Water, water everywhere, but for many, not a drop to drink

April 30, 2014


Clean water is not scarce in most parts of the planet. But more than three-quarters of a billion people have no access to clean water and sanitation, leading to diseases that kill 4,000 children per day. In fact, more people have a cellphone than a toilet. If only there were a way to connect those people to clean water, which is sometimes pumped beneath their feet on its way to wealthier customers.

Actually, there is., an organization founded by Gary White and actor Matt Damon, has taken the concept of microfinancing originally advanced by Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus and applied it to water. The organization makes small loans so families without fresh water can install their own tap and toilet. The payoff isn’t immediately obvious unless you consider the time those families no longer have to spend walking and waiting in line to get fresh water. That’s time they can spend generating income, tending children, getting educated. 

The results speak for themselves: Families repay the loan 98 percent of the time.

“Our theory was if you could float them a loan to connect to existing infrastructure, you could buy their time back,” said Damon, who spoke at the Global Conference panelWater Crisis: Time to Turn the Tide. “When people had more time to work, they’d have more money.”

The program has already brought additional benefits that are harder to calculate, like children learning to read instead of walking several miles for water each day.

Usha Rao-Monari, CEO of Global Water Development Partners, echoed the importance of putting an economic value on access to clean water. “There’s no such thing as free water. It costs something,” she said. “Water is an important and finite resource that we have to protect for the future.”

The issue will become even more critical as people in developing nations flee rural areas for big cities with extremely dense populations. “Migration is faster than infrastructure,” said Mehmood Khan, a global research and development executive at PepsiCo.

He also noted that world hunger gets much more attention than access to water, even though the two are inextricably related. Contaminated water causes “gut infestations, bacterial infections, and other diseases that drain nutrients from the food they eat,” he said. “You cannot solve hunger without solving water,” and vice-versa.

All the panelists agreed that solving the problem of clean water on a global scale won’t be simple. It will require the participation of academia, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. “Water is one of the most distorted markets in the world, and it’s going to take a lot to untangle that web,” White said. “But you’ve gotta start at the bottom.”