A Beautiful Mind
Raghabendra KC ’13 takes a mathematical approach to improving access to safe drinking water.
Story and photos by Laura J. Cole '04 '08MLS
Here at last was the moment they had been waiting for: It’s July 27, 2012, in an off-the-beaten path area of Nepal, and for the first time, Bal Mandir primary school has a running source of clean drinking water.
The students who have been playing soccer all day under an unrelenting sun push to be first in line for a drink. The pitchers of water offer a welcomed respite.
Raghabendra KC ’13 is the man responsible for making this happen, and at this moment, he’s too busy joking with a group of kids in Nepalese to notice that two years of work—and several phone calls and countless hours of organizing volunteers, raising money, and negotiating better deals—has finally come to fruition.
KC thinks in numbers. If you could see his thought process in action, you might very well see strings of 0s and 1s, or equations being reduced to their simplest form. Mathematics and optimization fuel his decision-making and shine through in everything he does—whether he’s talking about his 30-year life plan (which he’s broken down into 5-year increments, all slowly building a foundation to start a political career) or conducting research on portfolio optimization.
When I met up with the mathematics and economics double major at Palmano’s on Park Avenue last May, he recalled a conversation he’d recently had with Jay Yellen, a professor of mathematics at Rollins. “His neighbor was installing sprinklers, and Dr. Yellen was trying to determine the least amount he would need to cover his yard without having any overlap,” KC explains. “He had 17 or 18 sprinklers but only needed 15 or 16. His concern was whether it would cover the entire area.”
“I thought he was crazy,” KC continues. “But yesterday I was writing to someone about Mission Aqua, and I was like, wait a minute. That’s how I think. That’s the way that I wanted to distribute the money we had raised.”
Mission Aqua is a project KC launched to address and raise awareness of the need for potable drinking water. By installing water purifiers in primary schools, KC figured he could have the broadest reach, which would allow him to minimize spending. Ultimately, this approach would allow him to completely change a life for the equivalent of $1.
The project is one component of Making Lives Better (MLB), an organization he started with classmate and fellow Nepali Aditya Mahara ’12 that is committed to community service projects that enhance Nepal.
“As the members of Making Lives Better, we seek to do just that—make the lives of the unfortunate, destitute, and impoverished better,” Mahara wrote in a blog entry in 2009, the year he and KC launched MLB. “Through a ceaseless sense of duty, a strong will toward development along with personal growth, a pursuit of leadership in a world of apathy, and the unselfish desire to ease the suffering of those shackled in poverty and despair, we hope to improve the world around us.”
KC knew from day one what his focus would be.
“I always had this idea because a lot of people—a lot of people—get sick or lose their lives because of simple stuff like not drinking pure water,” he says. “Simple stuff like that. I had seen evidence of it during my travels through the country. The more I researched it—the numbers were staggering.”
Access to clean water continues to be a major concern—and with good reason. In Blue Covenant, Maude Barlow points out, “More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and traffic accidents combined.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 3.4 million people die as a result of water-related diseases, making it the leading cause of disease and death around the world. And while there’s good news—more than 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources between 1990 and 2010 according to a 2012 WHO report—there’s still significant room for improvement: More than 780 million people are still without access to improved sources of drinking water, and 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation.
In Nepal alone, 5.6 million Nepalis (around 20 percent of the population) still do not have access to safe drinking water, according to a 2010 report by the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage. And WaterAid Nepal estimates that 10,500 children die every year as a result of water and sanitation-related diseases.