For the December 2010/January 2011 issue of More, editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour asked Matt Damon a few questions about the organization he cofounded, water.org. Here’s what the actor (and father of four girls) had to say about the humanitarian cause closest to his heart.
How did you first become aware of the contaminated water problem in developing countries?
One of the reasons was because of a day I spent with a 14-year-old girl in Zambia. I walked two miles with her to the closest water source, a well outside her village. I asked her if she wanted to stay in the village when she grew up, and her face exploded into a huge smile. The translator said to me, “. . . she says that she wants to move to big city, Lusaka, and that she wants to be a nurse.”And it was clear to me at that moment that if this well were not there for her, she would never even be able to entertain the concept of planning for the future—she would have been trying to survive that day.
This one well was giving hope to thousands of people in the surrounding area, and this hope translates into something concrete—that girl can now fulfill a dream to become a nurse, and can become an economic and social contributor to the Zambian economy.
In July 2009, I co-founded water.org, and since that time, we’ve brought clean water and sanitation to nearly 300,000 people. It’s amazing: For only $25, water.org can bring one person clean water for life.
Why did the concept of water appeal to you personally? There are many issues to grab hold of: Why water?
Because it’s not just about water. It’s about health, dignity, economic opportunity, empowering women, giving girls the chance for an education and a future, and helping countries move forward. Water is at the source of so many human development issues. Before we can make sustained progress on any of the others, water and sanitation access must be in place. There’s nothing more critical than access to safe water; nothing makes a bigger difference in so many areas of people’s lives.
The fact that this crisis disproportionately affects women and children also really resonates with me, as a father. Diarrhea, [often] caused by unsafe drinking water or unsanitary conditions, is the second leading cause of child death. These deaths are completely preventable.
Last summer, I met a young girl who wasn’t in school because she spent hours each day walking to collect water from a river. This water was contaminated by human and animal waste, and made her and her family sick. Today, for less than $25, she has clean water minutes from her home at a new community well.
This is the good news: We know how to bring people clean water. Solutions are simple, affordable, and readily available. This is a huge crisis. But it’s also a solvable one. And that inspires me. If we all work together, it is possible to end this crisis.
What is water.org doing to help?
Water.org’s vision—my vision—is global access to safe water and sanitation. Philanthropy alone will never reach the nearly one billion people in need of these services. Water.org is always looking over the horizon and looking for the next innovation that will move us closer to realizing our vision. We have both traditional grant programs as well as WaterCredit programs, which facilitate small loans for water and sanitation. Our plans for the future include increasingly focusing our activities on innovations that catalyze large scale system change. In other words, we’ll continue to develop new, scalable and sustainable solutions to the global water and sanitation crisis.
Where have you visited recently, and what progress have you seen?
Most recently, I visited water.org project sites in Tamil Nadu, India, with Gary White, water.org’s other co-founder. The progress we’re making with our programs there is astounding, especially with WaterCredit. WaterCredit facilitates small loans for water and sanitation, freeing up grant resources to go to the poorest of the poor.
PepsiCo Foundation funds a large part of our programming in this area and this program is exceeding expectations by leaps and bounds. Water.org is projecting to reach 160,000 people [in the area] with safe water. The cost per person served is only $18. Nearly 17,000 microloans have been disbursed for water and sanitation improvements and the average repayment rate is 99 percent. And each donor dollar is leveraging an additional $1.60 to the program. This includes $3.3 million secured in commercial capital and $3.5 million in local contributions (labor, materials, and cash) via water.org’s partner network, government, and communities.
There is a limited-edition water bottle people can buy to help. What are the details?
You can order at http://gift.water.org. Ten dollars of every purchase (100% of the profits) supports water.org. I think it’s a great way to get people thinking about the issue and it’s a very tangible and easy way anyone can support our work. It comes in either stainless steel or plastic. It’s a great gift to get or to give around the holidays or anytime, really.
The most direct way to help someone in need of clean water today is to donate.
Are there any plans to highlight this crisis in some way in one of your upcoming films, or in a documentary?
We’ll see; I want to highlight this issue however I can.