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Opportunity in disaster

United States, October 14, 2009

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Megha Bahree

Forbes Magazine
October, 2009

Philanthropy during disaster relief can lead to lucrative business down the road.

Last year ITT formalized a philanthropy program, ITT Watermark, with a $3 million kitty.

ITT donates money, along with water and wastewater treatment systems made by one of ITT's units, to help out during disasters. To get the systems up and running quickly, ITT works with non-profits -- mostly Oregon-based Mercy Corps and Denver-based Water for People.

ITT, with $11 billion in sales, has quickly found that its largesse during disaster relief can lead to real business opportunities during the long-term rehabilitation process of a city or region.

For instance, in November 2008, it set up two 10,000-liter water purification systems in the Honduras after it had been hammered by floods, and trained the Mercy Corps staff on the ground on how to run the machines. The two emergency systems were removed when the local services were back up, but the municipal authorities were impressed with the equipment and are now in talks with ITT to potentially procure the technology.

ITT also brought eight water purification units to China after a massive earthquake last year left 90,000 people dead or missing. In some Chinese towns, ITT is in talks with the municipal authorities on how to make those water purifications services permanent.

Similarly, after heavy monsoons destroyed a lot of arable land in Nepal in September, 2008, ITT along with Mercy Corps constructed old-fashioned raised wells, which serve 1,000 households and eight schools. This past June, it set up water filtration systems to serve 40,000 people in the internally displaced camps in Sri Lanka.

It also moved quickly to get several water treatment units up and running in Indonesia after the country was rocked by two back-to-back earthquakes in Java and Sumatra. Mercy Corps used funds from ITT, the Gates Foundation and Western Union to do a needs assessment in Indonesia and also received donations from insurance firm OdysseyRe to provide basic food and water kits.

After floodwaters swept the streets of Manila last month, killing at least 650, the city is in need of, among other things, clean water.

ITT may help Manila, and Manila may later help ITT. "We are on standby to get the water pumps and other products, but don't see the need right now," says Bjorn von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy at ITT Corp. "The water is high, but you don't have any place to pump it [out]."

What the city will need, predicts von Euler, is new well pumps, because some of the wells have been flooded and contaminated. "But that's a long-term project and we will do that, but it will be a business opportunity most likely."