“More people have a cell phone than a toilet on planet Earth,” Matt Damon told a large crowd at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Tuesday.
The actor’s point was that water as a “human right” is an unappreciated concept to those with easy access to it, whereas in some parts of the world children cannot read because their job is to collect water for the family, a chore that leaves no time for academics.
Damon, co-founder of Water.org, was mostly pitching his organization’s WaterCredits, whereby loans are made to communities, entrepreneurs and individuals at interest rates of up to 24 percent — as opposed to 150 percent from “loan sharks” — with the money used to better meet their water needs.
Damon said 98 percent of the loans are paid back because people are freed to work and earn wages when they are not consumed with locating and gathering water. Repaid loans are used to make further loans elsewhere.
Access to capital — though Damon said lenders can profit by partnering with Water.org — is one problem Damon identified during his remarks, but even more basic than that is just helping people to understand that water scarcity is even a problem.
To that end, he enlisted the help of some celebrity friends who cut a funny video advancing Damon’s StrikeWithMe effort, which asks people to stop using the toilet until the water crisis is solved. The tongue-in-cheek videos, one of which he showed Tuesday, serve the serious purpose of spreading the word.
“It’s expensive to be poor,” Damon said, noting that those who purchase WaterCredits are happy to get them. He also said the world’s poor have “different capabilities” and his organization is in part targeting the many who “can participate in their own destiny.”
Damon also announced Tuesday a $1 million gift to Water.org from Stephen Cloobeck, chairman of Diamond Resorts International.
The panel was hosted by CNBC anchor Brian Sullivan and included Mehmood Khan, chief scientific officer for PepsiCo; Usha Rao-Monari, CEO of Global Water Development Partners; and Gary White CEO of Water.org.
“The first hurdle we have to clear is just explain the problem,” Damon said.