How Matt Damon's nonprofit aims to end the global water crisis

What if you or someone in your family had to leave work early every day to stand in line with 1,000 others, just to collect some clean water in a jerrycan?

While it might be hard to imagine in the United States, it’s something actor Matt Damon and his Water.org co-founder and CEO, Gary White, have been working to eliminate in other parts of the world.

“The difference in somebody’s life if they suddenly have access to clean water and sanitation is really incalculable,” Damon told CBS News senior producer Lulu Chiang at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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Water.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White

CBS News

Damon and White, who ended up merging their organizations, H2O Africa and WaterPartners International, respectively, to found Water.org in 2009, have been working to provide developing countries with safe water and sanitation through long-term economic solutions. With innovative financial tools like their WaterCredit, they are convinced the crisis can be solved in their lifetime. 

Instead of income-generating microfinance loans, WaterCredit is an “income-enhancing loan,” Damon explained. For the woman who has to leave work early to gather water from a communal source, “if you actually could use the existing infrastructure where the municipality’s piping this water right under her feet, if you could just connect her directly in her home to those existing pipes, you would save all that time that she’s wasting going and standing in line, and she would have direct access,” Damon said. “So you would essentially be buying her time back, and which would give her greater income because she could spend those hours at her job, and so she could pay off that loan.”

White gave the example of a woman in Bangalore who was paying 40 rupees every day for her family to have access to clean water and a toilet in their slum, for a total of 1,200 rupees a month.

“She took out a WaterCredit loan and got a water connection right in her home,” White recalled. “She got a toilet right in her home, and her monthly payments on these two loans combined was 1,200 rupees. So you can see it’s this ‘expensive to be poor’ concept, that she could afford those few rupees every day, but she could never dream of saving $200 to make that happen. She took out a loan from WaterCredit and got both of those.”

At the World Economic Forum Tuesday, Damon and White announced the expansion – or “turbo-charging,” as Damon put it – of their non-profit’s existing partnership with Stella Artois and “Buy a Lady a Drink” campaign.

“We’ve been working with them for a couple years, and through them, we’ve reached 800,000 people with clean water. So it’s been an incredible, effective campaign, and so we’re doubling down on that,” Damon explained. “And we’re going to try reach over the next four years 3.5 million more people with clean water solutions through Stella.”

One of the first hurdles Water.org always has to clear, Damon said, is making the water crisis resonate with Americans.

“People who raise money for AIDS research or cancer research, that’s very relatable for all of us. We all have family members or friends who have been affected by AIDS or by cancer, and so there’s that one-to-one correlation, and it’s easier for us to empathize with their cause,” Damon said. “Whereas with [Water.org], it’s often times, you need to take the first step of explaining to Americans that this is an issue, because it’s not an issue for Americans.”

But companies like Stella Artois are helping to bridge that gap by creating one-to-one relationship opportunities. For example, if you buy a pint or bottle of Stella at certain bars across the U.K. and the U.S., Stella will fund a month of clean water for someone in the developing world, Damon said.

“If more people were drinking that beer, which meant that more people were getting clean water, and it was this virtuous circle, I’m all for that,” Damon said.

Damon hopes the biggest takeaway for people is that “this problem is solvable.”

“There are very real tangible answers and solutions, and it’s just about getting activated to employ them,” Damon said.

While the mission of Water.org is to ensure access to clean water and sanitation for everyone on Earth, they have another goal in mind.  

“A thing that we like to say is that the mission of Water.org is to put ourselves out of business,” Damon said.

Reporting for CBS News from Davos, Switzerland: Lulu Chiang, Lauren Hoenemeyer and Gilad Thaler  

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Water.org in Pallabi, Bangladesh

Water.org