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When we woke up Sunday morning to catch the political talk shows, we expected plenty of talk about Ukraine and the lost Malaysian airplane. We didn’t quite anticipate a conversation about clean water with Matt Damon.
Or a startling statistic worth fact-checking. How do you like them apples? (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.)
Damon appeared on ABC’s This Week to discuss the serious issue of clean water scarcity in developing countries, a plight he has personally sought to impact through the charity he co-founded, Water.org.
"Every 20 seconds, a child dies because they lack access to clean water and sanitation," Damon said. "Every 20 seconds, three kids every minute somewhere on planet Earth. Not here. Our kids aren't going to die from diarrhea. That's just an inconvenience to us in the West. But it is a stark, terrifying reality to billions of people on the planet."
One child dying every 20 seconds amounts to 4,320 deaths every day, or roughly 1.5 million deaths a year. It’s a jarring statistic, but is it accurate? We decided to investigate.
We reached out to Water.org to see if they had source material to back up Damon’s stat. We didn’t hear back.
But we did find the number on their website. There, the organization put the figure at one death every 21 seconds.
Water.org cited research from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and a report released by the two agencies in 2009. It paints a pretty stark picture of the issue.
Due to poor sanitation conditions in much of the developing world, millions of people are risking their health virtually every time they take a sip of water. Infection in the intestinal tract from tainted water often leads to diarrhea, defined as the passage of three or more loose or liquid stools per day. It can last days or weeks, and if persistent can cause death due to fluid loss. Young children are especially at risk because of their weaker immune systems.
According to the report, there are 2.5 billion (yes, that’s billion with a "b") cases of diarrhea every year in children under the age of five. It’s the second leading cause of child deaths in the world after pneumonia, taking the lives "more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined," it says. Half the cases are in South Asia and Africa.
Just how many lives does it take? The report put the total at 1.5 million. Water.org on their website acknowledged that this statistic – deaths from diarrhea among children under five – is the number they used to claim a death every 20 seconds.
So that’s where the figure comes from.
But it’s outdated, we found.
The report came out in 2009, but it was referencing World Health Organization statistics from 2004. There has actually been considerable adavancement since then, in part because of an international effort to improve sanitation and hygiene awareness in developing countries.
More recently, the World Health Organization has estimated deaths from diarrhea have fallen to about 760,000 a year, half of what it was less than a decade ago. UNICEF has cited the newer statistic as well, as does the Center for Disease Control in the United States.
That would mean a child dies every 40 seconds from water-related illness. Still a harrowing statistic, but not quite what Damon said.
Damon said, "Every 20 seconds, a child dies because they lack access to clean water and sanitation." The Bourne series star appears to be using an outdated statistic in his ABC appearance that claimed 1.5 million deaths from diarrhea caused by tainted water. More recent reports put the number at about 760,000 deaths a year.
That said, Damon is accurately highlighting a little-known problem to an American audience. The statement ignores subsequent improvements but does not give viewers a different impression of the seriousness of the issue. On balance, we rate this claim Half True.
ABC News, "Matt Damon: ‘Real Opportunity’ to Save People through Clean Water," March 23, 2014
Water.org, Water Facts, accessed March 23, 2014
The United Nations Children’s Fund/World Health Organization, "Diarrhoea: Why children are still dying and what can be done," 2009
World Health Organization, "Safer Water, Better Health," 2009
Search query on child deaths through World Health Organization Global Health Observatory Data Repository, accessed March 23, 2014
World Health Organization, "Facts and figures: Water, sanitation and hygiene links to health," accessed March 23, 2014
World Health Organization, Water-related diseases, accessed March 23, 2014
World Health Organization, Diarrhoeal Disease Fact Sheet, updated April 2013
Center for Disease Control, Maternal and child health, updated March 5, 2014
The United Nations Children’s Fund, "Children dying daily because of unsafe water supplies and poor sanitation and hygiene, UNICEF says," March 22, 2013
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