Staying Afloat

On the occasion of World Water Day, Gary White and Matt Damon, Co-founders of Water.org, offer their thoughts on sustainable access to water.
By: , /
March 21, 2014
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Here, we are lucky. The taps in our homes open easily to offer clean water to quench a dry throat or make a cup of tea, to wash dishes or clothing, to water a lawn, or drench a sweaty child on a hot summer day. We greet each day clean and refreshed. For most people living in the North America today, stories of older relatives who pumped water or trudged to an outhouse are dusted off for family gatherings like well-loved artifacts. See how far we’ve come? Here, at the top of the consumer pyramid, our lives are easy in ways that have become utterly invisible to us, the heroic solutions to our water problems of yester-century neither remembered nor celebrated.

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Courtesy Water.org

The contrast, for the nearly one billion people who don’t have affordable access to clean water, is stark. They walk miles, wait for hours, and pay extortive prices for this fundamental need. There is no rest: everyday someone, usually a woman or a girl, has to secure water for her family. There is no way to predict from day to day how long it will take, how much it will cost, how clean the water will be, or how dangerous the journey. She may have to fight with other people. She may have to use a dirty cloth to filter out the manure from the cow she elbowed out of the way to fill the jug. The money she set aside for school, books and shoes goes instead to a loan shark that provided the cash she needed to buy water from the local vendor when the price spiked.

But she may wonder how the next slum over got a public water tap, or why the well that was promised by the NGO she’d never heard of didn’t arrive. And she may catch the occasional glimpse of a bootleg American movie, with scenes of swimming pools and endless green lawns and wonder why her “global water crisis” looks so different from everyone else’s.

This stark reality has inspired noble and necessary philanthropic efforts to help stop the real suffering. There are conferences, master plans, frameworks, legislation, new institutions, and even more resolved resolutions. Money is raised. Wells are dug, ribbons are cut. But even after decades of charity, subsidies, multi-lateral aid and investments on the part of developing country governments and outside NGOs, the system remains inefficient, and largely misses the goal of providing relief for those at the base of the economic pyramid (BOP) in their daily need to secure water. The intentions are good, but the relief is not trickling down. And the “system” that has calcified around the water crisis relies on outdated tools and thinking that is often more likely to keep people in poverty rather than lift them up. To the outside observer, it all seems insane.

Water.org—like its international partners—has a simple yet daunting mission—we want everyone in the world to be able to take a safe drink of water in our lifetime. But our belief that we can achieve that tremendous goal is rooted in two decades of experience understanding the insanity of the water issue, and contributes to discerning what works and what does not. And we define success differently than the traditional good-hearted donor, who tends to scour the top line for signs their investment was fruitful.

Pursuing metrics based on people reached or project sustainability, while helpful, does not reflect progress towards changing the fundamental constraints of the charity-driven approach, which sees one billion potential “beneficiaries.” Instead, we think about the one billion people who are living and dying for water access a bit differently—as customers with financial power, rights, responsibilities, and energy to design their own futures. We measure success by the ongoing experience of the poorest people who have been enabled to join a modern water system already in progress, while paying a fair price, and being encouraged to hold legitimate vendors and local governments accountable for the quality of the service they have purchased. Through the simple dignity of becoming a paying water customer, the world’s poor are transformed into an economic and political force to be reckoned with. Just like we, the lucky ones.

In the coming years, we must use innovative financing models and technology to address the twin chokepoints of market efficiency and accountability in order to correct the flawed system that has limited large-scale and lasting solutions to the water crisis. While we take a long-term view in this regard, we do not discount the role of subsidized interventions, when properly targeted or interim solutions like private sector vendors, when scrupulous, until utilities can be expanded to poor neighborhoods. We can assume that the world in which we operate will always require some level of subsidy for the absolute poor, but we believe that innovations in financing can more effectively direct those subsidies to the people who need them most.

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Gary White, CEO & Co-founder Water.org, Matt Damon, Co-founder Water.org, and journalist Maria Bartiromo at the World Economic Forum's 2014 Annual Meeting

And while Water.org doesn’t presume to hold all the answers and we fully expect to refine and recalibrate our approaches drawing on the ideas and experiences of others, we are also acutely aware that there’s no time to waste. A water shortage is in the offing for the US and other developed countries, but it has already reached crisis proportions for more vulnerable communities in the developing world. As the global outlook grows more serious, the world’s poor will see their situation deteriorate even more rapidly than those living in industrialized countries.

Subsequently, we call on water and sanitation experts and novices alike; on leaders in technology, economics, and civil society; innovative philanthropists; and engineers, writers, and thinkers. Join us in spurring innovation, catalyzing capital, and driving transparency and accountability. By unleashing the power of the poor we will ensure that everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water in our lifetime.

May all of us use World Water Day to mobilize around these issues and change lives around the globe for the better.