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Matt Damon: Why the global poor ‘pay more’ for water than the middle class

·3 min read

While the United States has suffered one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks of any country on earth, the economic devastation of the pandemic has struck most acutely in countries mired in extreme poverty.

Global wealth inequality worsened during the pandemic, concentrating 76% of wealth in the hands of the richest 10% and reserving just 2% of wealth for the bottom half of earners, according to a report released by World Inequality Lab in December.

Coping costs, or the added economic burden that results from the inability to afford basic needs, comprise a key driver of extreme poverty. In fact, the global poor often pay more for clean water than the middle class, said actor Matt Damon, the co-founder of a global water access philanthropy called Water.org.

When Damon and Gary White — the other co-founder of Water.org — realized that low-income people worldwide paid relatively high costs for water, it prompted their focus on microfinance, whereby a recipient receives a small loan for access to clean drinking water, pays the loans back, and the nonprofit lends the money to another recipient.

"These people were already paying for water," he said. "In many cases 10 to 15 times more than the middle class was paying, or the people in the fancy hotels."

"They just didn't have any savings — they couldn't front the $300 for a water connection," added Damon, the co-author along with White of a new book entitled "The Worth of Water." "The utility was piping water right under their feet, and they couldn't get access to it."

"Instead, they've had to overpay for poor quality water, or take time to go to a standard community tap or go find water somewhere else, and take time either away from a job, or in the case of younger girls, away from school," he said.

Across the globe, at least 2 billion people use a drinking-water source polluted by feces, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. Plus, more than 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries at risk of losing access to clean water, the WHO found.

In cities across the globe, residents of the poorest neighborhoods pay up to 10 or 20 times more for water than their counterparts in wealthy areas, according to a report from the advocacy group Water Aid in 2019.

Actor Matt Damon takes part in a panel discussion on the global water crisis during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Actor Matt Damon takes part in a panel discussion on the global water crisis during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Additional costs pile up as the global poor pay hospital bills for illness caused by dirty water and high interest rates for money borrowed from local loan sharks, said Damon and White in their book.

"It's expensive to be poor," they wrote.

Water.org has reached 33 million people since its founding in 2009 and 6.6 million people last year, according to the organization's website.

Because the small loan from Water.org allows borrowers to cut water costs, the recipients reliably pay the loans back, Damon said.

"They pay back at over 99%," he said. "I think his hypothesis has been proved."

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