Water for All

Nearly 40 years ago, two employees at the Atlas Copco Group decided they wanted to help people without access to clean water. What they started grew into the company-wide Water for All initiative. With funds provided by both employees and the company, Water for All brings volunteering employees together to provide clean drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene solutions across the world. It is their dedication that has helped millions of people get access to clean water, in an initiative that today spans over 50 countries.

Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm

Photo from when Water for All was founded in 1984.

Water for All was founded in Sweden in 1984, initially to support a project in Peru. Today it is a truly global initiative.

Manuela Stagnati is one of the ambassadors for Water for All, the company-wide community engagement initiative at the Atlas Copco Group. She joined the company in 1989 and since 2014 has chaired the Italian branch of Water for All, which started in 2007.

“I chose to get involved in Water for All because water can profoundly change lives,” says Manuela. “Clean water is a basic human right. We have a moral duty to help people in need when we can. We must always remember that it is only a coincidence that we were born in the ‘right’ part of the world.” 

Saving communities on the high plateau

It must have been the same sense of moral duty that prompted the two Atlas Copco Group employees Torgny Rogert and Peter Håkansson to found the organization. In the spring of 1984, they saw a documentary about an ongoing drought in Peru and how it affected the supply of drinking water on the high plateau Altiplano. Whole communities faced the risk of being without water and whatever water they still had was so unclean that illnesses ran rampant. As a consequence, the area had one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates.

The documentary struck a nerve with the two men. They were both experienced drillers (a not uncommon skill then among company employees) and started discussing what they and their coworkers could contribute to help alleviate the situation on Altiplano.

They contacted Save the Children and other humanitarian organizations that were active in the area, and a project started to take shape. 

By August, a first information meeting was held, with representatives from Atlas Copco Group’s units in Sweden and other organizations with experience in aid work. That became the official kick-off for Water for All. A fundraising campaign among employees began in the fall and the company pledged to match whatever amount was collected. 

The birth of an employee-driven organization

From this start grew the organization Water for All, which was formally established in 1985 as a non-profit association for Atlas Copco Group employees. It formalized the year-old initiative and its first project, run together with Save the Children. A first milestone was reached in the fall of 1986 when the project hit 100 drilled wells in the Altiplano area. The two founders, Peter Håkansson and Torgny Rogert, also had the opportunity to visit Peru during the project. They shared in the work, in well-drilling and pump installations, and could verify that their local partners did a very professional job.

Drilling wells was a natural place to start, but the Water for All initiative now also conducts many other types of projects, such as rain harvesting. Many projects involve improving sanitary facilities and all projects should include hygiene education. Combining access to water with sanitary solutions helps many, not least women and children. In many areas, it is the women and girls who fetch water, often walking many miles to the nearest water source. They always run the risk of being attacked, by both people and animals. A close-by supply of water and sanitary solutions offers safety and frees up time – for the girls to go to school and for the women to work to support their family.

Within ten years, by 1994, Water for All had provided around one million people with access to clean water from wells drilled or dug through the support of the organization. Despite this apparent success, the initiative was close to being terminated. Staff reductions at the Atlas Copco Group had decreased membership in the organization and its board had an excessive workload. At the annual meeting in 1995, a full shut-down was discussed. However, staff in the Swedish city of Örebro felt obliged to pick up the responsibility and ensure that the organization survived. They were ultimately successful.

Working closely with partners

Projects are always carried out in collaboration with partners, which should be non-profit, non-political organizations, preferably with a local presence and employees, and with expertise in water projects. Even better is when the organization’s members – the company’s employees themselves – get personally involved in each project.

In 2017, Manuela visited several of the projects that Water for All Italy has financed, such as in the Kitui region in eastern Kenya, where Water for All has Amref Health Africa as its main partner. Here, wells have been built and water pipes laid to both schools and nearby villages.

“Meeting the people we help on the ground is fantastic, and so motivating,” says Manuela. “Those we collaborate with are also impressed by the organization we have at Atlas Copco, uniting employees and company and nowadays also Epiroc and the Peter Wallenberg Water for All Foundation. That type of personal commitment, I believe, sets us apart from other donor organizations.”

Since 2011, the Atlas Copco Group has been matching all employee donations with double the amount. When the Group’s longtime chair Peter Wallenberg Sr. passed away in 2015, his family welcomed donations to Water for All to honor his memory. More than SEK 25 million was collected and became the basis for the Peter Wallenberg Water for All Foundation. Each fall, the foundation offers co-funding of Water for All projects, for which any organization can apply as long as they can provide at least 10% of the funding themselves. In addition, the foundation has thus far been involved in two long-term projects. One in Malawi in 2015–2018 and one in Uganda in 2020–2023, which is a joint project with 14 Water for All organizations, including Manuela’s Italian organization. 

Having ambassadors among the employees has always been an important part of Water for All’s work and success. They help recruit new members, collect money for the projects and keep the members informed about what is happening.

“All involvement from Atlas Copco Group employees is based on trust,” says Manuela, “so making sure information comes back to our donors and members is extremely important. We usually hold different events every year to keep donors and members up to date. We also send out newsletters.”

And with every new company that the Group acquires, there are opportunities to recruit new members and donors to Water for All. 

“When Atlas Copco acquired Varisco near Verona, I went there to inform the employees about Water for All,” says Manuela. “Both office and factory workers came to listen to the presentation. Now we have 40 donors there, in a fairly small company with around 100 employees. Last December we did the same in our new brand Eurochiller and here too we have already attracted over 20 donors among around 70 employees.” 

The acquisition strategy of the Atlas Copco Group means that the future looks bright for Water for All, believes Manuela. The more companies that join the Group, the more donors and members the organization gets. And with that, more projects can be started, giving even more people access to clean water. 

In recent years, there are also examples of several Water for All organizations, in different parts of the Atlas Copco Group, joining forces to donate to the same project. One example is when almost 30 countries came together to support Ukraine in the spring of 2022. Another was a project in 2020 to reduce the risk and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic among Syrian refugees in a tent settlement in Lebanon.