Solving The Water Crisis Starts With A Single Choice, According To Matt Damon

“The good news about global poverty is that we’re winning the battle."

Solving The Water Crisis Starts With A Single Choice, According To Matt Damon

To many, the city of Boston is as much a character in Good Will Hunting as Will, the young janitor who, over the course of the film, finds his path amidst the long hallways of MIT and the rickety porches of Southie. But while co-writer and Cambridge native Matt Damon will always be proud of his roots, an important chapter in his personal coming of age story occurred many miles from Harvard Square, while he was traveling in Central America with his mom. 

Damon, now a film industry veteran and a philanthropist, told A Plus that the time he spent in Mexico and Guatemala as a teen introduced him to a reality that stood in stark contrast with his daily life.

"I saw… things that were really challenging, things that I hadn't seen as an American kid ever before, and that were just markedly different from the community that I grew up in," Damon said. "And that really just affected the way I thought about the world. And it was something that I knew had changed me and I knew would have some impact in whatever I ended up doing, or whatever level of success I had. I knew I wanted to engage in some of these issues when I got older." 

Recommended

Damon ties those early trips with his mom directly to the beginnings of Water.org, the nonprofit he co-founded in 2009 with Gary White to make safe water and sanitation accessible to thousands of communities around the world. So far, Water.org's projects have spanned 13 different countries and reached 17 million people. The nonprofit's unique approach leverages microloans and "water equity" to enable families and communities to implement the technologies that make the most sense for them as individuals. The strategy is the opposite of top-down — if anything, it's bottoms-up.

Courtesy Stella Artois.

For Damon, the person who best illustrates Water.org's global impact is a 14-year-old girl he met while on his first water collection in Zambia over a decade ago. She was from a rural village, he says, but she had big dreams.

"We really hit it off and we were talking and it was just the two of us and an interpreter," he recalled. "And she was telling me about how she was going to get out of this village, this small town… and go to the big city and become a nurse. And I so related to that, because it sounded like the way Ben Affleck and I used to talk about getting out of our small town and going to the big city of New York and being actors."

It was only after the water collection, when Damon was driving away, that he realized that, but for a twist of fate, their conversation could have been very different.

"Had someone not put a well near her house, she would be spending her entire day looking for water rather than staying in school and having all these dreams about this bright future," he told A Plus. "She was the one who really drove it home for me, and I think it's because I related personally. I remembered that feeling of being a teenager and having my whole life laid out in front of me and being so excited about it."

There's a reason why stories about moving from a small town to the big city are universal, and why we all remember the struggle of trying to find our place as teens. But the young aspiring nurse's story is also a story that aid workers see over and over again in the developing world: a family's access to clean water often determines their daughters' access to educational opportunities. If teachers and classrooms and municipal budgets are the pipelines through which education flows, water is the faucet that can turn the whole system on and off.

Courtesy Water.org.

"Across all these communities in the developing world, it's the women and the girls who are in charge of water collection," Damon said. "If the family doesn't have access to safe water, it's the girls who are missing school. It's the girls who are spending that day fetching water. And you can imagine what that does in outcomes they can expect."

According to Water.org, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water. That's almost 23,000 years' worth of time each day that they aren't able to spend on schoolwork, job training, or employment. 

Or, as Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF's chief of water, sanitation and hygiene, put it in a past World Water Week press release: "It would be as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn't arrive home with water until 2016. Think how much the world has advanced in that time. Think how much women could have achieved in that time."

Water.org's website shares the stories of childhood dreams nearly deferred. Dress-making and book-reading and cosmetology school put on hold for lack of water.  To Damon and White, the solution is simple, if profound: empower women and girls so that they can choose their own path.

Enter WaterCredit, the nonprofit's answer to a crisis that the duo believe requires more than a one-size-fits-all fix. The program has already given out over 3.7 million microloans to help families invest in the water solutions that will work best for them, be they pipes, pumps, or rain storage tanks. And more than 88 percent of WaterCredit's borrowers are women.

A local leader shows off her sanitation loan card in Palanjogihalli, India. Courtesy Water.org.

Recognizing every individual's agency, White told A Plus, is central to Water.org's strategy.

"Just being able to have people… see the solution that's right for them and be empowered to go out and pursue it rather than an outside NGO coming in and saying, 'Here's your water well,' I think that it adds to the dignity and the empowerment of the individuals. And it also makes it much more sustainable," he explains. "No one is going to take out a water loan for a particular type of solution that they don't value or that they don't think is best for them."

White says that some microfinance institutions initially viewed WaterCredit skeptically, but that the program's success rate won them over:

"What we saw with them was once they saw the evidence and started experiencing these loans being repaid at really high rates, they kind of jumped on board… And what that means for us, is every dollar we invest in these partners, every year we're reaching more people per dollar invested. And that's because of the learnings these partners have brought back to us." 

And, as NPR's Goats and Soda notes, repaid loans are then redistributed to new borrowers, "creating a multiplier effect." 

But you don't have to be a microfinance institution to get involved. Damon told A Plus that one of the most common questions the duo receive is, "How can I help?" And that's where he says Water.org's long-running collaboration with Stella Artois comes in. Through March 31, every bottle (or "pour") of Stella sold will help someone in the developing world access a month's worth of clean water. Through the end of the year, every purchase of a limited-edition chalice will provide 5 years of access.

"By doing something so simple as having a Stella at your happy hour, you're providing someone with safe water for a month," Damon said. "And that's a message that you can bring to a friend, if you guys go for happy hour, you can say, 'Yeah, I bought you a beer, but I bought you this beer and here's why.'"

Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges star in a recent ad promoting the partnership and asking viewers to "change up the usual."

"It's a beautiful and simple way to get the message out and it's a very tangible way to have an effect," he added. "To have an everyday choice you're making have a real impact on somebody, somebody you'll never meet, somebody on the other side of the world. Somebody whose life you're changing, just by making a simple decision with a friend."

In contrast to other cause-related marketing efforts that raised eyebrows in the past few years — donating $1 to a reputable nonprofit may contribute more to breast cancer research than buying an expensive, pink-branded item — "changing up the usual" and ordering a Stella in exchange for providing a month of clean water seems like a low-investment, high-impact way to help. Per NPR's 2018 fact-check of the pledge, experts see the partnership as an effective way to encourage consumers to take action.

And by providing access to clean water, consumers aren't just fighting the good fight, according to White — they're joining the winning team.

"The good news about global poverty is that we're winning the battle," he said. "A couple billion people have come out of extreme poverty in the past two decades and those people are certainly by no means in the middle class yet, but they have a little bit more money that they can put into solutions like water and sanitation for their families. So what we're trying to do is intercept that trend and rethink — you know, change up the way we think about helping people in poverty. It doesn't just have to be a gift, it can really be a way to nudge the system so it works in their favor with the markets and small loans." 

The result of those "nudges," Damon suggested, isn't just that a family's pump will be full of water, but that their future will be full of possibilities.

"Every kid deserves to have that," he said. Regardless of whether their coming of age story is set in Boston, in Mexico City, or in a Zambian village equipped with a new well and big plans.

Cover image courtesy Stella Artois.

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.