Matt Damon: We Envision the World where Everybody Has an Access to Clean Water

One of the reasons I chose water is the enormity of the problem, but the other is the availability of solutions. And to go and interface with the problem a little bit and see that there are practical and easy to implement solutions – it made me feel that there is a real chance to bring attention to it and to have a big impact.

I’ve met people in the number of countries who were impacted by the water crisis, and there were some pretty incredible moments. A year or two ago in Ethiopia I was sitting over a hand-dug well and watching children who were pulling water out of that filthy hole. The water looked like chocolate milk. We actually put a shot up on our website of a clean bottle of water next to that bottle of water – just to give people an idea of how filthy that water was.

We talked to some villagers there who could name quite a wide number of children in that area who had died from drinking this type of water. They were aware of dangers of drinking that, but they just didn’t have a choice. And to be standing with these kids of the age of my children, to be watching them smiling and taking that water that could in some cases make them very sick or even kill them was a very deeply disturbing moment.

Gary White actually said to me at the moment he saw me: “I know you just want to smack it out of their hands, don’t you? But what’s the alternative of all this? Otherwise they’re dead within a few days because they have nothing to drink”. To know that there are places like that, and that in twenty feet under your feet there’s water down there, but they just can’t get to it – that had a pretty big impact on me.

I think what resonates with me most is when you see people living without clean water, and they’re forced to scavenge for it. They’re using all of their time just trying to survive to the next day. You realize that they are in such a crippling cycle of poverty, that it’s just a death spin they can’t possibly get out of. And the impact it has on their lives, that contrast when you see somebody who hasn’t had clean water suddenly have it, and their life just changes completely.

What does it mean to children, not just in terms of survivability, but also in terms of their hopes and dreams going forward? It is a chance at a real life, a chance of getting an education. I’m a guy who has four daughters. This is a huge issue for women and girls. The girls often have to leave school and go find water, and this also has a huge impact on the quality of life that they expect to have. Those are the things that really resonated with me about water.There will never be enough charity in the world to solve this problem. You’re never going to dig enough wells. And what you really need is smart solutions. One of which is what Gary White pioneered, it is called the WaterCredit. It’s not a typical microloan. Usually, when you take a customer loan, your bank signs off a business plan, so that you can start your business. WaterCredit is a different thing.

Usually the municipality in countries affected by water crisis was pumping water right through the neighborhood to a communal water source. So if you’re living in one of these slums in India, you may have to walk once a week a half a mile and sit in a line of people waiting to fill up your jugs to get your water. Most of these people have jobs and they take time away from their jobs in order to go to water collection site.

Gary figured was how much it would cost to connect to the water source. If you could give somebody a 75 dollar loan they could just put the pipe right in their house. We underwrote a lot of these loans, and we work with local partners in these communities. Now we’ve gotten out of their way, and commercial capital has come in. A branch manager of the Bank of India told me that our loans are paid back at such a high rate, and the bank is being introduced to a whole new level of customer.

The mistake a lot of people make is that they look for a magic bullet, and it’s never going to be the one thing. The water crisis is big and complex, there are going to be different solutions depending on the local conditions.

It’s not just about digging the well – it’s about engaging the local communities. We saw in Ethiopia that people are drinking this filthy water, and there was this incredibly elaborate well in India. They raised money for it about ten years ago. When it broke down, there was nobody who could fix it, and the extra parts were available only in rural Ethiopia. And even if the parts were there, there was no expertise. So that is a good example of what we really don’t want to do. It’s about smart solutions, it’s about making sure that we all have some skin in the game, we all take ownership of these programs. All solutions are local.

It feels like people are starting to become aware of Water.org. That’s really exciting for me and for Gary and for everybody at Water.org. We have a pretty ambitious mission statement – we envision the world where everybody has an access to clean water, and there are about a billion people who don’t.

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