After hearing that Paani — a 501(c)3 nonprofit run by young professionals and U-M students — raised over a million dollars so far in 2021, basketball star Kyrie Irving and the Kyrie Andrew Irving Family Foundation donated to the organization. Irving’s donation will be used to build a solar water center in Pakistan which will provide clean water and electricity to over 1,000 people.
In 2017, four University of Michigan students launched the Paani Project to raise awareness and money for the water crisis in Pakistan. Since its founding, Paani — which means “water” in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan — has collected donations to construct over 4,500 wells in the country. The nonprofit also works to provide relief to Pakistani orphans and to alleviate the effects of hunger and famine on families.
Sonny Khan, 2020 U-M alum and the co-founder and director of Paani told The Michigan Daily the organization focuses on nurturing relationships with the people living in Pakistan and coordinating projects that directly improve the quality of life for these populations. Khan said Paani makes it easy for donors to see the exact impact of each donation.
“We built out the structure where we had this level of transparency that a lot of other nonprofits don’t have,” Khan said. “When somebody donates, we send them an entire Google Drive that shows the location, people digging the wells, and people drinking from them.”
In May, when The Daily last spoke to Khan about Paani’s successful fundraising campaign during the month of Ramadan, Khan said the organization began with a $1,000 donation. Khan and three other Pakistani-American U-M students used that money to build a single well. In the following two years, Paani built around 200 more before focusing on their virtual fundraising endeavors when the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person solicitation unfeasible.
LSA senior and Paani member Shewar Ibadat told The Daily it has been amazing to witness how Paani has been able to have a positive impact on more Pakistani communities every year.
“It’s really humbling to see how far we’ve come along,” Ibadat said. “When we first started on campus, our goal for the year was to build one water well through small bake sales at Mason Hall and doing small outreach through social media to try to get grassroot donations. But now, we probably get a handful of wells every single day. It’s very empowering to see that if you truly are passionate about a cause and you’re willing to put in the work for it, anything is possible.”
As Paani gained attention over social media, the organization began reaching out to popular culture figures for support in various projects and to continue to raise awareness about water scarcity in Pakistan. In 2019, Paani named a well after NBA superstar LeBron James in honor of James’ activism toward various social justice issues. This past April, Drake Bell (“Drake and Josh”), Lindsay Lohan (“Mean Girls”), Tony Hawk and other celebrities appeared in a video Paani shared on its Twitter page wishing the Muslim community a happy Ramadan.
Through their outreach initiatives, NBA player Kyrie Irving learned about the nonprofit and decided to make a contribution of his own.
Khan said he is very thankful for Irving’s donation, adding that he has always admired NBA players for the work they do on and off the court.
“I love watching the players, learning their stories and following the moments on the court, but much bigger was how they continue to be these amazing heroes and role models and inspirations off the floor,” Khan said. “I always wanted to work with somebody like Kyrie because I knew he cared about this level of charity. A lot of his work is focused on creating self-sustaining communities and ensuring that people who are often overlooked or left out or are misheard are instead inspired and empowered.”
The solar water center was completed in Tharparkar, a city in the Pakistani province of Sindh as of July 20 — during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Khan told The Daily that the well has already begun providing water and electricity to surrounding communities.
The new water center will be especially beneficial to women residing within the Sindh community, who are often responsible for retrieving clean water for their families on a daily basis.
LSA junior Shayaan Aqil, Paani’s creative director, said he is proud to have been a part of this large-scale project and to have helped relieve water stress in so many communities with Paani. As a Pakistani-American, Aqil told The Daily he always felt the two components of his identity were separated by more than a hyphen. Aqil said using the resources and network Paani has access to in America to improve the lives of those living in Pakistan has personally helped him reconcile these two parts.
“The significance of Kyrie’s well is beyond the tremendous impact created in Tharparkar; it has helped spread a movement across the world, and has even further solidified that movement within myself,” Aqil said.
Ibadat said the sustainability of the center serves several roles, including giving electricity to the community and providing the water necessary not only for humans, but for livestock and gardens to grow crops.
“It builds this one small little thing – it’s like the butterfly effect – that builds upon itself, and it’s extremely sustainable because it is just not one thing that we’re helping them out with, but many different things,” Ibadat said.
Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the Kyrie Andrew Irving Family Foundation’s role in the donation and to keep the amount of the donation private.