Global War for Water

(synthesized notes from “Ellen McGirt’s  journalistic piece featured in FastCompany Magazine entitled, “Matt Damon and his global war for water,” July/August edition)*

Color Code Legend:

BLUE = Water Authorities
PINK = Subject Matter Experts (SME)

ORANGE = Water Agreements

GREEN = Special Interests/stakeholder

RED = Team Notes

PURPLE = Team Key Paper Concepts

* all notes are either verbatim quotes or close reductions of Ellen McGirt’s original article.  Quotations are only used in reference to subjects interviewed by reporters or white paper “sound bytes” that we may reference in our research publications

Once upon a time Matt Damon went for a long walk in rural Zambia, he was accompanying a 14-year old Zambian girl who had no idea who he was.  The walk came at the end of a 10-day African journey, a systematic primer on the complexities of the continent’s extreme poverty that had been organized for Damon by staffers from his friend Bono’s “One” campaign.  Damon was on a quest to understand what it’s like to be really, really poor.  “It was like a mini-course in college.  Every day brought a different subject on urban aids, microfinance, education, and finally water.”  (TEAM – one takeaway/aspect of this piece should be to put into perspective what a “Peak Water “ event would be like and these impoverished African communities seem in many ways to resemble what such an event would be comparable to)

While walking with the young teen on her hour-long trudge to collect water for her family something “clicked” for Damon.  He talked to the girl the whole time through a translater and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up – “do you want to stay here.”  She got shy all of a sudden and as they walked back from the well carrying two, 5 gallon jugs of water pulled from the well, she said her dream was to go to the big city (Lusaka), and become a nurse.  Damon recalled his dreams at the same age, when he and his friend Ben Affleck were plotting their way from Boston to NYC to meet with casting agents.  The connection opened the door for Damon – “he remembered so well the feeling of being young, when that whole world of possibility was open to you.”

But while Damon’s dream was made possible by Amtrack, the girl’s was only possible because someone drilled a bore well near her home – and yes, an hour’s walk for water is good news in lots of places in the world.  Nearly one billion souls lack access to clean water, and three times that number lack access to proper sanitation.  “This is not something that most 14 year olds have to go through.”  Without access to water, Damon’s teen companion would not be able to go to school and would likely have been forced into a precarious “fight-for-life,” spending her days scavenging for often-filthy water in unhealthy and unsafe environments,” Damon said.  “Now, she can hope to be a nurse and contribute to the economic engine of Zambia.”    

“Of all the different things that keep people in the kind of death-spiral of extreme poverty, water kust seemed to be so huge, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” according to Damon.

Damon co-founded a charity ( in 2009, three years after his Zambia trip with longtime water expert and “now friend” Gary White.  His vision is “clean water and sanitation for everyone in our lifetime (Is it White’s, Damon’s, or both? That is, who’s credited with the quote?).”  Damon has since turned himself into a water expert – unusual for a celebrity to dive into the technical side of a chosen philanthropy.  Whether talking microfinance with rural bankers, giving detailed reports from the field at the annual Clinton Global Initiative, or personally thanking donors like Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, Damon quietly developed the creed of program geek.  “If you understand how it works,” Damon says sounding more like an anthropologist than a celebrity spokesperson, “there’s no substitute for going there and talking to people in their homes (TEAM – DS, this has to factor into your cultural behavior analyses). is the merger of Damon’s “Water Africa,” which he founded as a way to funnel money to well-managed Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in Africa, and Gary White’s “Water Partner,” a two decade old group that had developed a series of highly “innovative and counter-intuitive” approaches to water access. 

Water Partners strategy had less to do with digging wells – which, if maintained poorly, can break down and leave a place in worse shape than before – and more to do with encouraging communities in the creation and ownership of water and sanitation systems that function as mini-utilities.  These issues known as “WASH” in philanthropic circles – “Water – Sanitation – Hygiene (WASH).”  These are the least glamorous of all supportive efforts, yet are the most likely to lift a community out of poverty.  (TEAM – if true, then it stands to reason that in the U.S., that lack of a quality water and wastewater treatment capabilities will be the largest factor to negatively impact economic development in the Western states.  What say you?)

Damon and White’s long collaboration ended in partnership and both took (intangible?)     risk’s.  White in that a Damon (celebrity) PR “faus paux” via “TMZ” could negatively impact his philanthropic venture, and Damon because most philanthropic ventures come under fire  for spending a lot of money and doing very little.  White was a grant recipient of Damon    before they merged organizations.  Damon had studied White’s innovations, particularly, a “microfinance” instrument know as “Water Credit.” (Research the term and origin). is on track to raise $10mn, up from $4mn in 2010.  The primary use of the money is not to handout to well drillers, but to negotiate deals between micro-financial institutions and (impoverished) communities.  The organization provides the community with access to a local banker, who will then lend money to build systems that tap into a well, or a previously inaccessible water or sanitation grid. may guarantee the loan, but repayment falls to the villagers, who work together to manage the water supply and organize credit payments. 

“By using local capital markets to develop projects, people get access to the credit system,“ White says.  “The villagers own the project at the end of the exercise.  They’re proud of it, and they have done it themselves” claims that this approach has allowed more than 315,000 people to gain access to clean water systems that are reliable and maintained. 

That leveraged success, combined with Damon’s celebrity explains why donations to are on the rise and why it has earned the attention of Institutional quality” funders.  (TEAM – Relative to public awareness, the public does not really seem to be aware of the real potential for a Front Range “Peak Water” event.  One of our cultural behavioral modification recommendations should be to suggest that local celebrities be engaged in a “state-sponsored” advertising campaign to promote water conservation in conjunction with local businesses that depend on water supply.  Additionally, those local water-supply dependent businesses could endorse and promote “best conservation practices through their employee force and other public awareness programs.  Such candidate companies could include soft drink bottling firms, deep rock water, Denver & Aurora water, regional water & sanitation management authorities, local breweries, etc. We should research what these candidate companies currently do relative to promoting PR water conservation best practicesGary White keeps a plastic bottle of dirty water (in his Kansa City office) from his last trip to Ethiopia and shakes it into a chocolate-milk froth.  This is what they were drinking.  He then shows pictures of water projects, happy children near wells, each a story of heartbreak and redemption.  Behind Gary is a white board where he sketching out the future of – we are looking for the next “Water Credit” he explains.

History of Water Credit:  

White’s long path began over a meal with good friends in the 1980’s while he was working for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) as an emergency specialist on projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Someone said, “your life should be about finding the intersection of the world’s greatest need and your greatest passion.  But, in order to sit for his professional engineering exam, he had to give up his relief work and join a stateside engineering firm.  The day after Thanksgiving in 1990, he invited a 100 friends to a local Knights of Columbus hall in Kansas City to enjoy a donated dinner and show the group a slide show of the work he had done at CRS and they raised $4,000.  That money seeded the project that he started in the Honduras.  The next year, another dinner and another project – a series of annual dinners grow into a fledgling enterprise called Water Partners, which became big enough to attract institutional quality investment.  One of the first grants was for $100,000 from the Susan Del Foundation.

Still, even after White had led dozens of projects – were failing at a really high rate.  Communities had broken wells or faucets that villagers were unable to repair, or the wells produced water too dangerous than that of the filthy rivers that flowed nearby.  There were also few, if any, sanitation projects.  In the 1980’s to 1990’s, the approach was really about supply driven, White said.  “ig a well, put up a plaque, take a picture, and scram.  People were designing projects for people, not with them.”  White came to understand that community engagement (a term rendered almost no meaningless by politicians, major brands, and social –networking companies) is a life-or-death strategy in the developing world.  (TEAM – SME’s say things like “denser development” is the answer and not “water-enforcement,” but denser development is a “moving forward strategy.”  So how does that help with the 95% of older projects and current housing stock relative to suburban sprawl?  White’s findings and understanding from his “global” property lessons in the under-developed world seems to imply that the real solution is at the individual and community level.  Celebrity PR campaigns that promote conservation best practices at the daily behavioral level would seem to offer the highest “return-on-investment (ROI) in my opinion.  For example, bath every other day, think about laundry efficiencies, at the community level modify HOA rules regarding green lawns, socialize children in schools to NOT draw pictures of homes with green lawns, promote family- water agreements to adopt more water conservation like they are doing in Douglas County, adopt best practices at the individual level like not leaving the water running when you brush your teeth, etc.  What say you?) “There needs to be a water committee and at least 80% of the community needs to sign up and raise money for the project and participate in its construction and upkeep, “ White says.  That’s how a project turns from “top-down” to “bottom-up” and “sustainability.”  (TEAM – PR campaign concept is how to change water consumer behavior from the “bottom-up.”)

This led to an important insight – an “orthogonal” insight (Orthogonal – pertaining to right angles, a pair of vectors having a defined scalor product equal to zero, a pair of functions having a defined product equal to zero) White’s geeky term for the kind of thinking in which forces that appear unrelated or irrelevant help solve a problem in an unexpected way.  Extremely poor people do have some monies, and millions of them spend an inordinate amount of money on water from the equivalent of loan sharks and hucksters – opportunists with a faucet, according to White.  “We knew they (impoverished villagers) were getting water form somewhere because they were still alive,” Said White.  For many of these poor communities, particularly those in “quasi-urban settings,” water infrastructures might be a few kilometers away. 

White put all of this together and came up with the basic thought behind Water Credit.  What if communities “self-organized” to get a loan to create their own wells or buy heir way into existing water access infrastructure?  “We began to work with micro-finance institutions (MFI’s) instead of “Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) (NGO – legally constituted organizations that operates independent from any government – originated from the United Nations – not part of government and a non-for-profit business.  Usually a “civil social organization.”  When funded by governments, they exclude govt. reps from membership),  infrastructure had never lent to anything that didn’t have a built-in revenue source or collateral.

Convincing a local lender to take a risk means demonstrating demand, training communities to run a project, and making a case that the poor can afford to repay the loan.  A tough sell according to White, “but not impossible.”

Water Credit is a micro-finance (MFI) tool that tries to leave nothing to chance. 

Let’ suppose identifies an urban Indian community it might be able to help build a public toilet.  They rally local people into a committee to run the project, and then persuade the local utility to risk a construction project in a neighborhood that seems too poor to pay its bills.  An MFI works with a local lender to loan the committee the necessary money.  After the toilet is built, educators teach people how to pay their loan – as well as why they should use their new toilets., and for that matter wash their hands/  All this for people in a “hardened cast system.” 

It’s especially important for women, because research shows that projects that ultimately succeed are designed with them (women) in mind, as well as mostly maintained by them.  A woman of low status might then be in charge of collecting maintenance fees – just a few pennies – at the now “public” toilet.  That’s a woman who now has a job and dignity, and no dysentery.

When Damon was filming “Invictus” in South Africa in 2009, he and White visited some Water Credit beneficiaries.  They would go into a slum and talk to people who had taken out a loan, had water taps or toilets in their house and already repaid the loan.  Their lives were changed.

Damon then met with some Water Credit bankers who were also excited in that many of these impoverished customers had returns for basic banking services after the experience.  Shortly after his trip to Zambia, Damon used his own production company to film a documentary film entitled, “Running the Sahara.”  The film was about three “Ultra- Marathoners” and he used the film to highlight the water issue.  (TEAM – this is an example of how a celebrity such as Damon can use their influence and artistic skills to bring a given cause to the forefront of social dialogue and thought – what say you?)

Fund raising is also a challenge for those like Damon who try to lever their celebrity.  “Basically, there’s the Sally Struther’s  approach,” he says, “where you guilt the shit out of people and they end up turning the TV off,” and most star-studded mega-events “that end up netting little to the organization.”     

Where Damon has seen “Star-Studed” mega-events work. Referring to a recent “Robin-Hood” foundation event, is where “you’re doing what those Goldman (Goldman Sachs) guys do and getting Lady Gaga to raise $47mn because they’re all drunk and they’re trying to impress each other and they’re calling out numbers from tables.”  He (Damon) pauses, and laughs, “of course that’s the kind of fundraiser we’d entertain for Water,org, but it’s the exception, not the rule.”

Water Credit has brought White to the pinnacle of the philanthropic world, whne in 2009 he won the “Skoll Award” for social entrepreneurship and a $765,000 grant including access to an unparalleled network of entrepreneurial thinkers.”  Water Credit is now well beyond “proof-of -concept,” says Skoll’s Rothchild.   Financial institutions, and other people are doing it now too.  It’s a “shift” in the way that these systems operate. (White)”

In today’s digital world, charitable engagement for is being marketed in more viral and granular ways.

Sure, Damon can talk up the organization on Letterman, but Mike Cameron (Chief Community Officer for is using the web to promote “on-the-ground, real-time,” windows into the process by which these projects and communities sustainable water projects evolve so viewers can follow the progress of town hall meetings. Training sessions, negotiations, and public debates,” according to White.  White added that 13% of those who sign –up (on the web site), donate and 65% get a friend to visit the site.

Beyond the obvious credit owed both Damon and White, the two have come to see that turning the poor into paying customers of a utility of their own creation spawns a “consumer consciousness” that can be harnessed.  “There are development monies allocated to these communities all the time (via municipalities, NGO’s, and International Aid Agencies) that often never arrive,” says White.  “What mobile service could keep them in the loop, like 311 for the poor?”  “If they knew what was coming their way, they could hold others accountable,” he adds.

In some communities, a water truck shows up daily (TEAM – we talked about his in a prior team meeting whereby in the future via Peak-Water Event, we potentially foresaw a scenario whereby homes would have storage tanks, and water would be trucked in for distribution much like heating fuel oil in the northeast).  But since the women never know the time of delivery, they can waste hours waiting with their water jugs for a truck to show up empty.

“What if there was a text messaging system,” asks Damon, “That let’s people know when the truck will show up and how full it was?

To explore possibilities such as these, the board has approved the creation of a new innovation fund that Damon kicked off with a one million dollar donation, and the Hult International Business Scholl matched.  The fund’s goal is to serve as a catalyst in the creation of new products and services specific to the “bottom-of-the-pyramid” water consumer.  “It’s a very Sillicon Valley approach,” said White.  “Invent, test, innovate.”

White and Damon agree on their movement’s future.  The new big thing will probably be the result of “orthogonal” thinking.

“We want to support people in demanding the services and aid they’ve got coming to them while having an easier life in the process,” White says.  What can make the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid, the people who form their customer base, better?”  Mobile phone applications?  A new financing scheme?  An unconventional alliance?  A technology yet to be born?  Whatever it is, the story to be told will require more than a plastic bottle of dirty water.

Facts from McGirt’s Article:

  • Every 20 seconds a child dies froma water related disease
  • About 80% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated
  • More people have cell phones than access to a decent toilet
  • 3.6mn people die each year from water-related diseases
  • Less than one percent of the world’s fresh water is readily accessable for direct human use
  • The average American uses 100 gallons of water per day
  • Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water
  • Millions of women & children spend several hours per day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources