Water, a substance necessary to both forming and sustaining life, is not something developed nations necessarily think of first in terms of crises. Available from kitchen taps, bathroom taps, free at cafes and abundant even in our toilets, it’s easily taken for granted. However, in many developing countries water is scarce and comes at a high price for millions of people—be it in money, time or travel. Some low-income households spend 20% of their income on water, others are forced to travel hours daily to reach the closest water source, often kilometers away.

This was the topic of conversation at the New York Times Climate Hub during the COP26 climate summit. Joining the New York Timespanel on water scarcity, “Washing Up: Ensuring Universal Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” on Monday November 8 were Rose Wamalwa, co-founder of Women’s Climate Centers International, Oscar winner Matt Damon, Co-founder of Water.org and WaterEquity and Gary White, also a co-founder and C.E.O of Water.org and WaterEquity. Moderated by Time’s Chief European Business Correspondent Liz Alderman, the three guests gathered for a discussion on the everpresent water crisis and as an opportunity to expand on what they are personally doing through their organizations to help decrease the potable water divide.

How Water Accessibility Affects Women in the Climate Crisis

Today, as co-founder of the grassroots, community-led Women’s Climate Centers International (WCCI), Rose Wamalwa’s main focus is empowering women and encouraging their entrepreneurship by removing the water burden. The WCCI helps vulnerable communities by co-creating hubs for sustainable climate solutions and is led by a partnership of women development professionals in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and the U.S. Their Climate Centers systemically address climate change by focusing on four key areas: bio-intensive farming, community conservation/ restoration, climate-smart technologies and forestry and leadership and entrepreneurship .

Wamalwa shares the other guests’ goal for increased global water accessibility, but also offered her personal experience with water scarcity, growing up in Kenya needing to gather water daily as a young girl. Wamalwa described her water trips, starting from age seven, wherein her family would expect her to walk innumerable kilometers to school, back home, to the closest well and then back home.

“The culture dictates that women and girls are supposed to make sure that there is water and food for the entire family—doesn’t matter the distance,” she said. Wamalwa strongly recalls feeling how this expectation was for women and girls, but recalls that she was able to bear with it by promising herself that one day she would make a difference and bring change to her community.

Photograph of the NY Times’ “Washing Up: Ensuring Universal Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” 11/08/2021, featuring Gary White.

Water.org and Water Equity: Matt Damon’s Organizations Are Closing the Poverty Gap in Water Accessibility

“The poorest of the poor pay the most for water,” White said.

He defined the time, money and energy lost in finding water as a waste of economic potential which, with his and Damon’s organization, he plans on retrieving. “We want to buy back that efficiency.”

Water.org is a nonprofit that works to ensure safe, accessible and cost-effective water resources for the global population through affordable financing programs. As White and Damon explain, their organization relies on a loan-based model, using its own WaterCredit program of zero-interest loans. So far, 40 million people have taken loans from Water.org, among which 80% are women, with a staggering loan return rate of 99%.

“The goal is to allow millions to take control of their own lives,” Damon said. “We see them as human beings, or even as customers, not as a beneficiary relationship like so many patronizing systems out there. It turns out that if we just nudge the market they can do the rest themselves.”

Photograph of the NY Times’ “Washing Up: Ensuring Universal Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” 11/08/2021, featuring Matt Damon.

To further illustrate with a real-life example, White told the audience about one particular woman. Every day, this woman went and collected water in her local area for $2, which approximately translates into $60 monthly. After taking out a loan with Water.org and investing it in a water supply system that costs her $5 per month, she was easily able to pay back the loan and now saves $55 every month. It was emphasized that they aren’t merely gifting out of charity but, rather, are using loans as a long-term investment which allows for the people to use their time and savings on their own lives, education and careers. The Water.org website states that the organization is based in 11 different countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America— reaching 15.6 million people in India alone— and partnered with 149 locally based institutions dedicated to serving people living in poverty.

Photograph of the NY Times’ “Washing Up: Ensuring Universal Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” 11/08/2021, featuring Gary White.

Addressing Damon and White, Wamalwa offered two pieces of advice. First, she reminded them that “these women really have the potential to address the challenges on the ground.” And second, Wamalwa invited them “to create a platform that involves [the women] in decision making, creating a platform for them to own these projects of sustainability.”

COVID-19, Water Accessibility and the Climate Crisis

Inevitably, the moderator asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people with limited water access. Responding to Alderman, Damon confirmed that these people were disproportionately affected by the virus.

“The first thing they said when Covid started was ‘wash your hands;’ they didn’t have access to safe water. They couldn't do that,” Damon said. Good hygiene is the first, most important defense against most viruses, thus countries with restricted access to clean water face significantly higher contamination risks.

Further, he explained that while many water shipments were sent to areas in need through other organizations, much of it gets lost along the way: “Only 2% of infrastructures investments are going towards water.”

The major issue of insufficient or outdated infrastructure supporting water access and distribution in sub-Saharan Africa was also documented by B.P. Anand, an environmental economist from Britain’s Bradford Centre for International Development. According to White and the organization’s findings, the true waste is a result of  “carbon footprint and waste of infrastructure to get, treat and move water only to waste it for bad equipment.”

“Affordable Water is a Human Right”

To conclude the panel, Alderman invited the audience to ask the guests four questions on lost funding, drought and scaling obstacles. Among these, the last was the most controversial. It was less of a question and more of a statement coming from a self-described contrarian who declared that he “do[es] not believe free access to clean water should be a right” and questioned whether there was a water crisis at all. The three guests immediately pitched in to respond that water should be accessible to all and that the crisis is, indeed, very real.

Photograph of the NY Times’ “Washing Up: Ensuring Universal Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” 11/08/2021, featuring fourth audience member with question.

First to respond was Damon, reiterating that while it might not be as apparent for people in the West, “it's certainly a crisis for the people [he is] working with.” Vis-a-vis the scaling question, and why there isn’t more of it with such a great business model, Damon admitted that Water.org needs more capital and seized the opportunity to call for more investors at the panel.

In agreement with his partner, White added that “affordable water is absolutely a human right.” White went on to address the other questions, explaining that though drought is a very real risk, their organization is investing and will continue to invest in their water systems’ maintenance.

Wamalwa pitched in on the lost fundings issue, confirming that this is, unfortunately, a common reality. Water Integrity Global Outlook 2021 estimated that between 6% and 26% of total WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) expenditure is lost to corruption on a yearly basis; a loss of between $6.8 billion and $30 billion. Wamalwa encouraged people to invest in grassroots local organizations like her own to avoid major loss in large organizations where the donations only barely trickle down to those in need. Expanding further, Wamalwa emphasized that this isn't merely a water issue, but also has to do with the fact that “ some women just don’t get access to loans.” Helping them to achieve water access is great, but helping the women themselves to become self-reliant is even better.

On a closing note, Alderman addressed the audience and ended the panel with the statement, “The water crisis is real, getting more real day by day, but there are solutions.”