Ever plan your day around getting water? Probably not. Most Americans have easy access to clean water and can drink as much of it as they'd like. But for 750 million people around the world, purified water is a luxury. Women and young girls in low-income countries walk about 3.7 miles each day to collect water – a total of 40 billion hours a year. Every year poor children miss nearly 440 million school days because of water scarcity. That’s why Matt Damon and Gary White co-founded Water.org, a nonprofit dedicated to providing clean water to impoverished families and individuals living in Africa and Asia.
“Every 20 seconds a kid under the age of five dies because they lack access to clean water and sanitation,” says Damon in an interview with The Daily Ticker at this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills.
Damon and White are not building new wells and water pipelines to get clean water to these villages – they’re providing individuals with small loans so that they can tap into the existing water infrastructure.
Municipalities are “piping water under their feet but they cannot access it,” explains Damon, and residents “have to walk to a communal access point and wait in line to get water. It’s incredibly inefficient.”
More than 1.5 million people so far have applied for small loans through Water.org. The two-year loan program (“WaterCredit”) is $180 to $200 and 98% of borrowers have paid back their loans, says Damon. Poor families use the money to buy a toilet or to pay for local water utility fees. Direct water access allows these individuals to spend more hours at work or at school.
“These people were scavenging for water every day and holding the economy back,” notes White, who also counsels organizations such as the PepsiCo Foundation and the IKEA Foundation on responses to the global water crisis. “Now they’re out there getting jobs.”
These loans are also helping to change a common perception of indigent villagers.
“There was an aversion to poor people…utilities overlooked the poor and didn’t see them as customers,” explains Damon. “We’re trying to bring new customers to these utilities.”
“It’s about looking at the world’s poor in a different way,” he adds, “rather than as recipients of charity. These are potential customers with a voice.”
Damon dismissed rumors that he signed on to play Aquaman in the upcoming "Justice League" movie, telling DT off camera that the reports were "not true."
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