A Kansas City Social Entrepreneur Says Global Water Crisis Can Be Solved In His Lifetime

Oct 19, 2017

In a world where 884 million people don’t have access to water and 2.2 billion people don’t have sanitary toilet facilities, ending the global water crisis seems like a lofty goal.

But Gary White—whose nonprofit organizations have so far reached 7 million people—believes providing access to safe water and sanitation for all people can be achieved in his lifetime.

“It is doable,” White told host Steve Kraske on a recent edition of KCUR's Up to Date. “We solved this problem in the U.S. and in Europe more than 100 years ago. It's not rocket science. We're not looking for a silver bullet. We know how to do this.”

White co-founded WaterPartners in 1990, which merged in 2009 with an organization founded by actor Matt Damon to form Water.org. Damon may have the more famous name. But as CEO, White heads up the organization in Kansas City, where he oversees operations in 14 countries on three continents.

White has been recognized with numerous social entrepreneurship awards and he has degrees in civil and environmental engineering. But White’s innovative work is less about plumbing than it is about banking, providing financing for those in need, and investment opportunities for those who are able to support Water.org’s social investments.

Since its founding, Water.org has raised money through donations. The WaterCredit program disperses those funds through microfinancing, making small loans for individual household water and sanitation solutions in developing nations. But White says it was time to scale up that effort to include investors looking for a tangible return, so he created WaterEquity, a social impact fund. The fund's latest project seeks to attract $50 million in investments.

“Investors are willing to take a little bit more risk than they would normally, but to get a huge social return,” White says. “And in this case, more than four million people will get access to water over the course of seven years using those funds. And if it goes as we think it will, all the investors will be repaid and they’ll also get a financial return in the neighborhood of three percent.”

While that return isn’t guaranteed, White says his organization’s microloans have generally had a repayment rate “in the mid-90 percent range,” and he expects success. He shared a typical example on Up to Date:

I was just in Lima, Peru, a few months ago. I met a woman there who was living in the slums and she had just taken out a loan for a water connection at her house. It was about $300. And before she had that water faucet in her home she was walking down the mountainside to this big jug she had. And every day a big tanker truck would come by and fill that jug with water she would scoop it out bucket by bucket and carry it back up the hill. She was paying 13 times more per gallon of water from that vendor than she is now paying for water that comes right from her faucet in her home. So you can see the inefficiency of this in these coping costs that people pay. And it's all for want of having a little bit of capital because she could pay 20, 30 cents a day for that water from the vendor,  but she couldn't afford the $300 to connect to the utility.

Water.org also supports research and does advocacy work with governments, non-governmental organizations and global conferences, where White is often joined by his Academy Award-winning co-founder. White says he’s happy to share the spotlight with Damon, who he says is “very down to earth.”

“He is literally one of the world's water experts now because of how he’s immersed himself in this issue,” White says.

This article is part of KCUR's Innovation KC series. For more interviews with Kansas City innovators, visit www.kcur.org/innovationkc.

Brian Ellison is host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri and a contributor to news coverage. He can be reached by email or found on Twitter, @ptsbrian.