Transcript: Ten Years of the World’s Water

Listen to audio of the event:

Amb. Hattie Babbitt
It’s fun to be in the room with a bunch of water buffalos. But it’s also great when the message is spread beyond the water buffalos. The combination of Carl’s very innovative and creative approaches to spreading the word, and Island Press’s very solid and substantive and focused efforts to publish the good guys is terrific. … talking about books that are essential reading. And it’s really an overused word for mostly over-hyped products. But this is essential reading for people. The book that Peter has put together – the 5th book that Island Press is publishing on The World’s Water. It really is essential reading. What I was pleased to think about in getting ready for this evening, I looked and, gosh, there’s a lot of stuff happening on water. The UNDP’s Human Development Report this time is called “Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis.” I was reading the NYT this week and there was an article about the application of nano technology in removing arsenic from drinking water. I read a little deeper in the article and realized the first two tests – one was going to be in India and one was going to be in Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville, Texas, for those who don’t know their Texas geography, is the southernmost tip of the Continental United State. It is in effect the mouth of the Rio Grande River. It also happens to be where I spent my adolescent years. And I can tell you that the mighty Rio Grande by the time it gets out of Colorado and through New Mexico… along 800 miles of the Texas border to Brownsville, Texas, is neither mighty nor grand. And it is filthy. And I really hadn’t thought about how much seeing that part of the Rio Grande River had affected my interest in water lo these many years… high school’s awhile ago for me … had affected my interest in water. But, there it is. Now. Peter Gleick… Jack Riggs is here this evening who does a great job at Aspen on these issues and I was at an Aspen Institute Ideas Festival (a session) on water. John Holdren was part of this panel and he’s the director of Woods Hole and an environmental guru from the beginning. And I said, John, how do you keep up with these water issues? There’s a lot of stuff. Is it health, is it watershed management. I mean, How do you keep up? “All I do is just read what Peter Gleick writes.” I thought, Ok, that’s the answer. The New Yorker just referred to Peter as “perhaps no one is more authoritative or prolific” – sometimes prolific is not such a good adjective, but that’s all right – “prolific than Peter Gleick.” So I want to introduce to you – Peter Gleick is to water what Shakespeare is to literature, what Martha Stewart is … no I’m not finished, there’s more here! … what Martha Stewart is to scented candles, and what Elvis is to rock & roll. The Elvis of the water world. (applause)

Dr. Peter Gleick
(laughter, comments)
It’s been a remarkable week for water. There’ve been a lot of meetings, there are more meetings tomorrow. There are talks. There’s something going on at the UN, a big event going on at the UN tomorrow, which I’ll mention in a second. So I appreciate the fact that you’re here. You could have chosen to go to a lot of different things. But there’s drink and there’s food and I’m not going to talk for very long. And so it’s the trifecta, maybe. I am going to give a longer talk on substance around the content of TWW, not just the current issue, but the last 10 years worth, tomorrow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. If you’re really gluttons for punishment. Let me thank Carnegie, let me thank Carl and Circle of Blue for setting this up. My Pacific Institute which is helping to host this, and Island Press, which has been supporting the publication of this series for a decade. It’s been 10 years. And it’s a labor of love, but it’s a labor. And they’ve been very supportive. The editor, Todd Baldwin has been great. And I appreciate it. Each of the volumes is different. The idea is that water is a big issue. It touches on everything. And every two years, there’s some new critical issue that’s worthy of some discussion and some analysis. And there’s new information, there’s new data. And so, pretty much no matter what you’re interested in I think you could probably find some discussion of some of the current issues around water. Also, many people in this room have spent their lives dealing with water. And I’m delighted to see a lot of you, it’s an honor to have you here. Water isn’t a blue or a red issue. It’s not a democratic or republican issue. It’s not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s a human issue. And it’s one of the reasons why there’s so much interest now in water. It’s one of the reasons why everyone cares about water. It’s so fundamental to the things ultimately we all care about. There are terrible water problems. We know that there are a billion people without access to clean drinking water today, which is just inexcusable. We know that there are 2.5 billion people without access to adequate sanitation today. And that 2 million people a year die from preventable water-related diseases. That’s 6,000 people a day. That’s two 9/11s a day. Yesterday and today and tomorrow and the next day. Those deaths are preventable. These are preventable water-related diseases. There’s no mystery to how to stop them, how to prevent them. And there are many other problems with global water. Global climate change is a real problem and it’s going to affect water resources because the hydrologic cycle is the water cycle, is the climate cycle. But there’s also lots of good news out there. And so I’m not going to talk about bad news anymore. There are lots of things that smart, interesting, informed, involved people are doing to solve water problems. There are lots of solutions out there for any of the issues that we’re concerned about. And there is no one solution. One of the debates here has always been: What’s the next silver bullet? Is it privatization? Is it desalination on the technological side? Is it whatever? There is no one solution because there’s no one problem. There are lots of things that work, and they work in different places in different combinations at different times. Part of the challenge I think is to understand what those solutions are and where to apply them. And how to apply them more. And TWW has always tried to offer not just the bad news, but the good news. We always – and I say we – and I should have said this at the very beginning – this is a multi-author book. I have coauthors on whom I rely enormously at the Pacific Institute mostly. The first two volumes I wrote myself and I realized that wasn’t sustainable. Being interested in sustainability… So we’ve always tried to think about sustainable solutions, what sorts of things work. The successes, the principles for good water management. What we call the soft path for water, which includes infrastructure and also includes proper economics and bringing communities into decision-making about water. And reintegrating ecosystems values into water, and restoring water for the environment, which we’re starting to spend a lot of money to do. The new volume talks about risks of terrorism. There are examples going back, probably 50 examples going back 300 years, of water-related terrorism. It’s been a problem in the past, it’s going to be a problem in the future. And there’s a chapter that talks about what the risks are, what the risks aren’t. And what we could do to reduce those risks. It talks about the risks to businesses. Businesses use water in a lot of different ways, in ways they often don’t think about as being important. In the past, water was a small part of what they did. They used water for some little process. But increasingly if companies don’t think about what their use of water is and how that use affects local communities, they may be in for some unpleasant surprises. As Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola experienced in India recently. The Gap, they buy fabric and they make it into clothing. They don’t grow cotton, they buy finished fabric. But it takes 1000 tons of water to make a ton of cotton. And now, The Gap is beginning to think that maybe we ought to be worried about where we get our cotton. Is it being grown sustainably? Is it being grown in regions that are vulnerable to drought? Should we be worried about our supply chain? There’s a whole new world about the business of water, and there’s a chapter in the new volume that talks about that. It talks about the future of desalination, potentially a great technology. Maybe more limited because of economics than its proponents would hope at the moment, but something that offers great optimism for some. The book talks about floods and droughts, of a long history of floods and droughts, and possible consequences of climate change on floods and droughts. And it offers some updates on things the book has looked at before. Bottled water, there was a big chapter on bottled water two years ago. I got a little bit of flack from the bottled water industry, and so I decided I’d talk about bottled water again. And so there’s a little update about the sales, the risks and benefits, and there’s a little discussion about bottled water recalls, which are not widely publicized. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA as a food product and foods are often recalled for various reasons. My favorite of which is also from Texas. A recall in, I think 1994 or 1995. The recalls, they publish the date and how much water was recalled and who the bottler was and the purpose of the recall. The purpose for this one was, “contaminated by crickets.” We also have updated the conflict chronology. This has been in all 5 volumes, something the Institute has kept up on is a chronology of water-related disputes and conflicts and violence. Going back to 3000 BC. So if you like history, are interested in security issues, and you’re interested in water, you might take a look at that. We update it every two years and, in fact, it’s also online on one of our websites. And because we’re a little eclectic, there’s a piece of the search for water on Mars. We’ve spent a lot of money sending things to Mars to look for water, and finding water on Mars. There’s water on Mars, for those who don’t know. That raised some question with the publisher whether The World’s Water is the proper title. We didn’t go there. And there’s a poem to the soft path on water, which I didn’t write. And there’s actually a photo of a waterless washing machine. If you can imagine such a thing. Somebody in Asia has invented a waterless washing machine. So there’s the future for you. I think it’s time to be a little more aggressive about water problems and solutions. There have been a billion people without access to clean drinking water for a long time. And we’re making some progress, but populations are growing in developing countries and we’re not making progress fast enough. And we’re making much less progress on the sanitation side. We have to solve this problem and we can. But we’re not going to with the commitments that are in place. And I know that this is what many of you do. You work on a lot of these issues, I’m not going to go into it anymore. But we need to do more and we need to do more faster and we need to do more in a lot of different ways. I’m going to stop there. One final comment.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Circle of Blue, Carl started us, but he really didn’t say much about it. The Circle of Blue really is an invention of Carl Ganter, it’s really his vision, for those of you who don’t know Carl. Carl is a media guy. But in the best sense of the word and in the broadest sense of the word. Carl is really interested in understanding how to use media in the biggest sense to get the message out about water. About what water means to people, about what the solutions are, about how to move forward. And the Circle of Blue is just getting off the ground. There’s been a first major project that was supported largely by the Ford Foundation and some other sponsors in Mexico. I know that the materials are out there about that. You should take a look at it. It’s really interesting. The idea is to dramatically and virally – to add a new word for all of us – to raise the awareness of water. And I think there’s an enormous opportunity to do that. And for education, for information about water to lead to education of people and to lead to action. And so thank you very much and thank you for coming. And Carl has a few more comments.

J. Carl Ganter

Thank you again for all being here. As a journalist I love to cover stories. We started a meeting a year ago by going around – this is over at the Wilson Center – with “What gets you out of bed in the morning, why do you work in water?” Why do you wear a tie and go talk policy? And we came up with some very powerful stories. Melinda’s here, Melinda Moore. She talked about being a pediatrician in Africa and saving lives. Hands-on. One by one. And so every time when she gets up and faces a challenge, she thinks back to those children that she helped. One by one, individually, and looking at how water can save those lives. That’s what motivates me. We all have various talents and I came up through the media world in a rather odd way, being a photojournalist, a writer, even doing some radio here and there. And having this picture: If we took the world’s best story tellers – because that’s what motivates us, what moves our hearts are powerful stories – we need the wonderful research and the solutions because the stories motivate us to change, the solutions give us the reason and the action, the pathway.

And so I hope you’ll take a look at Tehuacán. There are some fun stories that came out of that. It’s sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse when a foundation calls you and says, “Yes, we’ve approved your grant… and you have four weeks to pull it off.” So we parachuted in with Brent Stirton from Getty Images. Getty gave us their best. Their senior photojournalist from South Africa. Then Joe Contreras who is Newsweek’s regional editor for Latin America. For these guys, this was mission-driven, it was what journalism is all about. Being in the field telling stories, interviewing people and asking them questions: “What does water mean to you… and your family?” And having Francisca Valencia Rosas cry when she started talking about why her family is leaving, leaving her community. It’s because of agriculture, yes. It’s because of economics. But it’s because there isn’t enough water to sustainably grow their crops. Because the Mexican communities multiple religious connections are very, very tight. So when we look at a lot of these problems that we’re dealing with, like walls and barriers and immigration controls, water is, as we found, an “axis issue.” Joe Contreras has covered Mexico for years, he’s covered the modernization of Mexico. He said, “You know, that’s my dope-slap moment – water is the Big Story. Water is affecting everything I write about here in Mexico.” So with that we have a huge resource of talent here and around the world. That’s part of our mission – to give people like Joe and Brent, who were delighted, so excited to be on assignment for 10 days, it used to be on a magazine you’d get six weeks, now it’s three days or less. These guys were in heaven to have enough time to dig into the next big story. Thank you for being part of what is the next big story.

Our plan is to cover the global freshwater crisis with journalistic integrity and to cover it across a matrix of interest areas so that when we cover water, it’s not just covering the beauty, the tragedy, the health or the climate intersections. It’s covering pieces of the story so it intersects with multiple audiences. So that if you’re interested in climate, we have a story for you. If you’re interested in how water affects children, we’ve got a story for you. It’s about making water issues matter, it’s about bringing it home. If you have an iPod, or no matter which end of the dial you listen to, there is a piece of the story. If you subscribe to Real Simple magazine, you’ll find out what’s the most glorious low-flush toilet. Because we will have stories for every component. Not just another book. Not just another exhibit. But the book, the exhibit, the coverage of that.

One last thing, in Mexico, when we did our event in parallel to the World Water Forum. These forums are always interesting gatherings, and Peter writes about that in the book. 20,000 people across town in the concrete and metal bunker. We had our own special gathering of about 150 people in Mexico City. We invited the soap opera stars, the architects, and the writers and poets – the story tellers. Soap operas are big storytelling in Mexico. These people were very excited. But what also happened was the press came. And we had pictures for them. From Brent Stirton, this Word Press-winning photojournalist who shoots for National Geographic and Time and Newsweek. “So we can run these?” the reporters asked. Absolutely I said. “Can we run Joe’s words, too?” Absolutely. And every time, every reporter all day long, we did interviews. They were enthralled that a group of journalists within their fraternity would come to their country to document an issue that they didn’t have the resources to do themselves. I had three calls later from three different reporters who said, “Can I be a part of this? I want to do more stories, but I can’t do it within my own newspaper. We need somebody else to do it, then my newspaper will run it.” Again. Journalism with integrity, storytelling with heart. Thank you very much.