‘The difference water can make’: Matt Damon and Gary White discuss clean water access

May 26, 2023, 1:10 a.m.

Actor and philanthropist Matt Damon and social entrepreneur Gary White shared their experiences working in global water equity on Thursday, emphasizing the economic and social impacts of water accessibility. They were hosted by the class SUSTAIN 345: Global Leaders and Innovators in Human and Planetary Health: Sustainable Societies Lab. The experiences Matt Damon and Gary White discussed in the event were also covered in a book the two co-authored called “The Worth of Water”—the namesake of the event.

Damon and White founded the nonprofit Water.org, and the impact-driven asset manager WaterEquity, which seek to educate people-at-large on water scarcity and offer microfinancing solutions to people in need of loans for clean water and sanitation purposes respectively. 

Their initiatives have been recognized by various institutions. Damon and White were both honored in Time Magazine list “100 most influential people” in 2011 for their work with Water.org.

Damon began the event by speaking on his personal introduction to water scarcity. 

“It was an issue impossible to relate to, because I was never more than a few steps away from clean water,” he said. “There was so much abundance in my own life.”

White and Damon said that they had taken separate trips abroad to Guatemala and Zambia respectively, where they saw the consequences of water scarcity and became committed to the issue. 

Damon was on a water collection trip with a 14-year old girl in Zambia in 2000. On the long walk to collect clean drinking water, which averages 3.7 miles in parts of the world, the girl told him about her goal of living in a big city and becoming a nurse.

“It reminded me of me and Ben Affleck and our dreams to go to New York,” he said. 

Despite the long walk, the existence of a borewell in the first place enabled her to go to school because she did not have to spend her days acquiring water. According to a 2018 article by UNICEF, women spend an average of 200 hours a day securing clean water, barring them from many educational and vocational opportunities. 

White said this story exemplifies why the issue is so multifaceted, due to its effects on the societal equality and economy of an impacted nation. 

“This girl had dreams of contributing to the economic engine of her country, which couldn’t have been achieved without water access,” Damon said.

Damon also noted that water access is a safety issue for women.

“Many women take out loans for latrines so they don’t risk being sexually assaulted when going to relieve themselves elsewhere at night,” he said. “Water is the way to break the cycle of poverty, to protect and save lives, and make a bright future possible. It increases access to education and time to work, and families are more healthy.”

To further emphasize the disproportionate impact of water scarcity on women, Damon noted that 97% of individuals supported by WaterEquity’s investments are women.

WaterEquity describes itself not as a charity, but a financial organization that attempts to increase investment in people impacted by clean water scarcity and their communities, and that at its heart is the social impact-driven mission.

“There was never gonna be enough charity in the world to solve this issue. It was about helping them access affordable loans and creating value,” White said. 

As part of their work, Water.org identifies opportunities across Asia, Africa and South America to help local financial institutions develop and scale their water and sanitation microlending profiles. WaterEquity, in turn, provides investment capital to these financial institutions to enable them to scale their lending activities. This type of microlending involves financial institutions offering low-interest loans to those who need money to maintain clean water sources or washrooms.

“It’s not an income generating loan, it’s an income enhancing loan. It’s about getting [impacted people] their money back,” said White, emphasizing their belief that economic activity lost due to water scarcity is an avoidable issue. “Our job is helping microfinance companies see the economic value of helping people get water.”

Additionally, Water.org partners with NGOs and local governments to help create an enabling environment for WaterEquity to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects that work on increasing the access and availability of clean drinking water to low-income communities 

As of March 2023, WaterEquity has enabled 716,000 microloans to low-income consumers across the world. According to their website, WaterEquity has committed over $350 million in capital and reached 3.8 million people with safe drinking water or sanitation. 

“The fact that it’s a no brainer now, means it’s absolutely brilliant,” said Sara Singer, professor of medicine and class instructor.

“I do have a lot of hope that this issue will be solved within our lifetimes,” Damon said. “We also have to think about the climate, backsliding, and maintaining our infrastructures.”

White believes that 500 million people could be reached with this solution.

“Now that we can provide a risk-adjusted return for investors, it’s up to us,” he said. “The capital can come from the bottom-up.”

White and Damon ultimately hope that their microfinancing model will become more commonplace, saying that they hope other asset managers adopt their model to help reach more impacted people. 

Singer said that it is important to hold conversations like this on campus. She explained that opening up the event to the wider Stanford community beyond the classroom was an important and calculated move because it is important for students to know about issues and solutions surrounding water access.

“What [White and Damon] have done is incredibly innovative,” she said. “They have identified a very powerful financial model for addressing a massive problem, and to do it in a way that doesn’t rely on charity and empowers the people it’s supporting, especially women and underserved communities.”

She also said that they benefit from talking with Stanford students, as it’s important for the “smartest and most motivated people they can get” to join their projects. 

Gordon Bloom, a lecturer for SUSTAIN 345 and director of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab—Human and Planetary Health, said that this year has been particularly special because of the new Doerr School of Sustainability. 

“Our work is very closely aligned. Just the fact that we have all this new momentum around issues of sustainability…It’s been great,” Bloom said.

“We face this enormous challenge, and we can really make a significant contribution to this crisis,” he said.  

Josh Hechtman ’25 and Charles Scheiner ’25, co-leads of the class, helped organize the event. Hechtman said that the class was an important exploration of sustainability at a systems-scale for him.

“We had nothing that really bridged everything together. Sustainability isn’t just a science problem, it’s a cultural problem, it’s a political problem. It is rooted in so many fundamental issues and fundamental parts of our society,” he said.

Damon ended the event with advice on pursuing meaningful social impact work.

“Identify your passion, what’s needed in the world, and find the intersection” he said.

This article has been updated to clarify the differences between Water.org and WaterEquity.

Andrew Gerges '25 studies economics and international relations and writes for News. He enjoys playing GeoGuessr. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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