When Matt Damon talks toilets, people listen.
By people, I mean me.
In the tough-job-but-somebody’s-got-to-do-it category, I was invited to a dinner the other night with Damon. (Thanks to David Bradley of Atlantic Media for hosting and to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg for arranging the event.)
The unglamorous but important topic was water — specifically, Damon’s organization Water.org, which works to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the developing world.
Water is an issue simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. In the developed world, we assume that water is available at the turn of the tap. Toilets are a given.
“It is very hard for people to relate to this issue because it’s not something we’ve dealt with or anyone we know has dealt with,” Damon said. At the same time, he said, water remains “the biggest (issue) of all of them. It underpins every idea of development we have.”
● Every 21 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness.
● More than three-and-a-half million people die every year from a water-related disease.
● Women spend 200 million hours a day collecting water.
● More people have access to a cellphone than have a toilet.
● 780 million people lack access to clean water; approximately one-in-nine people.
Damon became hooked on the issue during a visit to Zambia in 2006. He was in a rural village, walking with a 14-year-old girl to collect water a mile away. As far as that sounds, the relatively short trip was possible only because of a new well that had been drilled nearby — shortening the time consumed by the daily water haul and enabling the teenager to spend time studying to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.
“I was thunderstruck,” Damon recalled. “Her whole life would literally revolve around collecting water for the day.” It was changed by a single well.
There is a tendency among Serious Washington Types to disdain celebrity activists and their pet projects, even as we angle to get our pictures taken with them. (Thanks, Matt. Impressed the kids.)
But what is unusual about Damon’s undertaking is its seriousness of purpose, absence of heart-tugging victims and strategic approach. Water isn’t sexy. Diarrhea isn’t a fun topic. When Damon talks about “the dignity that comes with a toilet,” he comes off as the Harvard student he once was, not one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive.
The theory of Water.org is not, as CEO Gary White explained, the traditional “charity-driven model” of addressing the problem simply by using cash to “drill more wells.”
Instead of top-down charity, which will never be enough, Water.org’s notion is bottom-up sustainability. It enlists communities to plan, contribute to and manage water projects, and helps arrange and guarantee WaterCredit — micro-loans to households for clean water and toilets.
White argues that these loans make financial sense. With the financing to purchase access to water, people can work at their jobs instead of devoting hours to obtaining water. In more urban areas, the loans can free them from paying above-market prices to a “water mafia” that charges a premium to those who can’t afford to be hooked into the local utility.
The group now operates in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Central and South America, building community latrines in the slums of Bangladesh or communal wells in Haiti.
“We’ve had the answers to clean water for 100 years,” Damon said. “Imagine if we cured AIDS or cancer and millions of kids were still dying from it.”