Matt Damon called in from a movie set—but he didn’t want to talk about his latest film. In fact, he didn’t want to talk about his “day job” in general, which meant no questions about growing his mullet in The Last Duel, or if the newer Bourne film stood up to the originals. Nothing about his personal style either, or about his taste in cars, or what he eats for breakfast every morning. Matt Damon was here to talk about something serious; a problem that, for more than 15 years, he has been trying to leverage the influence, fascination, and occasional crushes that his celebrity generates towards solving: the fact that millions of people around the world still lack access to something as basic as clean drinking water.
Damon’s partner in his quest to tackle that issue is Gary White, an engineer by training who has spent decades working to bring clean water to those who need it most. White and Damon each started their own nonprofit organizations focused on water access in the developing world, and after meeting at a Clinton Foundation event in 2008, the pair decided to team up, combining their groups into Water.org, an NGO that helps distribute small loans to help people install faucets or toilets in their homes. As of this year, the group’s efforts have reached about 43 million people around the world.
White and Damon have co-written a book about their work, The Worth of Water, which went on sale on March 29. The pair spoke with TIME about their experience founding Water.org, their work over the years, and the difficulties and occasional frustrations of trying to make people care about a crisis which, for many, is happening a world away. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
TIME: Access to clean water is a global issue, but what scale are we talking about? How many people don’t have safe drinking water?
White: It’s a massive problem. 771 million people don’t have access to water and about 1.7 billion lack access to sanitation. It’s easy for the human element to get lost in those big numbers, but it’s a huge issue for people who don’t have it. Everyone in the world today, when they woke up, had to get water somehow, and the question for many of these people is, how much time and how much money do they have to spend in order to get access to water? Sometimes they are walking hours to get it or sometimes they’re having to pay really exorbitant prices to these water vendors, sometimes 20% of their income. So it’s a massive problem at the macro level, but also for billions of people it’s a daily struggle.
Access to water and sanitation helps drive greater global gender equity, because so many girls are the ones who are collecting this water instead of being in school. It also obviously improves health. The macro numbers tell us things are definitely getting better—2 billion people have gotten access to water and sanitation for the first time in the last two decades or so. So that’s the really good news. The bad news is there are still hundreds of millions of people without access.
Why did you choose the issue of water access to focus on for all these years? Was it an emotional or intellectual draw?
Damon: It’s both, actually. Getting out and meeting some of these people and having my eyes open to this crisis definitely affected me on an emotional level. But on the intellectual side, this process by which we’re trying to help is endlessly complex and fascinating. For me, it was just looking at these issues of extreme poverty and realizing that water undergirded all of them. Nobody was talking about it.
[In 2006] I went on a water collection with a girl [in rural Zambia] who opened my eyes to this. She was talking about her future, and what she was going to do, and I really connected because I remember being a teenager and the way Ben [Affleck] and I talked about how we were going to move to New York or L.A. to become actors and that real excitement of that age. And it wasn’t until I left that I realized that had it not been for the foresight of someone to drill a well a mile from her home, she wouldn’t have been in school, and she wouldn’t have had dreams of moving to the big city someday and becoming a nurse. And so it’s not just the needless death and misery and the fact that 300,000 children will die this year totally needlessly because they lack access to clean water—it’s also all the opportunity costs of all these lives that aren’t lived to their full potential.
How will climate change affect water access?
White: There’s this expression that I heard at COP26: if climate change is a shark, water is the teeth. We experience so much of climate change through water. And the bottom line is that it’s going to wipe out water supplies for a lot of people. It’s going to disproportionately affect the people who have the least to do with creating the problem; some of the poorest among us are the ones that are already surviving on marginal water supplies. When those dry up or get contaminated because of saltwater intrusion [from rising sea levels] and flooding, then [the problem] is going to get much worse.
Where’s the problem of water access worst?
White: In terms of the absolute number of people lacking access to water and sanitation, it’s still largely in Asia. But as far as the percentage of people that lack access to water and sanitation in terms of population, it’s definitely Africa. Things are trending better in Asia—there’s been more wealth accumulated there, so more investment can happen locally through utilities and things like that. In Africa, I wouldn’t say it’s getting worse, but it’s not getting better any faster. And I think that’s where climate change really is going to have a dramatic impact.
Damon: That’s one of our big concerns, is backsliding, and losing some of these gains that we’ve made over the last 20 years. It’s been trending in the right direction, but the climate aspect is definitely worrisome. It could really adversely affect some of the people who are living at the margins right now.
Is there ever any frustration with people’s indifference to these issues, especially among the wealthiest people you try to get funding from?
Damon: People respond to ideas that work. In terms of this idea of [small loans to facilitate water access] we always felt like one of the ways to break through and to get people to engage is by just proving and reproving the success of this model, and hoping that starts pushing the snowball down the mountain. I tend to think people want to do the right thing; once people are aware of the problem, then they really start to engage with it, but it’s just so hard for so many of us to relate to this because of the abundance of water in our lives. That’s why we called the book The Worth of Water. There’s this Benjamin Franklin quote: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”
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