Matt Damon, ONE and a Tractable Global Problem

07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Co-authored with Katryn Bowe

More than 90,000 Americans have signed an unprecedented petition to the Senate in support of global access to clean water and sanitation. The petition calls for more Senators to join Sen. Durbin and Sen. Corker to sponsor the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009 (S.624), a landmark bill that would commit the United States to providing 100 million people with first-time, sustainable access to clean water and sanitation by 2015.

The advocacy organization ONE galvanized the campaign with the help of Matt Damon, a clean water champion. "Water is one of the smartest poverty fighting investments we can make," wrote Damon. ONE needs only ten thousand more signatures to reach its goal of 100,000.

The outpouring of support reveals the growing momentum for solving this global crisis. More journalists, universities, and politicians than ever are beginning to recognize how shameful it is that the United States has not done more on behalf of this preventable issue. And they are acting -- louder than in recent memory -- to do something about it.

884 million people in the world lack access to safe water, and 2.4 billion people do not even have a proper latrine to dispose of their human waste. This creates a catastrophic burden on women in developing countries (who must walk miles to fetch water), causes 1.6 million children to die of diarrhea yearly and chokes economic growth.

The solutions are known and affordable -- but will only be used if there is enough political commitment to funding them. Universal access to water and sanitation is still a pipe dream for many poorer countries, especially nations in Africa. At the current rate the African continent will not even cut in half the proportion of those living without access to sanitation until 2076. This is an international travesty, but the US Government is in a position to kick-start momentum so as to greatly reduce the burden of the international safe drinking water and sanitation crisis.

Already the petition is having an impact. Since the start of the campaign three weeks ago, four Senators have signed on as co-sponsors, bringing the total to 10. The petition delivery is scheduled for this week and advocates hope more Senators will sign on. The related bill (H.R.2030) has been introduced in the House by Rep. Blumenauer of Oregon, and has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

This bipartisan legislation is critical for the water, sanitation and health community. If the American public and politicians commit to solving the water and sanitation crisis, the Millennium Development Goals would be closer to being reached and a push can be made for universal access to water and sanitation -- the ultimate goal.

The legislation builds off of the ground-breaking Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which made addressing the water and sanitation challenge a priority of US international development policy.

We all saw how public support for AIDS was a catalyst for life-saving action. Now the same might be done for water and sanitation.