Harnessing Science and Storytelling to Create a Water-Secure Future

Gary Knell
Mar 23, 2017 · 6 min read
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Paddling the Colorado River delta during its historic 2014 pulse flow with stand up paddle boards and canoes. A first ascent across this forgotten, dry stretch of river. Photo by Pete McBride/National Geographic

Yesterday, on World Water Day, I had the honor and privilege of addressing over 100 policymakers, activists, and government officials at the U.S. State Department for the annual meeting of the U.S. Water Partnership (USWP), a group that works to achieve a water-secure world.

We share USWP’s deep commitment to protecting water across our nation, and around the world.

While National Geographic’s legendary storytelling and iconic images have helped raise awareness of critical water issues, the fact is we go far beyond creating content. We help people stop and think about what’s going on in the world today, but also — more importantly — what could happen to make it better.

While we’ve always focused on issues related to our planet’s natural resources, over the past decade we’ve deepened our efforts around water as the global challenges facing this precious resource have become more clear — and more dire.

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Gabra women in northern Kenya spend up to five hours a day carrying heavy jerry cans filled with murky water. A lingering drought has pushed this already arid region to a water crisis. Photo by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Millions of people face a daily struggle to secure enough water to survive. In northern Kenya, Gabra women spend up to five hours every day carrying heavy jerry cans of water on their backs. In Tanzania, a girl can wait 10 hours just to have the chance to get her family water — and it will take nearly an hour for enough water to seep back into the well for the next person in line.

Through our coverage, we also spotlighted the universality of water. Regardless of country, wealth, or race, the fact is that every human needs water. In this sense, water is a common focal point. It binds us together.

Water plays a seminal role in our lives, our society, our religion. And now more than ever, we need to protect this precious gift. We all must look for solutions, particularly as population pressures continue to stress water and other natural resources.

Over the last five years, National Geographic has funded more than 50 freshwater-related grants supporting projects such as an innovative technology to detect bacteria in lakes and a study of traditional water conservation in China.

And in recent years, as the severe drought across the western United States took a dramatic toll on the environment, wildlife, and communities, National Geographic made it a key priority to raise public awareness about the crisis.

We named our first Fellow devoted to Freshwater, Sandra Postel, a world-renowned expert in sound water management, to help guide our water efforts.

One story related to the crisis that we’ve covered extensively is the effort to replenish the Colorado River Delta. This fragile ecosystem on the U.S./Mexico border has been desiccated due to both countries overtapping the Colorado River to divert water to farm fields and cities. This extraordinarily important river — which supplies 36 million people with sustenance — had dried up to a trickle in the delta, cutting the river off from reaching the sea.

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Former National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel and Emerging Explorer Osvel Hinojosa Huerta find the leading edge of water as the Colorado River reclaims its channel during the “pulse flow” of water released through the Colorado Delta in 2014. Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

In late 2012, the U.S. and Mexico signed a groundbreaking agreement to release a pulse flow of water to allow the Colorado River to reconnect with the Gulf of California for the first time in many years — thanks in part to the passion and dedicated efforts of people like Postel and Dr. Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, a 2012 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

As a result, in the spring of 2014, a pulse flow of 105,000 acre-feet of water was released at the Morelos Dam at the U.S.-Mexico border and further downstream to course through the delta.

The pulse flow helped recharge the groundwater, nourished vegetation and wildlife around the delta, and inspired joy in communities and people along the way.

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Kids play in the Colorado River after it forms near San Luis Rio Colorado during the 2014 pulse flow. Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

For the first time in many years, the Colorado River reached the sea — a moment of true awe and hope.

The pulse flow was a temporary measure. But it helped replenish the riverbed and the land around it, and the effort continues to provide water to newly created habitats, a small but significant revival of a once-great ecosystem.

We also know how to bring major issues like water security to a sharp focus, and make them personal so they are highly moving and relevant — stories like our comprehensive coverage of the Flint, Michigan, water contamination crisis.

Nearly two years after elevated levels of lead were found, Flint continues to reel from the effects and worry about the future. The tragedy is affecting thousands of people, forcing them to change the way they live and work. It’s a tragedy that affects us all and could happen again anywhere around the country if we don’t raise awareness.

National Geographic has covered Flint extensively. Our aim has been to educate audiences about the issue of water security, but also to show the human impact and suffering.

In February 2016, we published a series of striking and deeply moving portraits of the people of Flint. Keonna Miles spoke to us about what it was like when the problems started — how the water in the shower smelled strange, and the skin on her neck turned bright red and felt like it was burning.

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Keonna Miles (left) spoke to National Geographic about the Flint water crisis. Photo by Wayne Lawrence/National Geographic

Young parents Nisa and Brian told us that many families were continuing to use the contaminated water — even putting it in their babies’ formula. Nisa explained: “They have no choice because they don’t have a car to…go get the free water that’s being given. They don’t have the money to afford it.”

And we spoke with Teresa Terrell, who stood outside on a bracing winter day to make sure her voice was heard. Teresa said to us: “I don’t know why this couldn’t be fixed in the first place…A lot of people, a lot of children, [are] getting sick from this water.” The pain and fear in her eyes were haunting. So were her words.

We need to do more.

Right now, we have National Geographic writers, photographers, videographers, researchers, and explorers all over the planet, gathering information and stories. We want to bring these stories to the world, to propel the conversation about the pressing issues facing our planet forward, much like we’ve done and are doing for water.

It was great to be with the USWP yesterday because I see more opportunities where we can have an even greater impact working together. At National Geographic, we also want to be a resource to the people who are creating new approaches and solutions.

This month, in fact, National Geographic Channel offered a suite of programming dedicated to World Water Month. From “Water & Power: A California Heist,” which explored the fight to control this most precious resource in our country’s agricultural epicenter, to Tuesday night’s premiere of “Parched,” a miniseries that examines “a future where fresh water is alarmingly scarce,” we are striving to bring much needed attention and social awareness to the public.

In that same vein, we are taking steps to be a trusted resource to policy makers. Starting next month, we plan to convene conversations about key issues affecting physical and human geography.

Through these conversations, we will bring our National Geographic Explorers to share their work with the highest officials in the new administration and leaders in Congress. Our aim is to create a dialogue and space where facts can be discussed and solutions developed.

We want to lend our expertise and trusted, independent perspective to help inform and advance the conversation. We want to help drive progress.

Teresa Terrell — from Flint — said, “I don’t know why this couldn’t be fixed.”

We all know it can. Let’s work together to make it so.

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