Matt Damon Reveals The 'Aha Moment' He Had While Collecting Water In Zambia

"For me it was looking at the enormity of the problem and the scale of it and the fact that nobody was really talking about it."

Back in 2009, Gary White and Matt Damon combined forces by merging their separate organizations to co-found Water.org in the hopes of providing safe drinking water and sanitation to people around the world living without them. Ten years later, they've already helped millions of people get access to these things many of us take for granted.

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Water.org has partnered with beer brand Stella Artois — a relationship going back to 2015 — to fight the water crisis. With their "Pour it Forward" program, people are encouraged to simply enjoy a cold one in order to make a difference. For a limited time, every pour (or bottle) sold at bars and restaurants gives someone in the developing world access to clean water for one month. A six-pack does the same for six months and a 12-pack does the same for 12 months.

To help them kick off, they enlisted actress Sarah Jessica Parker to bring back her onscreen persona Carrie Bradshaw in order to spread the word. In a 15-second clip, she recreates the Sex and the City opening with a little twist. Instead of having her drink of choice, a cosmo, she opts for a Stella Artois — a simple, actionable choice that has real significance.

"I was somewhat familiar with Water.org and it felt like a privilege to not only try to help in the effort and use an opportunity to sort of scream it as loudly as possible, but also to learn about it," Parker told A Plus, calling her work with the nonprofit a "joyful" experience. "Often these opportunities are meaningful and have impact, but they're also, personally, an opportunity to become more informed and to really think about how you're spending your time and how you can engage in other people's lives and think more globally."

A Plus also spoke to Damon and White about the progress they've seen throughout the past decade, what their partnership has been like, the moment they knew they wanted to work toward solving the water crisis, and what they hope happens during the decade ahead.

A PLUS: Water.org has now been around for 10 years. What progress have you seen?

DAMON: It's really going better than we could have hoped and it's really ramping up. Just to give you an example, we reached our first million people in 2012 and now we're reaching over a million a quarter, so we're already past 16 million people we've reached with clean water and sanitation solutions. So it basically couldn't be going any better from our perspective and this partnership is a huge part of that. To be able to get this kind of megaphone and platform through Stella is huge for us and we're well on track to hit the 3.5 million people that we've targeted through 2020 just through this partnership alone.

Have you seen the public interest in the cause evolve throughout the years?

WHITE: We see that across the board. Again, as Matt said, this [partnership] has been a way for us to cast a much wider net, both in terms of people's awareness of the crisis but also how solvable it is. That's what really gives people hope and, I think, keeps them coming back to support the work.

DAMON: Another part of this partnership that has been so important is how Stella came up with these really actionable ways that people can participate and make a difference. Raising awareness about the problem is itself a pretty big hurdle to overcome because it's so hard for us to relate — in the West, here in America — to this idea that clean water isn't just in your kitchen. I mean, the water in our toilets is cleaner than what most people around the world are drinking. Once you get that across, it's very hard to say, "OK, here's what you can do about it." Stella has this kind of on-ramp for action for people ... that for one pour in a bar or one bottle in a bar you're giving somebody clean water for a month. If I were going out with my friends for a night or going out to watch the Super Bowl, it would be just a no-brainer and an easy way to participate and make a real difference.

What drew you both to be partners 10 years ago and how has that grown since then? What do you both uniquely bring to the table that makes it so successful?

DAMON: I had started raising money to build wells and, as I kind of got more familiar with the problem and all its complexities, I really wanted to partner with the leading expert in the field. When that person wouldn't take my call, I got Gary. [Laughs] We felt like we could complement each other well and we both wanted exactly the same thing, which was to maximize our impact and we thought that the partnership would do that.

WHITE: Yeah, I think that was the key, kind of the synergy between what Matt was doing and what we were doing. I'd been working on this, really, since I was an undergraduate in college and had really done a lot to kind of bring real rigor to how do we get more people safe water. We really weren't on the map so much and I think Matt certainly helped draw more attention to us and more revenue. But then, along the way, it's interesting that Matt has drilled into it so much that he's one of the world's water experts on this topic right now and in conversation with everyone from the president of The World Bank on down. I think we both have learned a lot through the partnership over the years.

What visits have you done and what have you seen and witnessed in terms of the work that Water.org does?

DAMON: There have been so many all over the world and it's actually really usually pretty much the same story which is, when you're able to help people solve this problem for themselves and give them an avenue to do that, it's completely life-changing for them. The problem disproportionately affects women and girls and, as a result, there are millions of girls who aren't in school because they're collecting water for their families. When suddenly they have access to safe water, it gives them an opportunity to live up to their full potential. They're back in school, they have hopes and dreams rather than just this kind of grind and this death spiral of poverty they have to just service every day by trying to go scavenge for water. So it really has this kind of incalculable effect on their outcomes and that's a really exciting thing to see. As we've grown and as our impact has grown, the numbers are so big now that it's like you have these personal connections to these stories but you now realize it's a story that has repeated itself 16 million times. That's when things start to get really exciting for us.

What moment solidified the impact of your work with Water.org for you?

WHITE: For me it was when I was still an undergraduate engineering student on a trip to Guatemala and saw, in the slums there, just the incredible conditions of people drinking contaminated water from these drums. There were little kids walking hours to get the water from these sources. It just really struck me that here, a two-hour plane ride away from the U.S. where we have water at the turn of a tap, here were kids that were dying by the thousands because of something so simple as safe water. I wanted to do something that would really have sustainability and really look at why this problem existed and look at things like finance and how we introduce microfinance into water and sanitation. A lot of people living in poverty just need access to a microloan in order to be able to get water and sanitation at their home. So that's one of the biggest innovations we've provided through WaterCredit.

DAMON: For me it was looking at the enormity of the problem and the scale of it and the fact that nobody was really talking about it. The first moment for me, my kind of first epiphany, came on a water collection with a 14-year-old girl when I was in Zambia. I went on a water collection with her and had this really nice connection with her. I was asking her through the interpreter — we were in this really rural village — if she wanted to live here when she grew up. And she got really shy and she goes, "No, I'm getting out of here. I wanna go to Lusaka. I want to go to the big city and be a nurse." She was so excited when she was talking about her future and I was reminded of me and Ben Affleck at that age saying, "We're going to get out of here and go to the big city of New York and we're going to be actors." I just had this great connection with her because she reminded me of those years as a teenager when you have the whole world laid out for you. Then it struck me as I was driving away that, had somebody not had the foresight to put this well a mile away from her house, she wouldn't be in school, she wouldn't have these dreams of growing up and becoming this fulfilled human being who was an economic contributor to her country. That was kind of my aha moment. There's the needless death that you read about and the millions of kids under the age of 5 who are dying totally unnecessarily every year because of this, but on top of that there are these shattered lives of so many more.

Sarah Jessica Parker in a video for the Pour it Forward program, a partnership between Water.org and Stella Artois.
Stella Artois

What do you hope for Water.org's next 10 years?

WHITE: I think we just want to keep expanding like we have. There's still about 800 million people without access to water and more than two billion without access to sanitation. At Water.org we're as much a social enterprise as much as we are a water nonprofit and that just means always innovating and trying different things. What we see as the greatest barrier between people and safe water is often finance, which is why we've been working with organizations like The World Bank and financial institutions like Bank of America, to figure out how we can drive more capital and scale while still making these loans super affordable for people who need water and sanitation. One thing we know is there's never going to be enough charity in the world to get water to everyone, so we want to scale up through more of a market-based solution that still helps some of the poorest people in the world get a leg up.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cover image via Rick Kern/Getty Images for Stella Artois.

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