Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
“Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner
Remember that iconic poem you read in high school? The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was musing then about sailors lost at sea. But those words written in 1834 could also be speaking about a crisis in the world today.
Globally, 780 million people have no access to safe water, and 2.5 billion lack access to toilets and sanitation. Overwhelmingly, women and girls in the developing world are most severely impacted by this crisis. That’s why Water.org, the nonprofit co-founded by actor Matt Damon and civil engineer and water specialist Gary White, uses a gender lens when designing solutions — prioritizing women as the change agents in their communities.
"When you see the difference that water can make in a community, that feeling of pure joy — there’s nothing really that can compete with that in my day job."— Matt Damon
When you travel to some of the world’s poorest countries, it’s women who are walking the dusty roads carrying water jugs. And it’s because women bear the main responsibility for keeping their households supplied with water, caring for the sick, maintaining a hygienic home environment and bringing up healthy children that Water.org says women are a critical part of developing comprehensive solutions.
Paul Costello, Stanford Medicine’s executive editor, hosted this Q&A with Water.org’s co-founders to find out how they intend to solve the global water crisis.
Costello: Matt, you could have chosen any issue to get involved in. What was it about water that stirred your passion?
Damon: The enormity of it. Water underpins everything. My personal moment came in early 2000 on a trip to Zambia. I went on a water collection with a 14-year-old girl from a village I was visiting. It was a long walk, and we talked about her hopes and plans; she said she was going to go and live in the big city and become a nurse. After she told me about her plans, I realized that if someone had not possessed the foresight to sink a bore well near where she lived, she wouldn’t have been able to go to school and she would have spent most of her time scavenging for water. It just hit me how profound an impact access to safe water has on an individual, a family and an entire community. I just can’t think of a cause that has a larger impact than access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation — especially for women and girls.
Costello: Why especially women and girls?
Damon: Women and girls spend about 200 million hours a day securing supplies of water resulting in significant losses in productivity. In addition, inadequate sanitation — lack of toilets — in schools leads to significant absenteeism of young girls. When not in school, girls often have to seek sanitation in the early morning or late at night to gain a small amount of privacy, risking their personal safety.
Costello: Currently there are 780 million people without access to safe water and 2.5 billion without access to sanitation. Gary, what’s the human cost?
White: Every 21 seconds a child under 5 succumbs to a preventable, waterborne illness. Solving the water and sanitation crisis is the single most cross-cutting investment opportunity to alleviate poverty, increase women’s empowerment, advance early childhood education and improve basic public health. According to the World Health Organization’s The World Health Report 2002, halving the proportion of those globally without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2015 would result in an estimated 272 million more school attendance days a year, and the value of deaths averted, based on discounted future earnings, would amount to $3.6 billion a year.
Costello: What are biggest challenges related to water and sanitation globally?
White: Lack of awareness or understanding of the crisis is one obstacle. It is difficult for people who are accustomed to reach out and turn on a tap when they want a drink of water to fully grasp the magnitude of the crisis. In industrialized countries, the richness of our water security is nearly invisible — while in many developing countries, a real-time tragedy is unfolding.
Another obstacle is the traditional model of charity itself. It would require $200 billion in capital to solve the global water and sanitation crisis in the next five years. The total per year of external investment and aid flowing to the developing world is about $9 billion. One of the challenges is that much of these investments are made in the form of aid and subsidies that bypass those living in poverty. The situation is compounded by the fact that most non-governmental organizations do not segment the market — everyone is viewed as equally poor and requiring aid. Given the inverse relationship between the level of subsidy and sustainability of water infrastructure, this type of approach has no real prospect of driving scalable and sustainable solutions. Therefore we must think carefully about how to deploy charity and where market-based models can really make a permanent difference.
Costello: Is the problem that there’s just not enough water?
White: Ultimately, there is enough water on the planet for everyone. If every person in the world who currently lacks a safe water supply secured 50 liters of water for basic daily use, it would take a mere fraction of 1 percent of the world’s water resources to provide it.
Inadequate distribution is a large part of what prevents people from accessing safe water. In urban slums, piping may run just beneath entire communities, bypassing them because the predominant thinking is that families living in poverty cannot afford to pay the connection fees to gain access to the water or sanitation systems. Through Water.org’s WaterCredit initiative, we’re demonstrating that this is not the case.
WaterCredit catalyzes small loans — typically $50 to $200 — to people in developing countries who lack access to traditional lenders and are in need of clean water and toilets. As loans are repaid, they can be redeployed to additional people in need of safe water, reducing the need for subsidies, which can then be freed up to help those who need it most.
Costello: So paint the picture for us. What does the world look like when you realize there’s truly progress out there?
White: It looks like right now. We have made and are continuing to make tremendous progress. While it is true that today one child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related disease, only a few years ago this number was one every 15 seconds. This slight change saves 1,646 children every day. In early 2012, the United Nations announced that one of the Millennium Development Goals for water was met ahead of schedule. Between 1990 and 2010, 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water [http://www.unwater.org/statistics_san.html]. We see this as an immense opportunity. Achieving universal access to safe water and the dignity of a toilet is within reach. We will need to remain focused and track and plan for new disruptions such as changes in climate that may detract from progress we’ve made. The answer to the crisis really comes down to mobilizing the global will, just as we did with the AIDS epidemic in Africa.