Matt Damon called in from a movie set—but he didn’t want to talk about his latest film. In fact, he didn’t want to talk about his “day job” in general, which meant no questions about growing his mullet in The Last DuelOr, if you have something newer Bourne The film held up against the originals. There was nothing about Damon’s personal style, his tastes in cars or his breakfast habits. Matt Damon arrived to address a serious problem. For more than fifteen years, Damon tried to harness the fascination and crushes of his fame towards solving the issue that many people lack clean drinking water.
Damon’s partner in his quest to tackle that issue is Gary White, an engineer by training who has spent decades working to bring clean water to those who need it most. Damon and White started nonprofits that were focused on water access for the developing world. They met at a Clinton Foundation conference in 2008. The pair decided to join forces and form Water.org. Water.org is an NGO which distributes loans and helps people install toilets or faucets in homes. As of this year, the group’s efforts have reached about 43 million people around the world.
Damon and White have written a book together about their work. Water is worth itOn March 29, the book went on sale. TIME spoke to the pair about the experience of founding Water.org and their ongoing work. They also discussed the challenges and frustrations that come with trying to get people to care about a crisis, which for most, is far away. For clarity and length, the transcript below has been edited.
TIME: Clean water access is a worldwide problem, but at what size? How many people don’t have safe drinking water?
White: It’s a massive problem. 771 million people don’t have access to water and about 1.7 billion lack access to sanitation. It’s easy for the human element to get lost in those big numbers, but it’s a huge issue for people who don’t have it. Today, everyone in the world needs water. Sometimes they are walking hours to get it or sometimes they’re having to pay really exorbitant prices to these water vendors, sometimes 20% of their income. So it’s a massive problem at the macro level, but also for billions of people it’s a daily struggle.
Because so many girls collect water from the streets instead of going to school, accessing water and sanitation can help drive gender equality. This also benefits your overall health. The macro numbers tell us things are definitely getting better—2 billion people have gotten access to water and sanitation for the first time in the last two decades or so. So that’s the really good news. However, there are hundreds of million of people who don’t have access to the internet.
What was it that drew you to the water access issue for so many years? Did it have an intellectual or emotional appeal?
Damon: It’s both, actually. It was both emotional and intellectually draining for me to meet these people and have my eyes opened to the problem. But on the intellectual side, this process by which we’re trying to help is endlessly complex and fascinating. I found it simple to look at extreme poverty issues and realize that water is the root of all. It was not something that anyone talked about.
[In 2006]A girl and I took a trip to collect water. [in rural Zambia]This is who helped me see the truth. We talked about her future and how she would do it. I felt connected to her because I can remember when I was a teenager, the way Ben behaved. [Affleck]We talked about moving to New York and Los Angeles to be actors, and the excitement that that brings. And it wasn’t until I left that I realized that had it not been for the foresight of someone to drill a well a mile from her home, she wouldn’t have been in school, and she wouldn’t have had dreams of moving to the big city someday and becoming a nurse. And so it’s not just the needless death and misery and the fact that 300,000 children will die this year totally needlessly because they lack access to clean water—it’s also all the opportunity costs of all these lives that aren’t lived to their full potential.
What will the climate change do to water access?
White: There’s this expression that I heard at COP26: if climate change is a shark, water is the teeth. Water is the main driver of so much climate change. And the bottom line is that it’s going to wipe out water supplies for a lot of people. It’s going to disproportionately affect the people who have the least to do with creating the problem; some of the poorest among us are the ones that are already surviving on marginal water supplies. These water supplies will dry up and become contaminated by saltwater intrusion. [from rising sea levels]Flooding, [the problem]Things are only getting worse.
Where’s the problem of water access worst?
White: In terms of the absolute number of people lacking access to water and sanitation, it’s still largely in Asia. But as far as the percentage of people that lack access to water and sanitation in terms of population, it’s definitely Africa. Things are trending better in Asia—there’s been more wealth accumulated there, so more investment can happen locally through utilities and things like that. In Africa, I wouldn’t say it’s getting worse, but it’s not getting better any faster. And I think that’s where climate change really is going to have a dramatic impact.
Damon: That’s one of our big concerns, is backsliding, and losing some of these gains that we’ve made over the last 20 years. It’s been trending in the right direction, but the climate aspect is definitely worrisome. This could have a serious impact on those who live at the margins.
Is there ever any frustration with people’s indifference to these issues, especially among the wealthiest people you try to get funding from?
Damon: Ideas that work are what people respond to. This is the idea behind [small loans to facilitate water access]We always believed that one way to make people feel heard and get them to take an active part in the solution was to prove and refute the model’s success and hope it helps push the mountain down. I tend to think people want to do the right thing; once people are aware of the problem, then they really start to engage with it, but it’s just so hard for so many of us to relate to this because of the abundance of water in our lives. That’s why we called the book The Water’s Worth. There’s this Benjamin Franklin quote: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”
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