Turning the Tide: Matt Damon and Gary White on the Power of Water

Gary White and Matt Damon © Courtesy of Water.org

Today’s world is more connected than ever before—with the click of a button, we can talk to loved ones across borders and order our daily necessities right to our door. But in an era defined by innovation and progress, it’s easy to forget that millions of people still lack the most fundamental resource for survival: safe water. One in 10 people grapple with the absence of this basic necessity, while one in four face the harsh reality of life without a toilet.

Water is the essence of life itself—it is intertwined with every facet of human existence. The ability to access safe water isn’t just about survival; it’s about unlocking potential and transforming challenges into opportunities.

“Access to water is access to education, access to work, access above all to the kind of future we want for our own families and all the members of our human family,” said Matt Damon, co-founder of Water.org.

Damon’s global perspective was formed years before he started acting. During a trip with his mother in the early 1980s, Damon saw what life was like for people living in developing countries—how they lacked the necessities he was so used to. Those experiences followed him through his early life, leading him to Sub-Saharan Africa, where, while filming a movie, he spent time with families in a Zambian village. He saw the same reality that he recognized so many years ago: that many people did not have access to basic human necessities.

“Safe water is everything. I’ve had access to safe water my entire life; I can go to the sink and have a glass of water whenever I want,” explained Damon. “It’s hard to walk away when you know how pervasive this crisis is. Access to safe water and sanitation is the difference between time saved and time lost, sourcing water or attending school, disease and health.”

In 2006, he founded H20 Africa Foundation to raise awareness about safe water initiatives on the continent. Three years later, Damon met Gary White, an engineer and water and sanitation expert who founded WaterPartners International, a non-profit organization that aimed to provide safe water and sanitation to people in need around the world.

Realizing the incredible impact the two could make, H20 Africa and WaterPartners merged to create Water.org, bringing together their expertise to develop and drive financial solutions to the global water crisis.

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The Core of Change

“You only need to meet one person whose life has been changed by water to believe in the power of access to safe water. It’s completely transformational,” Damon shared. “I still think about the first person I ever went on a water collection trip with in Zambia. She was a 14-year-old girl who had big dreams and plans for her life. She reminded me of how my friends and I talked when we were kids. We had big ambitions of going to the big city and becoming actors. Listening to her, it hit me. Access to water extends beyond needless suffering. Water is hope.”

Women, the backbone of families and communities, all too often bear the brunt of the water crisis. Women and girls spend 266 million hours every day finding a place to relieve themselves and 200 million hours every day collecting water—a task that forces them to forfeit precious time that could be spent on education, work, and family care.

“A lack of access to safe water keeps people trapped in a cycle of poverty, disease, and lost productivity, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” Damon said.

The lack of access to water perpetuates a cycle of poverty, limiting their potential. Empowering women, White and Damon explain, is critical to solving the water crisis. When women have access to safe water at home, they can pursue more beyond water collection. It grants them the time and opportunity to contribute to household income, a transformative step towards breaking the cycle of poverty.

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The economic toll of the water crisis is staggering, with $260 billion lost annually due to the lack of basic water and sanitation. Time spent collecting water or seeking sanitation robs families of economic opportunities.

According to the World Bank, current levels of financing for water and sanitation fall far short—billions of dollars short. Closing this gap is essential for universal access, but doing so requires innovative and efficient approaches. With millions affected worldwide, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a crisis of this scale.

People in need already pay high water prices, in both time and money—and many of these families can get a water or sanitation solution in their homes for a fraction of their annual water costs. All they need is access to affordable financing to make this a reality.

White and Damon shared their belief that, if given a choice and an opportunity to pay for water and sanitation improvements over a reasonable time, millions of people living in poverty would finance long-term solutions versus struggling day-to-day to find that next litre of water. However, many financial institutions in developing countries aren’t offering loans for water and sanitation to people in need. Water.org, through its flagship solution, WaterCredit, is set to take on the challenge.

By providing small loans and expert resources, WaterCredit empowers those in need to transform their households with lasting water and sanitation solutions. It’s a market-driven and people-driven solution that has already changed millions of lives—and most importantly, it works. Loan repayment rates are 98 per cent globally, and every repaid loan means another family can get safe water at home. The cycle continues to reach more people, creating new opportunities for families worldwide.

“Our powerful solution is working, and the proof is in the numbers,”said White, CEO and co-founder of Water.org “To date, we’ve reached more than 60 million people with safe water or sanitation, having reached half that impact in the last five years alone. It is a big idea gone right.”

Water Spells Transformation

Nearly one million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases, and every two minutes, a child dies from a water-related disease. One in three schools lack access to basic water and sanitation, contributing to the third leading cause of childhood death: water-related disease.

The staggering statistics are a stark reminder of the urgency we face. Safe water and sanitation at home are not just a matter of convenience; they’re a matter of life and death. Beyond mortality rates, access to safe water means improved health, privacy, and safety, particularly for women and girls. It’s a gateway to empowerment, offering women, children, and families the opportunities to pursue activities and ambitions outside of water collection and taking the stress of accessing water or sanitation off their shoulders.

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“Providing access to safe, affordable water is an investment in human potential,” explained White. “We don’t provide one-time interventions. In breaking down the financial barriers to access between people in poverty and lasting access to safe water and sanitation, we are investing in healthy lives and communities.”

In the face of climate change, we will all face the impact of water scarcity, but those living in poverty, often residing in regions with precarious water access, are the least equipped to weather these changes. They are less prepared to face the effects of climate change, like temperature extremes, floods, and droughts.

By 2025, at least half of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas due to climate change, with low-income families bearing the greatest brunt of this crisis. Access to sustainable, safe water and improved sanitation solutions can support climate resiliency for the people who need it the most.

As the Water.org co-founders put it, sustainable water and sanitation solutions aren’t just about survival; they’re about resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

The Impact of Lifelong Access

“When you see somebody who hasn’t had access to safe water suddenly get it, it’s really like this Lazarus effect of their spirit, where you see their smile and their hope, and their joy,” said Damon. “Suddenly, they’re planning for a future that once didn’t seem possible.”

This is true for children, especially girls, who are often responsible for collecting water for their families, which takes time away from school and play. Reducing the time spent collecting water has been found to increase school attendance.

Access to safe water and sanitation at home changes this. The difference in having access to water at home cannot be understated—it improves health and helps families protect themselves from illness and disease. It means reduced child and maternal mortality rates. It means improved health, privacy, and safety for women and girls. It means reduced spread of disease. It means reduced physical injury from constant lifting and carrying heavy loads of water. It means children have time to play and the opportunity for a bright future.

Gary White and Matt Damon © Courtesy of Water.org

The global water crisis is a call to arms. Water is not just a commodity; it’s a lifeline. It’s the foundation upon which health, education, and prosperity are built. Water.org’s work is more than a solution—it’s a revolution.

“I believe water is the best investment you can make to improve health, empower women, enable access to education, increase family income, fight climate change, and change lives,” said White. “For $25 Water.org can bring one family lasting access to safe water.”

Your donation can turn the tide and make waves of change that change the lives of families worldwide.

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