waterundergroundproject.org.