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Turning the Tide in Pakistan

Alum receives Legacy Award from Prince William for a nonprofit started at U-M.
By David Silverberg


Read time: 4 minutes

Pakistan is facing a water crisis: millions of people don’t have access to clean drinking water, a situation exacerbated by floods, climate change, and poor water governance.

To help address Pakistan’s lack of secure access to clean water, Arhum Arshad, ’19, and Sikander “Sonny” Khan, ’20, co-founded Paani, a nonprofit organization that helps provide clean drinking water, famine relief, education, and health care to rural communities in Pakistan.

“The population of more than 200 million people are straining water resources in Pakistan,” explains Khan, adding how water-intensive crops have also taken valuable water from flood-stricken communities.

To date, Paani has raised more than $6 million to help facilitate building 18,000 water wells since the nonprofit began in 2017.

Panni’s outreach quickly expanded beyond building wells. The organization also provides funding to bring food and adequate clothing to orphaned children, schools to refugees, and famine relief to devastated communities. In 2020 alone, Paani distributed more than 2.7 million meals to those in need.

In March, Khan was one of 20 global change-makers presented with the Legacy Award by Prince William, the Prince of Wales, as part of the annual Diana Awards, a charity established in memory of the late Princess of Wales to honor her belief that young people have the power to change the world.

“To receive that award from Prince William in London, that really validated the work we have done over the years,” Khan says.

The First Drop

Arshad, who works as product manager at the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, says his parents came from a Pakistani family who “instilled in me the value of giving back and helping people facing poverty.”

It’s why he, Khan, and two other U-M students came up with the idea for Paani while chatting on campus about how they can do more for their parents’ homeland. They were proud of being Pakistani Americans and wanted to give back in any way they could.

“We wanted to generate some impact that no one was really doing at the time,” Arshad says.

With no fundraising or nonprofit experience, they launched Paani, which means “water” in Urdu, as a student organization and began to generate donations through, at first, selling donuts on campus. They sold 200 per day, and one professor even donated $100 for a single donut, telling Khan he was impressed with the organization’s goals.

The following year, they established Paani as a nonprofit. They found an experienced well builder in Pakistan, began to visit the country’s communities in need, and soon established a transparent process to update donors on the wells they helped fund.

A group of children stand around a Paani well while an adult wearing a tan sweatshirt and pants pumps the water from the well.
Photo by Sadar Jaan.

“We ask [those involved] to follow very strict processes — to take pictures from start to finish, the entire process — to ensure that there is a level of accountability at every stage,” Khan says. Arshad adds that they send photos to donors to update them on the projects’ progression.

Paani’s volunteers began to conduct checks every few months to ensure the water remained pure. In addition to their own inspections, Paani trained community members on how to maintain the wells and handle small challenges that may arise.

“We don’t want to go into communities that aren’t motivated for change themselves,” Khan says. “Training folks on the ground is really important to us.”

Star Support

What has also set the nonprofit apart from others are the celebrities who decided to link arms with Paani. In 2021, NBA all-star Kyrie Irving donated to the organization to help build a solar water center in Pakistan that would give 1,000 villagers access to clean water.

“As a huge NBA fan, having Kyrie be part of Paani marries my personal passion with my social change work, so it was a dream come true,” Khan says, who also works as a product marketing manager at Microsoft CoPilot.

Khan says in early 2021 he was scrolling online and learned about Irving’s impressive track record of philanthropy. He contacted his foundation and told them about Paani, including how they record every project from start to finish, and Irving was briefed on Paani’s mission. He agreed to donate to the project, which powers wells and lighting with solar power.

A year later, Jason Robins, the co-founder and CEO of the sports betting platform DraftKings, donated to another Pakistani nonprofit, Charity Grocer, and asked that his $100,000 go to a worthy cause. The Charity Grocer CEO reached out to Khan, and they decided to allocate the funds to build a new school for Afghan refugees in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Soon after the school was built, a photo shoot with the students in Pakistan featured the kids holding up the image of the DraftKings CEO with the message, “Thank you Jason Robins.”

It’s that kind of appreciation that motivates Khan and Arshad to continue dedicating their effort into growing Paani.

“When I can see the impact we have made in Pakistani lives with my own eyes, when I visit those communities, that’s what is truly fulfilling to us,” Arshad says.

Khan echoes his colleague.

“Every day I get excited by knowing we have built an organization that helps people in a region that really needs it. I never thought I’d have such an influence over communities in Pakistan and it’s great to see how we have galvanized youth to take part in Paani.”

David Silverberg is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. 

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