Matt Damon leans on Davos delegates to solve world's water shortage

Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon took centre stage at the World Economic Forum to launch a campaign to combat water scarcity. Photo / AP
Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon took centre stage at the World Economic Forum to launch a campaign to combat water scarcity. Photo / AP

As 3,000 delegates trudged through thick Davos snow to meetings and parties, one thing they were not short of was water. But that did not stop the Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon taking centre stage to launch a campaign to combat water scarcity.

It is an issue that is threatening developing economies around the world in a way that risks spilling over to the rest of the world. Water scarcity has been a regular feature in the World Economic Forum's list of top threats for the past seven years.

Damon is trying to change this through water.org, the company established by the star in 2009 with Gary White, an engineer and entrepreneur. It uses private money to do public good, helping some of the 663 million people who do not have access to clean water.

Research by the World Bank shows "water stress" could knock up to 6 percentage points off growth in some regions by 2050. This was likely to cause "extreme societal stress" in regions such as the Middle East and, in extreme scenarios, trigger mass migration as families relocate to find water and survive.

In short, a lack of clean water is a "risk multiplier" that is contributing to the issues shaping the world today, including the continuing refugee crisis. Dominic Waughray, a member of the WEF's executive committee, says unless industry takes action to tackle this issue, the damage to the global economy could be much greater.

"When you look at an economy, it's a thirsty thing," he says. "By 2030, if we don't change the way we use the water that we have on this planet, there will be a 40 per cent gap between the water that is safely available to grow those economies and what we have. That is a choke point, plain and simple."

The World Bank has forecast that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050, as climate change and competition from energy generation take their toll. Being able to turn a tap on with clean water remains a luxury in many parts of the world.

Water.org provides "water credit", giving families in the developing world access to microfinance so they can put a toilet in their house, or walk for hours each day just to bring a couple of buckets of water home. Close to a million loans have been disbursed so far, and Damon highlights that nine out of ten borrowers are women.

As well as buying access to clean water, most borrowers save time. Many women in the developing world can use this time to work. The extra money they earn can be used to pay their loans off more quickly and build even more of the infrastructure needed to remain hydrated and healthy.

The WHO estimates that time spent gathering water around the world translates to $24bn in "lost economic benefits" each year. Initiatives like Damon's help to reduce this number, as well as the burden on the public purse, both now and in the future.
Damon has used his celebrity status to publicise his cause: "One of the first hurdles we have in the west is that it's really hard for people to relate to this. If you grow up in Europe or America, chances are you've never been thirsty in your entire life, and you've never been more than five metres away from a clean drink of water."

Two years ago, Damon found an unlikely partner in AB InBev, the maker of Stella Artois beer and one of the largest brewers in the world. AB InBev is now pledging to provide six months of clean water for someone for every pack of beer bought from next month. The aim is to raise the number of people helped through this initiative to 3.5 million by 2020, from 800,000 today.

The company is also trying to reduce its own water use. "My real hope, and suspicion too, is that this is going to be good for Stella's bottom line, because that is a really big signifier to other corporations," Damon said. "I think the generation coming behind me is way more engaged and aware of these problems, and if all things are equal and you are telling me I can go to a bar with my friends and I can order a pint of Stella and change someone's life on the other side of the world, I think that could really make an impact."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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