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‘Water Is PPE.’ Matt Damon and Gary White Explain Why Clean Water Is Crucial To Fighting Coronavirus

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How do you combat coronavirus without water? That problem is a reality facing 785 million people around the world who lack access to safe water.

The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the urgency of Matt Damon and social entrepreneur Gary White, who spoke with CNN political commentator Van Jones about this water crisis as part of the TIME100 Talks: Finding Hope series on Thursday. Damon and White’s work with their organizations water.org and WaterEquity aim to facilitate access to water and sanitation around the world, White told Jones.Without clean water, you lack a crucial tool for protecting yourself from the virus: washing your hands. (And if you get sick, more than 66% of healthcare facilities in low income countries also don’t have soap or running water either, White added.)

While the first step towards combating coronavirus in wealthy countries has been obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE), Damon told Jones that the first step in many impoverished communities has been obtaining clean water. “Water is the very first level,” he said. “Water is PPE.”

In 2009, Damon and White co-founded their non-profit water.org to provide affordable financing to impoverished communities to help facilitate access to safe, cost-effective water and sanitation. White told Jones that they view the poor communities that they work with as “a market to be served,” rather than “a problem to be solved.”

The idea swiftly took off. In 2011, Damon and White were recognized on TIME’s 100 Most Influential for their work with water.org. Less than a decade later, in 2020, they’ve reached nearly 30 million people. The non-profit has also mobilized nearly two billion dollars in capital for its micro-loans, White shared, which are repaid at a rate of 99%.

More than 90% of water.org’s micro-loans go to women and girls, who are often tasked with water collection and subsequently have to skip or drop out of school, Damon said. Once their community has access to clean water, the girls who would have their day obtaining that water can instead focus on their studies. “It’s the difference between having a life and living out your potential or just being relegated to this brutal cycle of poverty,” he explained.

In 2017, Damon and White also co-founded WaterEquity, an impact investment fund manager that allows people to invest in a portfolio that helps increase access to water and sanitation. Around half of the water projects in the world fail, Damon told Jones, often because they weren’t put in the hands of the communities they’re meant to be serving. “We believe in empowering people to solve their own problems,” Damon said.

While a lot of their work has slowed down amid coronavirus, White said they’ve also seen a push from local utilities to try to reach more poor neighbors. The pandemic has exhibited how connected the world truly is and how the health of one community can affect the health of another around the globe, he added.

“For me, if there’s some hope in this,” White shared, “it’s a hope that water will finally start to be recognized as the hero that it is.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com