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
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT