Water Alive

PlanktonFebruary 11, 2010

In March 2003, Jean-Michel spoke to delegates of the U.N. Water for Peace forum. The issues he addressed have not gone away and so, although longer than the usual blog, his thoughts are reprinted here, along with images of the magic of water and its creatures.

During the many years that my father, Jacques Cousteau, and I sailed onboard Calypso, we stood at the helm of our ship as the cameras rolled and we crossed what seemed endless oceans. We discovered firsthand, sometimes wave by wave, that this is indeed a water planet.

But none of us then thought to tell a story that every sailor knows—you can easily die of thirst surrounded by water. We live on a fragile margin on this water planet, dependent on the 1/10th of one percent of clean, freshwater available to us. We are here now to ensure that the sailor’s lament, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” does not become a prophesy.

Amazon PororocaA statement of concern, a modern lament, is contained in the Executive Summary of the World Water Assessment Report--that we don’t lack solutions to water problems, we lack the will to act. It is now our duty to inspire action from the heart, which is where all motivation lies. That is as much our job—to motivate and inspire—as to problem solve.

We are faced with a realistic and grim picture. If nothing changes, it is possible that 40 percent of the world’s population will not have enough water to satisfy basic needs in the next decade. So we are here now to work for the 50 percent of people in developing countries suffering from one or more water related diseases. We are here to abolish the possibility of water available only to those who can pay for it. We are here to reverse the clock that means 25 children die every minute from a water-related disease. And we are here to paint a picture of a better future.

Jean-Michel Cousteau with child in the AmazonMost of us won’t personally see the faces of these statistics and we tend to ignore what we cannot see. I have been both privileged and troubled to see for myself.

I saw the face of water conflict in Haiti in 1986. Faced with water shortages, the government was forced to turn off the community spigot and not announce when it would be turned on. People could only gather around it with their plastic buckets and wait. At 5 a.m. one morning, the faucet was finally turned on and hundreds of people fought and panicked and, of course, spilled water. Young, strong men wanted enough water to sell. Mothers wanted to keep their children alive. Farther away, an old woman crouched and siphoned spilled, dirty water from the gutter.

Fabien Cousteau at the Flower Gardens National marine SanctuaryThe International Water Poverty Index cited Haiti as an example of the fact that it is not the amount of water available but how it is used that determines water quality of life. The island of Hispanola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with similar water resources, are night and day—the only countries I have seen where, from space, the border is so distinct---dividing lush from barren, trees from desert, water from wasteland.

We cannot claim ignorance, because what we can’t experience personally is transmitted to us now by satellite. These satellite photos show a world crisscrossed by the human imprint. Following the World Summit in Rio nearly 20 years ago, my father wrote: “We have not yet fully realized that our recent divorce from Nature is irreversible …If we want…to succeed, we must convince all human beings to participate in our adventure.”

This is where it gets exciting and where I find hope. So what do we do next? I see three priorities.

  • Conservation. We go home and call the plumber, the gardener, and the grocer about how we personally use water. Ghandi said, “We must become the change we want to see,” and this is especially true with water. And to be effective, we need a different perspective on the true cost of our lifestyles, on the water cost.

    Few of us realize the hidden cost of water behind so many goods and services. For example, it takes nine gallons of water to deliver one gallon of oil. To produce a pound of beef in the U.S. takes 2,500 gallons of water. 130 gallons of water are required for a loaf of bread. The typical modern diet, with its large share of animal products, requires twice as much water to produce as less meat-intensive diets.

    The day may soon come when, as consumers, we require water labeling on products just as we do for nutritional content on food packaging. We need to know such realities to inform our personal choices.

    I cannot overstate the importance of making water a part of school curricula and mass media attention. We must give people information and inspiration on which to act. It must be personal. We must do this first because, once involved, the public will demand no less from industry and government than they have achieved themselves.

  • Agriculture.At the international level, large-scale agribusiness and governments must be held accountable to institute sound water policies and appropriate technology. Scientific American magazine reported that water demand on farms would decline with more efficient and environmentally sound technologies by a staggering 50 percent. We know that drip irrigation reduces water use by 30 to 70 percent and increases crop yield by 20 to 90 percent compared with flooding. So water conservation is not a mystery and must be subsidized. This management of agricultural water is absolutely central for water conservation and hygiene, as well as for food and poverty.

  • Business.With the establishment of water as a fundamental human right in the U.N.’s General Comment, we have a valuable tool to set limits on who can do what with water. The General Comment states that water must be affordable to everyone. This means that water cannot be looked upon as the next gold or oil. Greed has no place here.

    Privatization of water, which is growing rapidly, must be monitored and used to serve humanity, not further impoverish us. Once basic needs are met, then let privatization become profitable from those people who can and want to pay high prices to water their lawns. At least the cost will not be the suffering of the thirsty.

    And we must watch the industrial use of water, which accounts for roughly 20 percent. Worldwatch has reported that, on average, a ton of water used in industry generates about 70 times more profit as the same water used to grow grain. We must make sure that some of that profit goes toward returning the water used by industry in a clean, healthy state. Industry must be held accountable for temporarily borrowing what is now a basic human right.

    So let those making money from water-related products contribute to the cost of bringing water to the 1.4 billion without it. Let industry do it from inspiration because they are part of the human adventure.

We are in the midst of an information revolution that gives us direct democracy. It allows us to take action and make demands without the representation that has sometimes failed to meet basic human needs. Let one of the victories of this information revolution be that we become a world that is water-literate and water-abundant.

Coral SpawningWe know that this is a planet of abundance if we can manage ourselves and we also know that water means peace. I have stood on the sands of Kuwait, beside the lakes of Kuwait. The lakes are made of spilled oil. They are lakes of death. There are alternatives to oil and to everything but water. There is no substitute for water. Water is life.

It was at sea that I witnessed a fundamental reality of what water is to this planet. We entered the night sea in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and turned on our dive lights. The sea was aglow with transparent, gelatinous plankton--unearthly, fragile forms. They are animated by the spark of life, but they are actually 99 percent water with only the most fragile of membranes to contain this spark. They break apart and disappear with a wave of my hand.

PlanktonLooking at the shimmering parade seen in the photographs, I realized that life is the miracle of organized water. These tiny, transparent creatures are water alive. And so are we. It is the reality we must protect for us all.

First Photo: Plankton ©Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society
Second Photo: Amazon Pororoca ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Third Photo: Jean-Michel Cousteau and child in the Amazon © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED.
Fourth Photo: Fabien Cousteau at the Flower Garden Bank National Marine Sanctuary © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED.
Fifth Photo: Coral Spawning at the Flower Garden Bank National Marine Sanctuary © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED.
Sixth Photo: Plankton © Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society.