Quenching Thirst Worldwide: Guy Laliberté Makes Philanthropic Waves

THE ONE DROP INITIATIVE OF Cirque du Soleil’s co-founder and current chief executive officer, Guy Laliberté, is saving lives and improving health for children around the world.

When Laliberté, 53, launched his ONE DROP nonprofit in 2007—donating $100 million of his own money to the organization’s operation—the idea was to fight poverty by addressing the universal need for clean water. It’s an issue that drastically impacts billions; for many, being able to drink and bathe in sanitary conditions is an ongoing struggle. ONE DROP assists with technical projects in developing countries, including Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador and India, by granting loans and offering educational workshops in water-challenged communities. It’s also dedicated to the sound management of water, both worldwide and at the community level.

As befits the father of Cirque, Laliberté has brought attention to ONE DROP via unusual and imaginative means, such as his highly publicized stint as a space tourist; persuading his poker buddies to each ante up $1 million to buy in to the 2011 Big One for ONE DROP tournament; and his breathtaking book of photos of the Earth’s surface, Gaia. Indeed, as Cirque continues to grow and thrive with shows, like its latest, Zarkana, at Aria, so do ONE DROP’s efforts continue to make a real difference in the world.

It’s no wonder the hotel-entertainment industry, and MGM Resorts, in particular, has responded so generously to the cause, participating in One Night for ONE DROP, the global inaugural bash that took place on March 22 in the “O” Theatre at Bellagio. World leaders, including the Sovereign Prince of Monaco who was the event committee honorary chair, superstar performers and Cirque cast members all banded together for an unforgettable evening of entertainment and awareness.

Recently, Laliberté took time from his busy schedule to chat with diamondcake about One Night for ONE DROP, the foundation’s roots, and Vegas’ special relationship with water.

Looking back at the success of your Cirque du Monde program, how did water access and sanitation become such a central issue for you?

Cirque du Monde was our first social program at Cirque du Soleil. It was for youth at risk. It made sense for us to do a specific program for street kids, since Cirque came from the street. What we learned from Cirque du Monde was the power of social arts as a means for raising awareness. Cirque du Monde has touched more than 500,000 street kids in the (past) 18 years.

When Cirque du Soleil’s anniversary was approaching, I began reflecting on how I wanted to celebrate this important milestone. I wanted to do something that could build a better world. I did some research, and all things pointed to water. First, as an artist, water inspires me. It soothes me. Then someone gave me a statistic: One person dies every 20 seconds from not having access to water. That was enough for me to create ONE DROP.

Tell us about your space flight and the photographs you took of the planet’s dwindling water resources?

All through my journey onboard the International Space Station, I seized every moment offered to me. I captured 10,000 pictures. For me, it was art in motion. But, I also put the camera down and just looked down. Those were spiritual moments. But my spirituality was mostly directed at the human species and its relation with our planet.

Gaia (the goddess of the Earth) is a survivor. She is very fragile in relation with the universe, and only a small membrane protects her from an infinite void of darkness. But she is also a fighter. Watching storms, volcanoes and all types of organic activities taking place, you can see that she’s stronger than our species. We need to understand this collectively: Gaia will survive us.

Was “O” created with the foresight that water would somehow figure prominently in your role as a philanthropist?

As an artist, water inspires me, as it does many artists. When we created “O,” we paid an artistic tribute to this element. You don’t control water; it controls you. It flows around you. There was no social intent at that time, but I am really pleased that “O” exists and showcases the beauty of water.

One Night for ONE DROP was arguably one of the most ambitious philanthropic Las Vegas events. How much fun was it to have James Cameron co-chair the event?

Our friendship developed over great conversations we had about issues facing the planet—water being on top of that list. We have a common dream in that regard. We also have great artistic conversations. James is a great guy, and I’m touched that he agreed to co-chair.

Were you surprised at how enthusiastically the poker community responded to your $1 million buy-in for the Big One for ONE DROP?

I like the poker community. Over the years, I have made great friends with many players. I knew that they were generous. When I imagined The Big One for ONE DROP, I knew they would participate, but I did spend a lot of time working on the first edition. Its success was beyond what I expected, and I was really pleased.

It’s been said that Las Vegas shouldn’t exist, that our city wastes huge amounts of water for the sake of entertainment. How do you respond to this?

I have heard this also, but at the same time, Vegas has put in place systems and operations that recycle most of the water being used for entertainment purposes. I think the issue of water is about responsibility. Southern Nevada is very advanced in its water management. That is the key.

Do you think water reclamation, as it is conducted in Las Vegas, can be improved?

I am not a water expert, but I do listen to experts that look into these issues. My belief is that there is always room for improvement, everywhere and in everything. Debating on the issue is part of finding positive solutions.

Bottled water is recognized as hurting the environment; however, many offices still have water coolers. Do you think business culture will ever catch up on this issue?

When I started ONE DROP, I had to look in my own backyard and see what Cirque du Soleil was doing. We, too, were consuming more than 19,000 bottles of water per year at our international headquarters. We needed to change our habits, and we did. We removed all plastic-bottle water from both our headquarters and on our touring sites. We filtered our tap water and now use only 180 10-gallon bottles that we refill for our water coolers. The good news is that conversations still happen around the water cooler.

We also installed a rainwater collector at our headquarters. The water collected serves our sanitary needs and our landscaping needs. So basically, we are recycled-and-filtered-water-only in our offices.

My commitment is quite simple. If we can take care of our own little garden, and if our neighbor likes our garden and wants to do the same, then maybe that is what it is all about—being agents of change.

Many industry leaders—Jim Murren, Julian Serrano, R&R Partners—jumped onboard to support One Night for ONE DROP. Were you surprised?

We have been citizens of Vegas for 20 years. It is our second home, after Montreal. These leaders have become my friends. For them to be part of this special night not only touches me but shows me that they live up to their leadership roles. I am not surprised by that.

If someone still wanted to contribute to One Night for ONE DROP, what’s the best way?

You can still be part of the ripple effect by making a donation.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for ONE DROP.