The Biggest Story of Our Lifetime is Water
Co-Founder and Director, Circle of Blue
March 22, 2013
For World Water Day 2013, and in partnership with Circle of Blue and Forbes, we asked some of the world’s leading experts and innovators working on issues of water scarcity, security and cooperation to weigh in, offer solutions, and help us better understand key challenges and opportunities moving forward. This debate will also inform an upcoming session at this year’s Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK, on exactly this topic.
CEO, Water For People
Co-Founder and Director, Circle of Blue
March 22, 2013
Adapted from the keynote address at the Canadian Water Network annual conference in Ottawa, March 19, 2013.
The biggest story of our lifetime is water.
I’m a journalist and, today, the place to be is right here.
On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took what became the most famous picture in history. A picture of a vulnerable little blue planet hanging in space.
Almost 30 years later, Jerry Linenger launched aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. He was headed to the Russian Space Station, Mir, where he would spend spend five months in orbit. Plenty of time to ponder.
“Looking out the window, I would see the great sources of freshwater on the planet,” he wrote to me.
“Lake Baikal, deeper than deep. The Great Lakes, well-named. The mighty rivers of the world – Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Amazon – defining civilizations, past and present. But still, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, not so much different than our little orbiting space station. A closed ecosystem. Only so many sources of life-sustaining water. And all the creatures of Earth, just like the three of us circling it, all dependent on water.”
In this closed ecosystem we have systemic failure. A global freshwater crisis.
Our blue — our water — in all forms — is in peril.
The U.S. intelligence community tells us that we should be afraid.
Global instability. Drought. Disruption. Food and energy insecurity.
The competition between water, food and energy is affecting everything we care about.
When there’s water scarcity, we can see the triggers… drought pushes up food prices… which causes tensions… and, by many indications, violence.
At the same time, there’s the mind-numbing statistic we can’t ignore: some 800 million people on the planet are without safe drinking water. And dirty water kills nearly 5,000 people each day, mostly children.
Where there is water, it’s the children who carry it. Like this 4 year old girl in Ghana who walks 6 miles a day to fetch water. When these children carry the water, they don’t go to school. Their future slips away with every bucket.
And we have a sanitation disaster.
Nearly 2 billion people don’t have a safe place to go to the bathroom.
So how do we fix this?
We do it by listening better and learning from others.
By knowing that there are solutions, sometimes small, sometimes globally transformative. And by understanding that there are real people living the real stories behind these huge challenges.
Let me take you on a quick tour around the world and introduce you to just a few of the people and places Circle of Blue is finding on the front lines of a global water crisis.
In Tehuacan, Mexico we found a city drying up.
Its rainfall was decreasing.
Its giant factory farms were draining the aquifers.
Its farmers’ wells were dry… and families were having to buy water for the first time they could remember.
But in the dusty village of San Marcos, there was a bright spot…
Francisca Rosas Valencia told us she was planting ancient grains like Amaranth that didn’t need so much water. Old crops, new thinking in the face of a changing climate. Now there’s now an entire Amaranth business in the villages near Tehuacan.
When we visited we did what journalists are supposed to do. We listened. Just before we left, I asked Francisca one more question: How was the drought affecting her family? She became uncomfortable and quiet. 15 seconds. 30 seconds. A minute of silence passed. Tears welled in her eyes and she picked up a picture of her son and held it close.
Where there was no water, there was no future.
The future was leaving the village.
Her son had left for Mexico City. Headed to the US.
Francisca hadn’t heard from him in more than a year.
She didn’t know if he made it across the desert to the US.
Through Francisca, we felt the tragic implications of drought on families, cultures and immigration in Mexico and many other parts of the world.
But we also learned there may be better things to grow where it’s getting dryer.
In Australia’s Murray Darling Basin we reported on one of the world’s greatest droughts, “The Biggest Dry.”
The rice industry was collapsing, affecting food prices around the world. The situation was so stressful that some farmers were committing suicide.
One radio journalist told us that she was afraid to go on the air with more bad news. Another newscast could push another farmer over the edge, she feared.
Flying above the Southeast Australia in a small Cessna, I could see a small puddle of blue in the distance. After we landed, the farmer we met grumbled that he had to drill his well deeper each year so he could grow more rice in the dry lands.
We also found people like Beryl Carmichael, an Aboriginal elder.
Sitting out under the stars eating stewed kangaroo, she told us how, for thousands of years, her people had survived the parched outback.
She told us about Dreamtime, her connection to water, and her role in passing the spirits from one generation to the next. But gone with the desiccated rivers was her link to Dreamtime and her ancestors,. Lost, she feared, forever. An ancient cultural tapestry unraveled.
Two years ago, we began working with the Wilson Center to peel back the complicated layers of China’s water and energy challenge. We found that this competition is perhaps the greatest — yet mostly unseen — threat to the country’s GDP.
In the frozen December, and while our other teams had fanned out across the country, I was dispatched to Inner Mongolia, home to some of China’s largest coal mines.
Flying into Xilinhot, I could see a tiny farm, a speck of a house off in the distance. The lone taxi at the airport took me there, past the mines and across the frozen grasslands.
That’s when I met Wu Yun. A shepherd’s daughter, she had grown up on the lush, green grasslands.
But I learned that the mines are changing her life. Dramatically.
Her family’s well was dry and they had to coax an old tractor 15 km to get water for the sheep and horses. The extended drought had hit hard… and the mines are draining what’s left.
It’s simple math for the world’s fastest growing economy. In China, there just isn’t enough water to mine its coal and meet the growing power demands.
It’s a simple fact of geography and supply: China is dry in the north where the coal is, and the water is in the south.
China is responding to its water problems in only ways a determined nation can. It’s doing everything at once.
China is building a $66-billion canal and pipeline system to bring water from the south to the north.
It is off-shoring its water footprint by investing in coal fields in Australia and food production in Africa.
China is building dams along its major and minor rivers to reduce reliance on coal. But in some cases, it’s building coal plants near the dams as backup. Just in case the rivers run dry.
Can they respond fast enough? In September, we were in Urumqi, China, near the Kazakhstan border. It’s incredibly dry. Yet giant industrial bases of massive scale are under construction. They will need water for their mills, their power plants and their nearby cotton fields. But the water supply comes from shrinking glaciers, and scientists aren’t sure there will be enough water to last into the next few years.
These are decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Decisions that will affect markets, food supplies, energy production, and lives around the world from a distant corner of China. Big decisions that have big consequences.
But what happens when you bring water to a community that never had it?
To find out, I spent the night in Cuatro, a shanty town in Manila. At about 4 a.m., I heard something I hadn’t expected.
It was the clank and bustle of people in the streets setting up shop. They were unlocking doors, unloading fish, and washing vegetables for the morning market.
It’s not an easy life in Cuatro. There’s raw sewage that runs underfoot, and few places to go to the toilet.
But a recent partnership with a local water company brought fingerlings of blue plastic pipes that weave along the warren of pathways between shanties. They carry water to the community for the first time.
Safe water to drink and to wash.
Residents who once spent almost half of their income buying water from private tanker trucks could afford food, medicine and education. They could open shops and pay the bus fare for jobs in town. And have children that weren’t chronically ill.
Like 11-year-old Omar. He used to work from sunrise to dusk, begging on the sweltering Manila streets. Now, Omar sells fresh mackerel at the market and goes to school when the fish are all sold.
But around the world, the complexities are outpacing our abilities to deal. And our future remains in doubt.
We face serious enemies.
They are ruthless and cold.
They have short attention spans.
They are not listening.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
The water crisis is subtle, not sexy. It’s not a mainstream topic. It is slow to unfold, hard to comprehend, and, until the taps run dry and the crops wither, it’s not very relevant to the very people who have the most power to avert it.
It’s not breaking news.
The answers to the global water crisis are not a click away. They are hidden deep in warrens of urban squalor, lush grasslands, global convenings and small council meetings, remote sensors and orbiting space craft, and in the pages of ancient history.
The answers come from listening better, persistently tuning in to the quiet signals. The moments of epiphany.
But we’d better hurry.
From orbit, astronaut Jerry Linenger said he could watch the dust storms of Inner Mongolia blow across the steppes toward Beijing. And on to Los Angeles. Water, drought, pollution — they don’t know political boundaries.
Remember Wu Yun?
When I returned to her family’s home last September, this is what it looked like.
The mines are getting closer.
The sheep have less grass.
And, like dotted lines on a map, the sand dunes are marching closer.