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Changing the World One Drop at a Time:
An Interview with No Water No Life
by Nico Prins, with photos by Alison M. Jones, NWNL
March 22 is World Water Day. It is a day when the governments and the people of the world come together to support concrete activities regarding the world’s water resources. I interviewed Alison Jones from No Water No Life and asked her to share her experiences and highlight some of the most pressing water related issues that the organisation is focused on in North America and Africa.
Kenya: African elephants crossing the Mara River, Maasai Mara National Reserve
1. Can you explain the reasoning/ inspiration behind the creation of No Water No Life?
Growing up in the rolling hills of Hunterdon County NJ and in a creative family, I began my photographic career focused on nature, but became more and more concerned about our natural resources. So I became a conservation photographer, working with conservation and rural development projects in East Africa. After helping found Kenya’s Mara Conservancy 15 years ago, I spent months copiloting a small Cessna low over sub-Sahara Africa where I saw a brown continent strewn with green ribbons–the lakeshores and rivers. That’s where all the wildlife and people were. It was obvious: No Water No Life. I had the title for a project.
Ethiopia: Lower Omo River Basin, Omo Delta at low water stage, leading herd to water
Kenya: Mara River Expedition, local man with wood cut from Mau Forest on his bike
With the help of enthusiastic science advisors, No Water No Life was formed, combining the power of photography and science to raise awareness of our fresh water resources. We chose six case-study watersheds in North America and Africa that taken together demonstrate the value and vulnerability of the world’s watersheds. They are North America’s Columbia, Mississippi and Raritan River Basins and Africa’s Nile, Omo and Mara River Basins. Our unit of study is the whole river basin, because what happens on the land is what determines the quantity and quality of the water in our rivers. [Hereafter, I’ll refer to No Water No Life as NWNL.]
The work of the organisation is broken down into three distinct but very broad goals, which are to:
– Document the availability, usage and quality of critical freshwater resources;
– Educate stakeholders via publications, lectures, exhibits and educational tools;
– Foster partnerships within and across geopolitical boundaries.
2. Can you explain a bit more about the work of No Water No Life and how the organisation is realising these three goals?
Our documentation includes still imagery, video footage and taped interviews with watershed scientists, stewards and stakeholders. The latter is a feature we call “Voices of the River.”
While everyone lives in a watershed, not everyone understands that water available for a rapidly growing global population is finite. Global water use has tripled since 1950; and by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise 56% above the amount available. We need to do a better job of keeping our water drinkable and fishable. There’s no time to waste in seeking sustainable watershed management solutions.
The NWNL website is a go-to resource. We post on various social media. We have a blog. We lecture to all ages from Kindergarteners to seniors. We’ve had exhibits hung from the eastern US to western Canada. We photograph watershed threats and interview scientists, stewards and stakeholders about sustainable management solutions.
NWNL feels it’s important to share management approaches upstream and downstream, from river to river, and across oceans. Stewardship efforts we’ve seen range from stream monitoring to water recycling to wetlands restoration to reductions in individual, industrial and agricultural water consumption. Our new NWNL Spotlight feature will document imminent water crises in other watersheds that can serve as a resource for others. For instance, California’s 3-year drought warns of the consequences of dwindling water supplies on municipal water supplies, irrigation needs and fish populations. Looking at how California municipalities and its Central Valley cope will hopefully foster constructive partnerships and solutions elsewhere.
US Washington, Columbia River Basin, aerial view from helicopter of Grand Coulee Dam
3. No Water No Life runs case study expeditions along some of the largest river basins in Africa and North America. Can you give me an overview of how the organisation prepares for an expedition, how it identifies stakeholders to work with and how it chooses where to visit?
First – thank heavens for Google and Google maps! Planning an expedition is like solving a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the puzzle picture looks like. The process seems impossible at first, but then falls in place, piece by piece. We start by referencing our research on local issues per our in-house Watershed Report template. Then our basic process is as follows:
Canada: British Columbia, Kinbasket Lake Resevoir druing low water level
1. Determine Dates, Sponsors and In-kind Donors
2. Assemble a Team: The field team will hopefully include a filmmaker, and the office team member will post images and progress on social media and stay in contact with interviewees.
3. Contact Interviewees: The biggest key to setting our itinerary is determining local stakeholders and agencies to visit. They are the experts we rely on to clarify what should be documented and to suggest others to contact.
4. Choose Sites and Consider Travel Logistics (i.e., river crossings, mileage, and driving times): Contingency days are essential to being able to absorb whatever comes up en route! Examples are below with specific snafus we’ve faced in parentheses.
– Appointments cancelled last-minute (A meeting with the Choctaw on water rights was changed to a tour of their language school due to a court Gag Order)
– Chosen sites closing unexpectedly (US September 2013 Government Shutdown meant no interviews at National Parks, Labs or Fisheries!)
– Car breakdowns and cancelled flights (Our Ohio River Expedition car was totaled by a deer),
– Laundry (no joke!)
– Time every night to journal, download imagery, back up downloads and recharge gear (yawn!)
– Bad weather (The “MyWarn” app for cell phones helps in tornado country.)
– Getting sick (Avoid getting malaria and tick bite fever at the same time!)
– Replacing gear (i.e., the camera meter doesn’t work, the video-cam gear jams…)
5. Pay all bills and go!
– Be rested before departure
– Get any needed visas, shots and malaria prophylactics.
– Pack backup clothing and equipment, meds for all possible needs, power strips and converters needed for charging electronics
– Be sure to have arranged a safe water supply source and access to Sat phone or in-country phone/Sim Card if necessary
Kenya: Mara River Expedition, Kalenjin villagers collecting water from a new well
6. Post Expedition: Returning home does not mean the expedition has ended! The information acquired is worth nothing if it’s not edited, captioned, catalogued and then disseminated.
– Organize, edit and file all images (to be captioned), videos (to be transcribed), handouts and model releases (to be filed).
– Write thank you notes to interviewees and all in-kind donors.
– Contact sponsors with verbal report.
– Complete written report, actualized itinerary, bibliography and lists of contacts, species and sites, rivers, lakes and other watershed features visited.
USA: New Jersey, Lower Raritan River as seen from NY/NJ Baykeeper boat, former JCP&L coal-fired power plant (closed in 1970), now a conversion plant under Reliant with 4 power combustion engines
4. Although it is an incredibly broad question, what are the biggest problems – if there are any cross cutting issues – that the organisation has seen on its expeditions along African river basins?
It is a broad question! Pollution and climate extremes are certainly global. NWNL also looks at:
– Impacts of infrastructure (i.e.: dams and levees)
– Loss of wetlands, forests and biodiversity – all of which contribute to deterioration of water availability and quality
– Growth in global population and thus increasing water needs
– Agriculture: its consumption of 75% of our fresh water resources and its polluting pesticides and fertilizers
– Energy industries: their levels of water consumption and polluting risks to our water supplies
– Waste treatment systems: their inefficiencies and outdated infrastructure (specifically CSO’s – combined sewer overflows), as well as their potential for water recycling
A Dassanech tribal elder on Ethiopia’s Omo River, perhaps pondering the gift of water and the hours women spent collecting it for his village.
5. What are the major differences and similarities in issues affecting river basins that No Water No Life has identified in its expeditions in Africa compared to those it undertakes in North America?
One big water-related problem Africa faces that North America doesn’t face for the most part is a lack of access to water. One big water-related problem Africa faces that North America doesn’t – for the most part – is a lack of access to water. Rural women in Africa walk average of 8 hours daily, and urban households pay 5 times more for water than US households. But despite the many differences in developing and developed regions, there are many similar watershed problems in North America and Africa, including:
USA: Louisiana, Aerial photo of Atchafalaya Basin area, St Martin Parish, bald cypress standing in water
– Climate Change: Floods destroy human communities, infrastructure and crops. Droughts reduce food production and decimate livestock herds. Extreme storms and changing weather patterns and rhythms mean farmers can no longer predict when to plant and livestock ranchers/ nomadic herders don’t know where or when there will be good grazing. Globally now people aren’t able to rely on traditional groundwater or surface water sources for food production.
– Endangered Ecosystems/Pollution: The quality of all our rivers are affected by industrial spills, runoff of agricultural pesticides and herbicides, and livestock and human waste due to poor sewerage or even total lack of sanitation.
– Habitat Loss: In North America and Africa urban development, commercial agriculture, highway systems, energy appropriation of land (for oil, wind and hydro power), and deforestation have altered (or even completely degraded) wetlands, plains and forests – the natural watershed services that protect our fresh water supplies.
– Invasive Species: Non-native species have disrupted the presence and role of naturally occurring species in our watersheds. For instance, in African rivers, tangled masses of water hyacinth stops fish from spawning; and in the Mississippi River, Asian carp have replaced many native fish species.)?
Canada: British Columbia, Kootenay Rockies, Columbia River Basin, Wilmer, view across Columbia Wetlands at sunset
6. Is there one environmental restoration/ conservation project to date that No Water No Life has come across during its numerous expeditions that has really impressed?
One answer to that is impossible, because NWNL has found the commitment to restoration and conservation projects is equally strong in each watershed. So NWNL salutes the following (with links to our interviews posted thus far):
USA: New Jersey, Mountainville Rockaway Stream, a tributary of the South Branch of the Raritan River, after spring floods in the early morning mist of summer
– In the Columbia River Basin: In Canada’s upper Columbia River Basin, stewards led by Ellen Zimmerman gained RAMSAR recognition of the international transboundary importance of the extensive Columbia Wetlands. In the US lower Columbia River Basin, Ray Gardner, as chief of the Chinook Nation, has been a great spokesperson for the health of the river and its salmon.
– In the Mississippi River Basin: Dr. Laura Jackson at Northern Iowa University and The Tallgrass Prairie Center are working in the Mississippi Basin plains to restore drought-resistant, prairie vegetation, contour farming and riverine corridors to preserve stable riverbanks and filter agricultural pollutants.
– In the Raritan River Basin: There was little coordination between New Jersey’s rural Upper Raritan and its urban-industrial Lower Raritan until 2009, when Dr. Judy Shaw and the Rutgers University Raritan Initiative began bringing together nonprofits, teachers and citizen scientists from 99 towns to coordinate their data-based restoration and protection efforts. This new watershed coordination certainly strengthened the Raritan Basin as it faced, survived and continues to learn from Super Storm Sandy.
– In the Nile River Basin: The White Nile headwaters in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are home to the mountain gorillas who are landscape architects in these “faucet forests” that hold and slowly release water supplies downstream. Gad Kinyangyeyo is one of the many local conservation heroes who help protect these gorillas and their forest by promoting their importance to tourists from all over the world.
– In the Omo River Basin: Lake Turkana, the terminus of the Omo River, is where International Rivers supports the vision of Ikal Angelei, a local Turkana woman now work ing on her PhD. She is educating local, national and international politicians, as well as local Turkana pastoralists, about the dire impacts of upstream Omo River dams on Lake Turkana, its fisheries and the livelihoods of million people.
– In the Mara River Basin: The Mara Conservancy, under the direction of Brian Heath, has been a shining example throughout East Africa of community-based conservation for 15 years. But there would be no Mara River to support the Maasai Mara ecosystem or its iconic biodiversity if FOMAWA and Rhino Ark were not fighting hard to preserve what’s left of its headwaters in the Mau Forest.
USA: New Jersey, Lower Raritan River Basin, Raritan River Estuary, Perth Amboy, head of dead fish washed up onto banks near Garden State Parkway bridge
7. Which has been the most memorable expedition to date and why?
That’s like asking, “Which is your favorite child?” I’ve learned so much from each of the expeditions we’ve conducted. I’ve enjoyed beautiful waterscapes and listened to passionate stakeholders in each. But here are two expeditions that suggest the range of our experiences.
– The first NWNL North American expedition, documenting the Columbia River from Source to Sea, was important because it taught us that each river has its own story and character– and its salmon story highlighted the importance of biodiversity in a watershed.
– The most recent NWNL African expedition, documenting the Omo River’s Lake Turkana terminus, was particularly poignant because we were documenting the impacts of upstream dams that will end the livelihoods of 6000-year old indigenous cultures and empty the world’s largest desert lake.
Canada: British Columbia, near Nelson, Salmo River
8. According to the organisation’s website, there is currently an ongoing project in the Raritan River Basin in New Jersey. Has No Water No Life got any other expeditions planned for 2014?
In addition to ongoing documentation of the Raritan River (which is a short drive across the Hudson River from our NYC base), NWNL will conduct its 19th and 20th expeditions in 2014:
– The Snake River (the Columbia’s largest tributary running through Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming): This will take place in May-June with a heavy focus on the impacts of dams on salmon populations, water flows, ecosystems and biodiversity; and the impacts of climate change on agriculture.
– The Lower Mississippi River Basin (Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Memphis): In September NWNL will look at the impacts of hurricanes, flooding and levees; the role of agricultural run-off in creating of a Dead Zone; and the industry on the Mississippi in what some call “Petro-Chemical America,” or “Cancer Alley.” The expedition team also will attend the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference to hear scientists’ and stewards’ reports on the state of the Lower Mississippi Basin.
– And, The California Drought will be a “NWNL Spotlight” that documents the impacts of a 3-year drought on the Sacramento Delta, farmers in the Central Valley and municipal water supplies.
Tanzania: No Water No Life Mara River Expedition, Musoma, on Lake Victoria, local beach used for washing, laundry, swimming and collection of water taken home in buckets carried on the head and on bicycles
Ethiopia: Bahir Dar, Tissiat Falls, the source of the Blue Nile
9. Is there a process for education establishments or local organisations working on conservation issues to get in touch with No Water No life regarding possible cooperation/ speaking engagements and access to educational tools?
Absolutely! NWNL is all about watershed stewardship and education. Our website (www.nowater-nolife.org) has many tools and watershed links for watershed studies:
– Educational Tools,
– Annotated links to Videos on watershed issues;
– Annotated links to Other Organizations focused freshwater resources around the world.
– How to Book NWNL Lectures on our site highlights lecture topics, content and sample slides used in our presentations. We adapt our presentations to many different ages and interests, ranging from fracking for high school students, to African issues on Earth Day, to invasive species for gardening groups.
10. Any final words you’d like to say or issues you’d like to highlight about the work of No Water No Life?
First, thank you for highlighting watersheds and the work of NWNL!
For updates on water issues, NWNL case-study watersheds, activities and publications, please keep visiting our website which is always expanding; follow and comment on our social media accounts, and consider supporting our expeditions financially!
NWNL Postings on: NWNL Blog, Twitter, Facebook
NWNL Photos on: Instagram, Flickr, Photo Shelter
To Support NWNL click here!
“Changing the World One Drop at a Time: An Interview with No Water No Life” by Nico Prins was first published on A Travellers Journey, March, 2014.