An Interview with Diane Duncan
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A close conversation with our Director Diane Duncan. A look into her past, her work and what changes she wants to make in the world.
What are the water health missions that drive you?
I’ve been really horrified by seeing, reading and witnessing first hand as a charity worker, the horror stories associated with people living in low income countries. People who have to face both drought and famine on a regular basis – both of which could be dealt with fairly easily if governments and leaders got their act together.
Just knowing that a child dies every 5 minutes because of water borne illnesses, drives me everyday to keep doing what we are doing at Clean Water Wave. The more I have learned about water and how badly we treat this most precious resource, has utterly astounded me. A pivotal moment was reading a presentation in 2002 on persistent organic pollutants, pharmaceuticals and ‘chemicals of emerging concern’ which end up in drinking water. These are highly bioactive chemicals, which don’t break down for decades, and end up travelling for long distances in our rivers and oceans – which they do. They attach themselves to micro plastics and get gobbled up by fish and other organisms, meaning they get into the food chain. The focus of the presentation was the endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic, mutagenic and neurologically damaging impact of these substances on infant and adolescent health, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers. It just seems irresponsible to allow these toxic substances to escape from our homes, businesses and factories, when we could at least stop some of this toxicity, either at our waste water plants or by supporting green non toxic chemistry innovation.
“Just knowing that a child dies every 5 minutes because of water borne illnesses, drives me everyday to keep doing what we are doing at Clean Water Wave.”
What is your professional background?
I’ve got an MBA and a general science degree, and have mostly worked in business development, marketing and communications roles. I was always attracted to businesses that wanted to make a difference in people lives – simplify things, myth busters, consumer champion type roles, developing products and services by really listening to people and their experiences of what works, doesn’t work and how they engage or would like to engage with companies. I worked for some big corporates, with big budgets, but more rewarding, was running my own company, and working with start-ups that had no money to buy full-colour right hand pages in the Sunday papers.
Having been a private sector person for the best part of my career, I took a leap of faith and joined the public sector to help support the set up one of Scotland’s newest universities and the wider learning infrastructure. I thought it would be something interesting to do for a few years, but ended up getting involved in what became the job of my dreams, focusing on the water sector as one of Scotland’s growth sectors. This allowed me to bring my own international network and practical experience to the table. Others saw it as something for the water utility to do, but for me it was the chance for Scotland’s SME’s to apply their innovations to solve some of the worlds most pressing humanitarian and environmental challenges. It was one of the most creative and collaborate roles, but it was the people in the environment agency innovation team, NHS Highland Public health, estates & innovation teams, environmental health and public health labs that was world leading and unique.
“I was always attracted to businesses that wanted to make a difference in people lives.”
How did you get involved with CWW?
Having worked in communities India and Bangladesh as a volunteer on water projects over the years, it seemed like every village I went to had a graveyard of water or solar equipment. Nothing ever seemed to last or boreholes and tubewells were put in the wrong place and never sealed properly, so after a few years of use, they caused health problems like the release of natural arsenic, or pesticides getting into water supplies.
After one such visit, witnessing babies dying and being so ill myself that I thought I might not get home, it was absolutely clear what was needed. These communities needed technology that was safe, effective, robust, long lasting and not dependent on expensive international supply chains, grid energy or chemicals.
I made it home, met Stephanie for a long dog walk & talk about all things community engagement, sustainable development, green procurement, and the idea for a social enterprise, Clean Water Wave, that delivers water treatment technology that works, was born.
What is your role at CWW?
I am one of the founding directors and I focus on project managing the logistics and operations of our projects to get them up and running overseas. To do this I work with like minded individuals and organisations like, Firstport, the Scottish International ‘development Alliance, and Challenges Group. I think our Stephanie would say my role is chief dot – joiner and ambassador, basically, I roll up my sleeves and just do what needs done.
“I am one of the founding directors and I focus on project managing the logistics and operations of our projects to get them up and running overseas.”
What impact can CWW have on the world?
We can’t achieve our vision without other like minded people – so my ambition is to see us develop a truly excellent network of driven, ambitious distributors who love water as much as we do.
What has been your proudest moment?
When the results from a UKAS laboratory came back and verified that our CAFE filter could remove bacteria, viruses and persistent organic chemicals from treated waste water normally considered good enough for discharge into the wider water/river environment. It made me realise that all the claims and protests that there is no sustainable or affordable tertiary treatment technology to clean up waste water weren’t now true. With 8000 waste water treatment plants in the UK having no such treatment – it is exciting to think that we’ll take our CAFE filter to low income countries and they will have superior water treatment to that which is used Europe.
What has been the most surprising or shocking thing that you have learned so far in the water sector?
1 in 4 prescriptions in the UK are never used. Around £500 million worth, half of the unused pharmaceuticals, are disposed of down our sinks, plug holes and toilets, passing straight through the waste water plant and out into the water environment – causing a whole host of environmental issues.
“Around £500 million worth, half of the unused pharmaceuticals, are disposed of down our sinks, plug holes and toilets, passing straight through the waste water plant and out into the water environment.”
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
Mainly sailing or walking dogs and discussing ideas on what we can do to communicate the impact of the chemicals we use in our homes; I didn’t until I read that presentation all those years ago! But I know I wish some had told me!
We are a group of pioneers, scientists, philanthropists, economists and storytellers challenging the way clean water is provided globally.
Internationally recognised in our fields, each member of the team has hands on experience of working in the field and has helped to develop our technology. Together, we have the scientific, technical, commercial and critical community engagement skills to deliver and make the Clean Water Wave mission a reality.