Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Together, we can solve the water crisis

By Matt Damon and Gary White
updated 5:48 PM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
A woman in Vilupuram, India, washes pots and pans at her new water point. With safe water at her home, she no longer has to make daily trips to the river. Matt Damon and Gary White co-founded <a href='http://water.org/' target='_blank'>Water.org</a>, a nonprofit that helps communities achieve sustainable water systems. Click through to see the work they are doing throughout the world: A woman in Vilupuram, India, washes pots and pans at her new water point. With safe water at her home, she no longer has to make daily trips to the river. Matt Damon and Gary White co-founded Water.org, a nonprofit that helps communities achieve sustainable water systems. Click through to see the work they are doing throughout the world:
HIDE CAPTION
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
Safe water transforms lives
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Damon, Gary White: Millions die each year from lack of safe water and sanitation
  • Damon, White: With WaterCredit program, we could help end the global water crisis
  • They say clean water access improve productivity, restore dignity and transform lives
  • Damon, White: We hope more people will get involved with this big but solvable crisis

Editor's note: Matt Damon and Gary White are co-founders of Water.org, a nonprofit that helps communities achieve sustainable water systems. They are participating in the World Economic Forum's annual meeting this week to advocate for universal access to safe water and sanitation. This is one in a series of columns CNN Opinion is publishing in association with the Skoll World Forum on people who are finding new ways to help solve the world's biggest problems.

(CNN) -- On separate trips to Guatemala and Zambia in the late 1980s and in the early 2000s, we each saw the devastating effect of the water and sanitation crisis firsthand. We saw a world in which basic needs went drastically unmet -- where a lack of safe water and sanitation robbed men, women and children of health, hope and even life.

In the time it takes us to fill a glass of water -- about 21 seconds -- a child in some part of the world has died because of water-related disease.

Watch video: Gary White on the ubiquitous force

Gary White and Matt Damon
Gary White and Matt Damon

The disturbing fact is that we've known how to deliver safe water and basic sanitation to people for more than 100 years. So, why are people still dying today because of it? Can you imagine if we had a cure for HIV/AIDS and millions of people continue to perish because of the inability to deliver treatment?

It would be outrageous.

Yet, more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes. Most of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented.

For example, diarrhea remains the second-leading cause of death among children younger than 5 globally. Nearly one in five child deaths -- about 1.5 million each year -- is because of diarrhea. It kills more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Knowledge of that alarming reality drove us to action.

In 2009, we co-founded Water.org, an organization dedicated to ending this crisis in our lifetime. From the beginning, we focused on finding solutions that won't depend solely upon charity. We came up with WaterCredit, which applies the principles of microfinance to the water and sanitation sector. Through the program, individuals take affordable, small loans to finance the water and/or sanitation solution that works for them.

According to our internal analysis, we've empowered more than 1 million people to gain access to safe water or sanitation. Our research also shows that investment in WaterCredit reaches five to 10 times as many people as a traditional grant over a 10-year period. At the current rate, we believe we could end the global water and sanitation crisis for nearly 100 million people by 2020.

Matt Damon and ... toilets?
Web only: Kids that inspire Matt Damon
CNN Heroes: Wine to Water

Safe water and toilets change everything. When you see the difference it makes in a community, it's the difference between night and day.

We met lively, excited children, and women moving with ease and natural, joyful energy. We spent time with a group of children at a school where they demonstrated hand-washing techniques and talked about the important things in life -- their classrooms, their teachers and friends.

We know about Muddumare, who was living with many family members in in a village outside of a rapidly growing city in India. "We have 16 people in the house. Five years ago, we constructed our home by taking out a loan but we did not build a toilet. Nobody had a toilet in the village, and no one thought about having one in the house," said Muddumare. "All of us used to go out in the open for defecation. But now as the population is increasing, there is no space for this."

Muddumare said his children are all becoming more educated and doing more "modern" work. He questioned how he and the family could go on defecating out in the open. Given the progress the world around him was making, it seemed ironic to him that his family did not have a toilet in the home.

Muddumare made the decision to construct a toilet to make life better for his family.

By taking out a WaterCredit loan of 7,000 rupees ($112 U.S. dollars) from Water.org's local microfinance partner, the Organization for the Development of People, he was able to build a toilet. He has 3 acres of land where he grows groundnuts, sorghum and finger millet. The yield from his crops helps him earn money, which he uses to repay the loan amount in easy monthly installments.

Having a toilet means his family no longer was hindered by the time-consuming and physical constraints of open defecation. The change improved productivity and restored dignity. For many others, it saved health and transformed lives.

We hope that in the coming year, more organizations, both in the private and public sector, will double down on water and sanitation-related investments. Together, we can accelerate the pace of progress against the enormous but solvable crisis.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Damon and Gary White.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT