(Image Credit: ourquadcities.com)
At the time of this writing, 771 million people in the world lack access to safe water, while an even greater number of humanity – 1.7 billion people –lack access to a toilet. An unlikely combination of a water engineer-activist, and one of the most popular Hollywood actors embarked on a quest to remedy the unacceptable deficiency, or even, travesty, that denied a teeming mass of people from accessing the most basic and fundamental necessity of life. Braving skepticism and besting insurmountable odds, this intrepid duo converted crises into opportunities, juxtaposed innovation with invention and unrelentingly made the issue of resolving the water crises a personal passion before succeeding in getting accessibility to water to more than a whopping 40 million people all over the globe. Yet, they are the first to acknowledge that their mission is not even close to completion.
“The Worth of Water” is the story of how Gary White and Matt Damon embarked on an extraordinary mission to change lives of people whose predominant activity every day lay in trudging miles – braving inclement weather – to draw a few containers of water to carry on with their basic needs such as cooking and bathing. Meeting at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2008, in a humongous hangar redesigned into a meeting space for social entrepreneurs, White and Damon pledged to bring a change to the segment of the population that needed it the most.
Blending the tenets of microfinance as initially instituted by Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank initiative in Bangladesh (whereby hundreds of thousands of women were empowered and thereby unshackled from the perniciousness of poverty), – interestingly Yunus himself expressed skepticism at the role that could be played by Micro Finance Institutions in lending for water and sanitation – and venture philanthropy, White and Damon using their organisation Water.org and funding arm, Water Equity, provided ‘loans’ to people who were constrained from having sustained access to water and who were forced to spend a predominant chunk of their income “procuring water” from water tankers and other sources operated by unscrupulous middlemen and rentiers. These loans, as meagre as $137 transformed the lives of the borrowers. A tap that gives constantly and without complaint perpetrated a virtuous cycle. Girls who were forced to abandon schools began topping classes, women liberated from the stress of scouring water became self-made entrepreneurs and the empowered in turn began empowering their brethren by ‘sharing’ their tap, hence extrapolating the virtuous cycle.
The loan repayment record is jaw dropping. Out of the 43 million people who received micro loans to enable water connections to their houses, 99% of the loans were repaid, and 88% of the loan receivers were women.
Damon recounts a very interesting episode where he manifests at the doorstep of the Central Bank of India, the Reserve Bank and goads the authorities to include Water & Sanitation as one of the Priority Sectors to which funds could be lent. Incredibly, he succeeded in his audacious endeavour and now water and sanitation is earmarked as a priority sector to which funds could be lent by various banks across India.
Writing alternate Chapters, White and Damon enlighten readers to certain incredible facts to which a great majority of the people are oblivious to. For example, an unforgivable 50% of water is lost as it winds its way from processing plants and water distribution systems in poor nations. The water crisis the authors aver ought to be tackled by using considering the issue as a ‘market’ norm than a ‘social’ norm. This paradigm shift in thinking is critical because if the subject is treated as a social issue, the reliance would be on philanthropy. Philanthropy like the turn of seasons also evolves depending upon the prevailing mores as well as novelty. Hence water and sanitation might not always be top of the charts for donors. But if treating the water crisis was to be made into an ‘investment’ opportunity with returns mirroring those fetched by the market, then investors would be more willing to place their bet on innovative ideas.
The best wisdom which the author duo impart to potential investors and all those looking to make an impact, is the tenet that water and sanitation projects built WITH the community always prospers whereas similar projects that are built FOR the community may not always take off. For example, a whole horde of wells dug using sophisticated equipment, courtesy USAID are today in a non-functional and neglected state. This is because these wells are constructed and contrived by a trifecta of sophistication – sophisticated equipment, sophisticated engineers and sophisticated ideas. Even a simple malfunction would ensure that a community using the well in say, Nigeria or Uganda is rendered baffled and since there is no way the battery of the same engineers can be flown down to repair the wells, they remain in a perpetual state of disrepair. Working with the community on the other hand, ensures that the people have hands on experience in building the project and hence are in a more advantageous and capable position in terms of repairs and maintenance.
The next time you let the tap water run while having a leisurely shave, please remember the story of Bodamma in Andhra Pradesh, India. A single tap which is worshipped by her – literally with a miniature garland curling around the tap and incense sticks burning in front. Bodamma’s God not just lifted her out of the quicksand of poverty but also set in motion a chain which encompassed within its ambit the virtues of education, employment and hope.