Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Matt Damon's most challenging role: Tackling the global water crisis

By Ian McKenna, CNN
updated 3:23 PM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 780 million people lack access to clean water
  • Matt Damon and Gary White co-founded Water.org in 2009
  • Charity helps people access clean water and sanitation facilities through a loan program
  • 171 children die from a water related disease every hour

(CNN) -- Believe it or not, more people in the world have a cellphone than access to a toilet. That's according to Water.org, a charity co-founded by actor Matt Damon.

"I was just shocked by this because I couldn't even relate to it," says the Oscar winner. "As an American -- like, water? There's the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink -- you know -- there's water."

"Every 20 seconds a little kid, a child dies because they lack access to clean water and sanitation. Every 20 seconds."

Damon, father of four daughters, says, "Once you have kids it's impossible not to see their face in every child you see."

What was truly horrifying for Damon and Water.org's co-founder, Gary White, was how preventable water-related deaths can be.

"We've solved this in the West for 100 years," he says referring to the worldwide water and sanitation crisis. "You know, imagine if we cure cancer tomorrow and in 100 years, three-and-a-half million people a year are still dying of it. I mean it's just unconscionable."

So, Damon decided to use his fame to help.

"If cameras were going to follow us around, why not make something good out of that?"

In 2006, Damon co-founded H2O Africa Foundation, which served to bring attention to clean water initiatives in Africa. Two years later, he met Gary White of WaterPartners at the Clinton Global Initiative. The two decided to combine efforts by merging charities and co-founded Water.org in 2009.

"We complement each other and Matt certainly has come a long way in water, not much for me in acting," White jokes.

The nonprofit provides affordable access to safe water and proper lavatory facilities through microfinance loans. The loan program gives people the financial means to access their local municipalities or fund their own projects. Without the loans, they are forced to turn to the water mafia, who, according to Damon, dramatically mark up the cost of water. The other option is to fund their own projects through loan sharks, but that money comes with high interest.

In India, White and Damon came face to face with a person who exemplifies how successful Water.org's loan program is.

"We met a woman who was paying 40 rupees every day for her family to go use the public toilet. They had to go pay a fee and they had to go purchase the water that they needed," White says.

"She was able to get a WaterCredit loan, that allowed her to pay her connection fee, that allowed her to connect to the utility and have a faucet in her home and allowed her to build a toilet in her home and her loan payment was 40 rupees a month. Once she gets that paid off over two years, that's another 40 rupees in her pocket. She'll pay a small bill for her water bill each month, but she'll come out way ahead."

Damon says he was moved by "the sense of dignity that these women have when you talk to them and they've paid their loans off and maybe taking out a second loan for a toilet, the sense of empowerment you know, the sense that their life has been altered in this way, that they are now in control of their destiny."

This empowerment translates directly into social and economic growth for the community.

According to White, 200 million hours are spent daily by women walking to collect water and 443 million school days are lost every year from children having to scout for water.

"Once you get this foundational piece in -- safe water that's close to the home or a tap at somebody's house -- then the whole family can start to take off and become much more economically self-sufficient. They can grow more food, they can spend time in a working job and kids can be in school. We all know that that's the thing that's really going to liberate people from poverty is an education. Water allows all of that to start happening," White says.

Damon witnessed that firsthand in Haiti where he met a 13-year-old girl while attending the celebration of a new water pump. The girl had previously spent around three hours a day collecting water.

"I said, 'Three hours a day! What are you going to do now that you have all this time? Your homework?' "

"And she looked at me and she goes, 'Shh! I don't need more time to do my homework. I'm the smartest in my class.'"

Damon prodded her some more, asking, " 'But you have these extra three hours. What are you going to do?' And she looked me right in the eyes and she goes 'I'm going to play.' "

"It was wonderful to know that this little girl was going to have time to play like every 13-year-old girl should have."

"But you think about the hundreds of millions of kids for whom that's not an option -- and not only do they not have those three hours, they may not even be in school because they're scavenging for water. And so it's not just a life or death issue, it's a quality of life issue."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT