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.
Matt Damon 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 and sanitation are enormous problems that have a solution – they’re just not being implemented. Frustrated by what he saw on trips to developing countries, he realized that many practical solutions were already around. He found a like-minded partner and rolled up his sleeves to give the issue some attention.
Every 90 seconds a child dies 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’s unconscionable.” Damon founded H2O Africa to try and help, and in 2009 met Gary White, a lead advisor to major companies and organizations wanting to respond to the global water crisis. White had established WaterPartners a few years earlier. The pair decided to join forces and create Water.org.
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 different countries affected by it.
“The last time I was in Ethiopia, I was sitting over a hand-dug well and watching these children pull water out of this filthy hole. The water 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 some 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 disturbing moment. 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 the actor.
What resonates most with White is seeing people living without clean water and being forced to spend their entire day scavenging for an essential commodity that will see them survive another day. Many people around the world find themselves in the grip of a crippling poverty cycle; a death spin they can’t possibly escape. Damon and White had seen lives change when clean water suddenly became available.
“It’s not only about 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 an enormous impact on the quality of their lives,” he says. With women and children spending 266 million hours a day collecting water and a child dying every 90 seconds somewhere from a water-related disease, there wasn’t a moment 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 need are smart solutions,” he explains. One of these smart solutions was pioneered by White, who started WaterCredit. Using the ideas behind microfinance, White leverages small loans for people to be connected to a clean water source.
Purely through his observations, 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. 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 could be as little as US$75. If they could secure a loan for this amount, they could connect a pipe that ran right inside their house,” says Damon. The pair genuinely feel they can help solve the water problem. Small, proven solutions can act as an inspiration to larger organizations and governments. “It starts to get exciting when I walk down the street, and people come up and want to talk about this stuff,” says Damon.
It feels like we’re approaching a tipping point where enough people will say ‘enough’ and take action. We’re getting close, and once we get there, things are going to move very fast.”