Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Together, we can solve the water crisis

By Matt Damon and Gary White
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT