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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT