Matt Damon was in a small town within Zambia on a water collection trip when the realities of our world’s water crisis truly hit him. Like many Americans, he was largely unaware of the struggle that comes with finding clean water for many people in developing countries.
Damon has since made it his mission to see an end to this issue, partnering with fellow humanitarian Gary White to found the charity Water.org. Their goal is to bring long-term water and sanitation solutions to these populaces within our generation. Such an ambitious objective requires passionate partners, and Water.org has found strong ones in Stella Artois. Damon assures that his conversations with Stella management are nothing like the fundraising tactics he used on Vinny Chase on Entourage. “Our calls are much more pleasant,” he says, laughing.
Together they launched the Buy A Lady A Drink campaign, which raises awareness about the global water crisis through the sale of limited-edition drinking chalices. Damon and White spoke to us about the experiences and interactions that set them on this path.
How did you become passionate about the clean-water crisis?
Matt Damon: I was looking to get involved with issues of extreme poverty. I was shocked at how water underpinned everything. People just weren’t talking about it, and as I looked more at it, I eventually came to the decision that the way to maximize my impact would be to partner with the preeminent expert in the field, and that is what led me to Gary.
Gary White: I saw the problem up close. In college I took a trip to Guatemala, and I was in the slums of Guatemala City and I just saw this young girl scooping up this contaminated water and putting it into a bucket, then walking back home through these sewage-filled streets. This was a two-hour plane ride from where I lived in the United States, and it just seemed wrong, that we should have conquered this problem a hundred years ago in the U.S. and people around the world were still facing these daily struggles. I was shocked that there were people living without adequate sanitation.
Can you describe what effect going on a water collection had on you?
MD: I waited for this girl, she was 14 years old, she came home from school and we walked together for about a mile to fill up these jerry cans with water. This was in a very rural village in Zambia, and I said, “Are you going to stay here when you’re done with school?” And she said, “No, I am going to move to the big city. I’m going to become a nurse and move to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.” And she just said it in this way that reminded me of Ben Affleck and I talking about moving to New York and being actors. I remembered what it felt like to be 14 years old and have those dreams. It was just a lovely connection I had with this kid. But as I was driving away I realized that if someone hadn’t had the foresight to sink this borewell a mile from her house, she wouldn’t be talking about being a nurse, she would be scavenging for water all day. She wouldn’t be in school. The perspective of the completely unnecessary and preventable death that happens because of this. We lose a child every 90 seconds because they lack access to clean water and sanitation. You also have this whole other element, which is even if people are surviving, it’s just this brutal struggle to make it from one day to the next. Kids that age really should be dreaming about a wonderful future where they’re contributing to the economic engine of their country and doing something positive, like being a nurse. Access to clean water can do that.
How does the need for sanitation play into this crisis?
GW: I really tie up the need for water with the need for sanitation. There was this woman who I met in India several years ago, who must have been in her sixties or seventies. She had been walking from her house on this rocky outcrop down to the riverbank to defecate, and she would wait until nighttime to do that because of the privacy issues. She ended up taking out a loan from a loan shark at a 125 percent interest because she wanted to build a toilet for her home so badly. Here she was paying off this loan for the dignity of having a toilet. For me, it breaks my heart to see that, not just the situation, but what if we could have helped her get a much more affordable loan? That is what we have done with water credit; now more than 5 million people have gotten access to water and sanitation through our loans.
There are states in our country facing their own water crisis. How does that play into this cause?
MD: I think what happened in Flint was, oddly enough, the first time people here in the West could really relate to this issue of water that is unsafe. One of the big problems that we have in our messaging is to help people try and understand here in America that this is such a massive problem. Because we solved this for ourselves, but imagine if we cured cancer and in 100 years people were still dying of cancer. It would really be unconscionable. That is the situation that we find ourselves in. We fixed this problem for ourselves years ago and now children are getting killed by the millions every year for something that is absolutely preventable.
Perhaps Jason Bourne can take on the water crisis next.
MD: Maybe that would be the best use of his skills, to take on the world water crisis and sanitation crisis, but I haven’t seen that script.