Actor Matt Damon's Clean Water Mission

Co-founder of working to improve access to clean water

ByABC News
November 27, 2011, 12:48 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2011— -- Actor Matt Damon is on a mission to improve access to one of the world's most precious resources: water.

"It's really hard for people like us to relate to it, because it's just never been something we had to think about," Damon told "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour. "Clean water is only as far away as the nearest tap, and there are taps everywhere. There's a faucet everywhere. But the reality is, the water in our toilets is cleaner than the water that most people are drinking."

While water covers 70 percent of the earth's surface, less than 3 percent is drinkable. Beyond the challenges of drought and overuse in some parts of the world, lack of access to clean water has a wide impact.

The figures are staggering: Nearly a billion people -- one in eight people worldwide -- lack access to safe, clean drinking water, mostly in large portions of Africa and South Asia, and about 2.5 billion are without proper sanitation. More than 3 million people die every year from water-related disease, with a child dying every 20 seconds due to lack of clean water and sanitation.

It's these kinds of startling statistics that moved Damon to team up with environmentalist Gary White in 2009 to start, a non-profit organization "committed to providing safe drinking water and sanitation to people in developing countries."

Damon said he was inspired to take action to improve access to clean water after meeting a 14-year-old girl in Zambia going out to collect water for her family from a local well.

"It just hit me that had someone not had the foresight to sink a bore well a mile from where she lived, she wouldn't be in school, because her entire life would revolve around scavenging for water," Damon said. "And she wouldn't have any hope, she wouldn't have any dreams. She'd be stuck in this kind of death spiral of poverty."

Market-Based Solutions

The depth of the crisis has long been a focus of White, Damon's partner and co-founder. Lack of access to clean water affects different populations -- "whether you're in the rural areas and walking hours or whether you're in the urban slums, forced to pay seven to 15 times more per liter of water to the water mafia because you can't afford to get a house connection," White said.

After meeting an impoverished woman in India who spent hours each day collecting water, White came up with the novel idea of WaterCredit, a microfinance loan system, to help those in poor areas afford to get access to a regular clean water source.

"She was paying a loan shark 125 percent interest so she could get enough money to build a toilet," White said. "So, we thought, why can't we bring more affordable credit to people like her so that they can solve this on their own?"

PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PepsiCo, recently gave an $8 million grant to to expand access to micro loans for water projects in India.

"There are these market-based solutions that will really help lift people out," Damon said, noting that 97 percent of the loans are paid back. "It's the old adage of ... give a man a fish, he eats for a day, and teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."

Regular access to clean water also has a dramatic economic impact, according to White, allowing individuals to find other employment with the time they used to spend collecting water.