More people have access to cellphones than to clean water. This is a shocking fact in a world that has the technology and financial means to resolve one of humanity’s most basic problems, but in which we have failed to apply the solutions.
Actor Matt Damon started Water.org to promote lasting solutions rather than a quick fix. He has taken his tough-guy, action-hero character off the screen and chosen to tackle the ultimate global threat – lack of clean water.
To Damon, water sanitation is an enormous problem but it’s also one that has solutions that simply are not being implemented. Frustrated by what he saw on his travels in developing countries, he realized that practical solutions already existed – the issue just needed some attention. Water.org was cofounded by Damon and Gary White in 2009, the result of a merger between two pre-existing organizations: WaterPartners and H2O Africa. “A child dies every minute from a water-borne disease,” says Damon.
“This is a problem we, here in the West, solved over a hundred years ago. To put this in perspective, imagine if we cured AIDS or cancer tomorrow and in 100 years from now children were still dying in the millions from curable diseases. It really is unconscionable.” Lack of clean water affects about 2.6 billion people on the planet. In addition to the obvious health concerns, Damon is of the opinion that we cannot solve poverty without first solving the water problem. He’s no armchair critic either, having seen the water crisis first-hand by meeting with people in a number of different countries affected by the water crisis.
“Two years ago in Ethiopia, I was sitting over a hand-dug well and watching these children pull water out of this filthy hole. The water basically looked like chocolate milk,” says Damon. “We put a shot up on our website of a clean bottle of water next to one of these bottles of water to give people an idea of just how filthy the water was.” Seeing these kids collecting dirty water in containers so they’d have something to drink during school deeply affected Damon. Talking to some of the villagers revealed that a number of children had already died in the area from drinking the water.
“They were aware of the dangers, but they didn’t have a choice,” he says. “To be standing there watching these little kids, the same age as my four children, smiling and drinking something that could make them very sick or kill them was a very disturbing moment.” A colleague looked at him and said, “I know, you just want to smack it out of their hands, don’t you?” “To stand there knowing there is clean water 20 ft. under your feet and those kids just can’t get to it was just unbelievable.
It had a pretty big impact on me,” says Damon. What resonates most with Damon is seeing people living without clean water and being forced to spend their entire day scavenging for a basic commodity that will see them survive another day. Many people around the world are in the grip of a crippling cycle of poverty, a death spin that they can’t possibly get out of, and Damon has seen lives change completely when clean water suddenly became available. “It wasn’t so much children surviving, but also about their hopes and dreams going forward, a chance at a real life, of getting an education,” says Damon. “As a guy who has four daughters, this is also a huge issue for women and girls. Girls in many countries often have to leave school to go and find water and it ends up having a huge impact on the quality of their lives,” he says.
With women and children spending 140 million hours a day collecting water and a child dying every minute somewhere from a water-related disease, there wasn’t a minute to spare. Damon is a realist and acknowledges there’s never going to be enough charity in the world to solve the water problem. “You are never going to dig enough wells. That’s not the way to do it. What you really need are smart solutions,” he explains. One of these smart solutions is Gary White, who pioneered a venture called WaterCredit. Using the ideas behind microfinance, White leverages small loans for people to be connected to a clean water source.
Through pure observation White realized that in many slums, the municipality was pumping water right through a neighborhood to a single communal water source. This meant that residents would need to walk half a mile and sit in a line of people waiting to fill jugs and containers to get water. Most of these people had jobs and fetching water was eating away at valuable time needed to earn an income. “Gary figured out that the cost to directly connect to the water source was US$75. If they could secure a loan for this amount, they could connect a pipe right into their house,” says Damon. The business relationship between Damon and White has worked well so far, with WaterCredit having approved more than 443,934 loans and Water.org investing US$10.6 million in WaterCredit.
A plastic well system they’ve developed has driven the cost of clean water down from US$25 per person for life to US$7. WaterCredit has also estimated that for every US$1 spent on water and sanitation, there is a US$4 economic return. “We underwrote a lot of these loans initially, working with local partners in the communities,” says Damon. “They were so successful that we’ve now moved out of the way and let commercial capital come in to take our place.”
Damon once sat with a branch manager at a bank in India who told him, “I’m going to call every branch manager in India and let them know that these are really great loans, because they pay back at such a high rate, we’re being introduced to a new level of customer.” Damon sees his work as a catalyst for others to pick up on. “The mistake a lot of people make is that they’re looking for a magic bullet. The solution is never going to be one thing. The water crisis is too big and complex and there are going to be different solutions, depending on local conditions,” says Damon. Water.org’s approach is different from that of other NGOs and charities that create short-term solutions. “It’s not just about digging a well, or a paternalistic approach of ‘come, leave a well and get out’,” says Damon. “It’s about engaging the local community.
In Ethiopia I saw people drinking filthy water alongside this incredible, state-of-the-art well that an Indian NGO had put in 10 years before. But it was broken and there was no one who could fix it, or even the parts if they could. “Don’t get me wrong, we need the well-meaning part of people wanting to help, but it’s about smart solutions.
We all need to take ownership of these programs, because all solutions are local and you need to engage the local community to make it effective.” Damon and White have a pretty ambitious mission statement. They envision a world in which everybody has access to clean water and there are billions who don’t. “We genuinely feel we can solve this problem,” says Damon. “
It starts to get exciting when I walk down the street and people come up and want to talk about this stuff. It feels like we’re approaching a tipping point where enough people say ‘enough’ and take action. We’re getting close and once we get there, things are going to move very fast,” he says.