The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”-Thomas Fuller
“Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, M.D. Discoverer of Vitamin C.
In the developed world, we take clean water for granted. In fact, even in the face of abundant clean water, we end up spending hundreds of dollars per year per person on single-use plastic water bottles. But in the developing world, it's a different story. Lack of water resource development has led to shortages and water insecurity as entire villages hunt for ways to bring water into their homes.
Actor Matt Damon noticed the problem on a visit to Africa in 2006. Young girls, tasked with the unpleasant responsibility of finding and carrying large jugs of water from whatever sources they could find, waste most of their days walking and fetching water- missing out on schooling, jobs, and building a life for themselves. From that trip, Damon became an activist in the crusade to bring water to people who need it. He joined with civil engineer Gary White to co-found Water.org in 2009, and together they have written a book, The Worth Of Water, that describes their journey.
This book is an eye-opener, not just on the subject of water, but on how charities work, and how past attempts to help poor people have failed miserably, while an innovative financial scheme touched more lives than any charity ever could have. In the 1980's, the United Nations declared the Water Decade, and developed nations sent engineers to impoverished areas to build wells that would help solve the problem. Many wells were built, but they turned out to be failures.
The entire viewpoint that competent white people must save helpless people of color in the Third World turns out to be bad for both. The wells dug in the 1980's began to fail and break down, which is normal with any kind of infrastructure. But the engineers had packed up and moved on, leaving behind scant notes of how to maintain the wells nor proper parts and materials. Without that support, the locals watched helplessly as nearly half of the wells failed. This is not the first unintended consequence of well-meaning attempts by developed nations. Two other projects- the One Laptop Per Child program in Africa and the Anti-Malaria mosquito nets also had serious problems. The cheap laptops failed to take hold because of lack of tech support and awareness of local customs. The chemically treated malaria nets ended up poisoning people who used them instead for catching fish.
Water.org looked at a different model to help those who wanted it- microloans. It turns out that one of the biggest things holding many poor people back was access to capital and loan money. The few loans that they might qualify for were charging exorbitant rates of over 100% and considered unaffordable. Microfinance began as an experiment and it spawned an entire industry. Unlike regular loans, these loans were for modest amounts and had frequent repayment schedules. People were able to use these loans to help themselves get access to water without any other help. We sometimes see those in poverty as helpless or defective, but within every community there are people eager to work hard and improve their lives- they just need access to capital. The amazing things I found out about this book is that most of these loans get paid back on time- over 95%! WaterCredit was born as a way for people of modest means to get low-interest loans for their small projects.
Damon and White take turns throughout the book telling their stories about dealing with governments, wealthy foundations, and success stories (over 40 million people helped so far). One of the most interesting ideas from the book involves something called Venture Philanthropy. The amount of dollars donated to charity by big foundations is substantial, and does a lot of good, but it wasn't nearly enough to fund what Water.org wanted to do. Plus, they found that charity giving is subject to whims and trends, and while water might be popular one year, other charities become more urgent and popular in other years. They needed access to the huge amounts of capital sitting in investment accounts all over the world. So they came up with WaterEquity- a fund that holds money as investments, pays modest returns, and uses its capital to finance more loans.
More money is tied up with investing than anywhere else, and the investing world is guided by one principle- maximize returns always. But perhaps things are changing a bit with that. Divestment of unethical companies has changed the calculus, and some people are getting uncomfortable knowing that their nest eggs are being used for weapons of war, to destroy the environment, or to exploit workers unfairly. The venture philanthropy movement is just an extension of divestment- be willing to accept somewhat smaller returns while doing good. You still get to keep your money, and it still grows some- just not as much as if you went all-in on the entire market. People are expecting more from Wall Street, and the 2008 financial crisis may have had a part in that. Loaning poor people money at lower rates to improve their water and sanitation makes more sense than investing in alcohol, tobacco, and gambling companies.
Damon and White also touch on the unpleasant topic of sanitation, which is directly tied to water availability. During the Covid epidemic, many hospitals in poorer countries had limited access to clean water and soap, meaning they couldn't protect themselves against germs. And the lack of clean sanitation facilities means that many people, especially women, choose to relieve themselves in open fields, where their waste makes it back to the water supply in many cases. Or they resist eating and drinking to avoid having to pee and poop altogether. These microloans are helping to fix that as well.
There isn't much discussion of climate change in this book, which is something that many of us worry about when it comes to water. We can see right now that glaciers are melting while lakes and rivers are drying up as rainfall changes along with the climate. Damon and White do touch on it some, but most of their work is based on the current situation, not the evolving one. Their view is that by improving water access and infrastructure, we become more resilient to the changes that we know are probably coming. And the more we learn about how to access, clean, and transport water, the better it is for everybody. There is a real danger that entire nations could become climate refugees because of water shortages, and we need to take that seriously before it's too late.
The authors are ambitious, and they admit that there's a lot more to do before they can consider the water problem solved. From the 40 million people worldwide that they've helped, they see the need at over 500 million currently. There are three groups that currently need help with water and sanitation resources.
1- The poor but motivated, who need access to capital through microloans to improve their lives, which is the main focus of Water.org currently.
2- The urban slum dwellers, who can't benefit from those loans. In these cases the city water and sewage utilities will need financing help to make larger scale improvements that will bring paying customers to their network.
3- The truly destitute are usually so far away from water sources that no small projects can make much difference. These unfortunates will need to depend on government projects and large charities to survive and get access to clean water.
I learned a lot from this book. I tend to discount Hollywood celebrities who embrace causes while living in mansions as lightweights, but Matt Damon seems like the real deal. This is his mission in life. That, and being Jason Bourne. And Gary White, an engineer who started off by developing water systems in the US, seems perfectly matched to know the ins and outs of what is possible when it comes to water. I recommend this book and their organization.
You can find out more at their website, Water.org
Here's a helpful Youtube video that explains it better than I can....