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March 13, 2011

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Water on the brain

Nearly 890 million people lack access to safe water and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease.

Though solutions and technology are readily available, the problem persists because there's little awareness of the link between unsafe water and illness. And most people don't recognize the magnitude of the problem.

World Water Day on March 22 aims to raise that awareness of water and sanitation.

Representatives of, a nonprofit organization cofounded by Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon, arrived in Shanghai last weekend to help raise awareness.

"The big problem is not an issue that awaits a remedial breakthrough or a technological breakthrough," said Keith Stamm, the COO of

"It's just capital-constrained for lack of awareness of the problem," Stamm said at a safe water competition among MBA schools. The objective was to come up with new business models that help more people and also reduce the need for charitable grants.

The global competition was launched by and Hult International Business School. The Asia regional competition among 20 teams was held on March 5 at the Shanghai International Studies University.

The winner for Asia was the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Winners from each region will compete in New York next month to present their ideas to judges, including former US President Bill Clinton.

The winner gets US$1 million to put their innovative ideas into practice with

"We envision a day when everyone can have safe water," says on its website.

The gravity of the problem motivated Damon to found the organization and use his celebrity to make more people aware of world's water crisis. He frequently gives public speeches and recently has encouraged more donations to help Haiti earthquake survivors who are suffering from water-borne diseases, including cholera.

To raise funds Damon has designed limited-edition metal water bottles; proceeds from sales go to safe-water projects in developing nations, arose in 2009 in the merger of WaterPartners, founded in 1990, and H20 Africa.

It has helped transform hundreds of communities in Africa, South Asia, and Central America by providing access to safe water and sanitation.

It aims to help 10 million people over the next five years, and potentially 100 million people.

Safe water is completely do-able, says What's needed is individual commitment and political will.

Stamm shared with Shanghai Daily his ideas on water issues.

Q: Does have plans to help poor people in western China get safe water?

A: Our co-founder Gary White visited a couple years ago but our current focus is on areas where need is greatest - right now in Africa, India, Bangladesh and parts of South America.

Q: What role does Matt Damon play?

A: He does not participate in daily activities, but he has done a tremendous amount to raise awareness of the issue. is fairly well-known at institutions within the United States, but we are not as well-known at the grassroots level, so the role he plays is critical.

Q: What are some of your innovations and successes?

A: We are best-known for providing micro-finance to communities that lack safe water and have no credit history with a bank. We typically lend to groups, so if one of the five or six people doesn't pay, the others, their neighbors, must pay on their behalf. Loan repayment rates globally are very high, nearly 99 percent.

Q: What's the most challenging part of your work?

A: The most difficult part is to raise awareness of the issue. The solutions have been available for decades. But there hasn't been awareness. I have been with the organization for three years, but before that I was not aware of the magnitude of the problem. Many Westerners take water for granted.

Q: Are there fund-raising problems?

A: There's never enough philanthropic capital. Among the 900 million people who don't have access to safe water, there's some portion that are actually in a position to take out loans to help themselves - if we can provide that type of arrangement (micro-finance). In other parts of the world that structure does not work, either because income levels are too low, or the capital markets there just don't have the same micro-finance capacity. So in those areas we use much more philanthropic capital.

Q: What can ordinary people do to help?

A: Raise awareness. Often there is no awareness of the connections between unsafe water and illness. Because water-born diseases are microbial, it's not something you can look for - like if you touch a hot stone, you know immediately. There's an impact. So raising awareness is absolutely the first step.

Q: Is there a best business model for water sanitation?

A: First and foremost, there has to be alignment of the expectations of the provider's capital, what it will do, and the demand for those services. One of the things that we do in the remediation area is to help ensure capital is deployed in a way that meets both sides' expectations. We have to align expectations and provide transparency in terms of the deployment of that capital. That's on the side of the providers. On the demand side, we work locally, making sure that the type of solutions that are being offered is a cultural fit. We always work with local organizations that have local knowledge, local relations, and understand what works and what does not work.


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