Despite a hydrodam’s flow reduction at Ethiopia’s Tissisat Falls, the Bue Nile, which starts here, contributes 85 percent of the volume of the Nile River when it joins the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan.
If man fails to honor the rivers,
he shall not gain life from them.
— The Code of Hammurabi, 1760 B.C.
Our planet’s rivers have long attracted intrepid explorers. In the early nineteenth century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s exploration of the relationship of sources of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers changed American maps. In 1862, British explorer Sir Richard Burton battled malaria and runaway porters in his quest to find the elusive source of the Nile, while John Hamming Speke, his second-in-command, rushed to London to claim that honor. In the past decade, a team led by Explorers Club Fellow Ned Strong finally confirmed a mere trickle flowing down the Nevado Mismi, a 5,597-meter (18,363-foot) mountain in southern Peru, as the source of the Amazon.
As sources of fresh water and corridors of movement and communication, rivers are vital to human life. Yet, today half the world lives in water-stressed conditions. Although recycled, our water supply is finite. If human population continues to increase at its current rate, water usage is predicted to double by 2050, leaving 1.7 billion to suffer from hydrological poverty.
As an environmental photographer and conservationist, I’ve witnessed the vulnerability of our planet’s fresh water supply, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, in 2007, I created No Water No Life (NWNL), a long-term, expedition-based project. Its mission is to combine the powers of photography and science to raise awareness of freshwater values, monitor watershed degradation, and identify sustainable management solutions.
Many local fishermen ignore warnings of industrial pollution in New Jersey’s Lower Raritan River. Yet in the clear upstream reaches, fly fishermen come from far and wide to catch heritage brown trout.
Since its launch, the NWNL project has researched and documented six watersheds: North America’s Columbia, Mississippi, and Raritan River Basins; and Africa’s Nile, Mara, and Omo River Basins. Our team photographers, scientists, educators, and researchers have backgrounds in natural resource management, conservation biology, restoration and forest ecology, and curriculum development.
Since 2007, NWNL has completed twelve expeditions to these watersheds, covering six nations and tracing two transboundary rivers from their source to outlet. From Kenya’s Mau Forest to Tanzania’s Lace Victoria, our Mara River Expedition focused on deforestation, unregulated water extraction, drought, and loss of riverine corridors— all threats to the watershed’s renowned wildebeest migration and megafauna.
From Canada’s Rockies to the U.S. Pacific Coast, our Columbia River Expedition examined salmon, agricultural extraction, and melting glaciers in the world’s most heavily dammed river basin.
NWNL has journeyed to five of the ten Nile River Basin countries, long fraught with transboundary riparian conflict. In the 1970s, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat warned that any reduction of his country’s share of Nile waters could lead to war—tension that continues to simmer today. Our Omo River expeditions during low-water and flood seasons studied impacts of Ethiopia’s five proposed dams jeopardizing the indigenous livelihoods of 500,000 stakeholders downstream.
In the Mississippi River Basin, NWNL has documented water filtration and retention in its headwater ecosystems and other hotspots, including the Yazoo Delta and levee-bound river towns. Documentation of New Jersey’s densely populated Raritan River reveals degradation caused by invasive species, wide usage of impervious surfaces, and 200 years of industrial pollution, which has created numerous Superfund sites.
The results of our NWNL expeditions are widely shared with adult and student audiences via print media, Internet, exhibits, and lectures. Our research, stakeholder interviews, and imagery frame the role of humans in nature, supporting a message that promotes watershed protection and reduced water consumption.
NWNL expeditions gather upstream-downstream solutions from the United States, Canada, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania that we share as we foster new river-to-river partnerships. In Africa, where water is unevenly distributed by nature and unfairly allocated by humans, NWNL supports stewards just learning to voice their concerns. In North America, stewards and polluters appreciate NWNL publicity covering their management solutions and mitigation efforts.
Innovative technical solutions include using nanotechnology sponges to clean dirty water, adopting more efficient irrigation practices, using wave power rather than hydro dams, harvesting rainwater, and recycling “gray” and “black” water. Ecological solutions include wetland restoration and reforestation.
Perhaps most importantly, NWNL focuses on the responsibility each of us has to reduce our own water consumption. We publicize issues such as the “virtual water content” of our purchases. The production of a cotton T-shirt, for instance consumes 766 gallons of water; a hamburger represents 650 gallons; and a Florida golf game requires 3,000 gallons. Other individual solutions range from adoption of low-flow toilets to the tending of drought-tolerant gardens. Without such changes, our rivers become dry; water wars will develop; and millions more will die from water-related diseases.
Every creature on Earth needs water. Our survival depends on acknowledging that as a universal right. As T. H. Watkins once wrote, “This world and its creatures were not presented to us; we were joined to them in the exquisite saraband of life. The arrangement was never meant to be a conquest; and it is more deeply complex than a responsibility. It is a sharing.”
A Member of The Explorers Club, Alison M. Jones is an environmental photographer. The author would like to thank The Explorers Club, the Scott Pearlman Field Grant, and WINGS WorldQuest for expedition support.