Editor’s Note: Matt Damon is an actor, screenwriter, producer and cofounder of Water.org and WaterEquity, nonprofit organizations dedicated to empowering people in the developing world to gain access to safe water and sanitation Gary White is the CEO and cofounder of Water.org and WaterEquity. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
A global shift is happening. Governments are increasingly allocating resources to energy alternatives. Consumers are demanding that companies take active measures to protect the environment through carbon offsets and recyclable packaging. Investors are integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives into their investment decisions — with a heavy focus on cutting carbon emissions.
While this progress is essential, it is missing an important component in effectively addressing climate change: water. In normal times, the water crisis is devastating to both people and the planet. And, as we work toward a climate-resilient future, we must devote energy and resources to managing water access and sanitation.
Globally, across both countries and industries, water is still being treated as an unlimited resource, with dire results. According to the United Nations, nearly half the global population is already living in potential water-scarce areas at least one month per year, which could increase to between 4.8 billion and 5.7 billion people in 2050, and 30% of global water extraction is lost through leakage in water supply systems, which are largely antiquated and need significantly more private investment. What’s more, 80% of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without prior treatment, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans, and attributing to nearly 1 million deaths per year due to water-related diseases, such as cholera, diarrhea, hepatitis A and typhoid.
One critical component to addressing this crisis is investing in and improving water and sanitation infrastructure. Climate-adaptive infrastructure that provides safe water and processes sewage is fundamental not only to public and environmental health, but also to a wide range of industries. And while global investments in infrastructure have increased steeply — infrastructure funds held $582 billion in assets as of June 2019 — investments in water and sanitation infrastructure have been paltry. From 2012 to 2017, only 1.9% of commercial finance went to this sector, with little to no impact for the 2 billion-plus people who don’t have access to safe water and sanitation today.
While this is a deeply disheartening statistic, the upside is that it can be fixed. Many societies have provided people with access to safe water and sanitation for more than a century. The necessary technology and solutions are available. What’s needed are the capital resources, commitment and attention to address this.
When we launched Water.org as a non-profit and, subsequently, WaterEquity as an asset manager, it was with the intention of creating a sustainable global capital market that would truly meet the needs of those without access to safe water and sanitation.
We started with families, recognizing that at least 600 million people could access safe water and sanitation in their homes if only they had access to affordable financing, such as microloans, to pay for water connections and toilets in their homes. Three decades later, we’ve transformed $200 million in philanthropic capital into $3 billion in institutional investment capital — which has directly helped millions of families gain access to such microloans — with more than 90% of loan recipients being women.
While we’re excited about our progress, we recognize that “last mile” financing of domestic water and sanitation solutions will only go so far in achieving universal access to water and sanitation. Given the destructive impact of climate change and its connection with the world’s antiquated water and sanitation infrastructure, we must also redefine, invest in, and build the infrastructure necessary to achieve this lofty goal.
We are now on the verge of a new era of investment in water infrastructure — one with the ability to solve the global water and climate crisis in our lifetime. Water.org and WaterEquity estimate we have an initial $1 billion pipeline of investable deals that could provide 100 million people in emerging markets with water and sanitation, and potentially attract an additional $2 billion to $3 billion in institutional capital.
We plan to invest in critical areas across the water supply and sanitation value chain — including corporations active in water and sanitation infrastructure, public and private water utilities, enterprises focused on water grid improvements, water and sewage treatment, and wastewater and fecal sludge management. And we will evaluate each opportunity based on its impact on local communities, gender equality and long-term sustainability.
Prioritizing water is crucial — and corporations, high-net-worth individuals, development finance institutions and institutional investors all have key roles to play.
We’ve seen several corporations and foundations, like Niagara Bottling, the Skoll Foundation, the IKEA Foundation, the PepsiCo Foundation, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Bank of America, invest significantly to help solve the global water crisis in our lifetime — and, by extension, gender inequality, since the water crisis disproportionately impacts women and girls.
We need more partners on this journey. Global consensus around climate change is here. Governments are actively looking for public-private partnerships to deliver infrastructure services. Investors are seeking out ESG-aligned opportunities from proven fund managers. And we’re currently mobilizing a community of forward-thinking venture philanthropists to ensure that we can take advantage of this momentum. With our collective efforts, solving this pressing issue in our lifetime is within sight.