LOS ANGELES, United States — Lauded for his boyish good looks and Academy Award-winning performances, actor Matt Damon is less known for his role as a committed philanthropist. The Bourne Identity star co-founded Water.org, a nonprofit organization that delivers safe, clean water and sanitation access to hundreds of African, Central American and South Asian communities with the aim of resolving the worldwide water and sanitation crisis.
At the prestigious annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, an event established by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Damon and his Water.org co-founder, CEO Gary White, spoke about the imperative nature of clean water in reducing poverty.
“You cannot solve poverty without solving water and sanitation,” said Damon, prior to President Barack Obama’s address, in a session called “Cities as Labs of Innovation.”
Today, 780 million people still want for access to clean water. Water-related diseases claim an annual 3.4 million lives, of which a telling 99 percent occur in developing nations. Nearly every minute, a child fatally succumbs to diarrhea. Meanwhile, over a third of the global population lacks access to proper sanitation. Someone taking a five-minute shower in America uses more water than an average resident of a developing nation slum uses in 24 hours.
“The problem is just so massive, but you know, given that we know a kid is dying every 20 or 21 seconds is something that is completely preventable, I mean, think of it in those terms,” said Damon during an onstage question-and-answer session. “That [statistic]arrested me the most when I first heard it.”
When people do not have ready access to clean water, a large portion of their time is spent collecting water that may or may not be safe to drink. In the majority of households, the responsibility of fetching water falls on the shoulders of women and children. For women, this means a global 200 million hours spent per day on acquiring water from faraway sources, which is time spent not working to generate income or caring for family members. For children, this results in skipping school; additionally, water-related illness robs them of an annual 443 million days of school.
“We solved this here in the West a hundred years ago. Just imagine if we solved AIDS tomorrow or cancer, and in a hundred years, children were still dying by the millions. It’s really unconscionable,” said Damon. “And that was really what kind of drew me to water was the enormity – water and sanitation – and how it really underlined everything. We were talking about extreme poverty and engaging with extreme poverty, you can not solve poverty without solving water and sanitation.”
– Annie Jung