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Review: How to best tackle the global challenge of water

March 28, 2022 GMT
This cover image released by Portfolio Books shows "The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge" by Gary White and Matt Damon. (Portfolio Books via AP)
This cover image released by Portfolio Books shows "The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge" by Gary White and Matt Damon. (Portfolio Books via AP)
This cover image released by Portfolio Books shows "The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge" by Gary White and Matt Damon. (Portfolio Books via AP)
This cover image released by Portfolio Books shows "The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge" by Gary White and Matt Damon. (Portfolio Books via AP)
This cover image released by Portfolio Books shows "The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge" by Gary White and Matt Damon. (Portfolio Books via AP)

“The Worth of Water,” by Gary White and Matt Damon (Penguin Random House)

Gary White, the water engineer-activist, and Matt Damon, the actor-philanthropist, have formed one of the world’s great partnerships and solved a problem that has eluded well-meaning institutions, national governments and brainy people — how to bring clean water to millions of poor households.

Without that most fundamental of commodities, the poor were trapped in a cycle of poverty, often paying exorbitant prices for delivered water or spending hours daily hauling jugs from distant streams and wells.

“People trapped in this cannot escape,” White said.

He and Damon created an escape path — water.org and partnerships with banks that allowed people to borrow $275, typically what it cost to connect water to a house in a poor country.

In this work, as the book details, the numbers are stunning.

— 785 million people in the world lack access to safe water.

— 443 million missed school days are caused by waterborne diseases.

— 20% of people’s income in some poor countries is spent on buying water from trucks.

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“It’s expensive to be poor,” the book notes.

Thanks to White and Damon’s efforts, that math is changing.

— 43 million people have received micro loans to enable water connections to their houses.

— 99% of the loans are repaid.

— 88% of the loan receivers are women.

Water carries an almost magical transformative power. For example, White relates the story of a woman in Uganda who, after she connected water to her house, started making bricks, raising a pig and growing a garden. Then she built additional rooms on her house to rent out. Her personal economic transformation began with that one water line to her house. That’s creating capital, White explains.

Although White and Damon alternate the chapter writing, the result nonetheless is a seamless rendering of their journey of discovery, setbacks and solution finding. No vast government or charity programs here; White and Damon succeeded where others have failed, at least in part because they focused on solving the water delivery problem with the community and not by parachuting in with a solution decided from afar.

Connecting a house to water illuminates yet another problem — water loses up to 50% from processing plants and water distribution systems in poor nations. But as the authors observe, freed from the time-consuming daily task of hauling water, and saving money immediately if they were buying delivered water, the owners and residents of newly plumbed houses can turn their attention to fixing that problem.

The stakes are high. As Damon notes in the book. “when clean water is unavailable, human progress is impossible.”

The authors are donating earnings from the book to water.org, the charity they founded.