Interview: The Fine Art of Watershed Protection

Lori Pottinger
Monday, March 8, 2010

Alison Jones at victoria Falls, Zambia.
Alison Jones at victoria Falls, Zambia.
© Bonnie Muench
Alison Jones has been photographing African and US landscapes for 25 years. Her "No Water, No Life" (NWNL) project combines the powers of photography, science and stakeholder information to document threats to watersheds, including dams, deforestation, climate change, and loss of wetlands and floodplains. We talked to Alison about her work for the world's watersheds.

What was the inspiration for No Water No Life?
Jones: It sprang from a life-long enjoyment of photographing and being a part of nature. I grew up next to a gurgling stream that lulled me to sleep and filled my imagination. Years later I spent 800 hours as a Cessna copilot photographing waterways of nine African countries. I saw that life in Africa exists only along the green ribbons of rivers and lakeshores. I realized my images could help protect our environment, biodiversity and natural resources.

How do you incorporate science into your work?
Jones: Science is integral to NWNL. Many scientists wish they could hang their years of research on a wall next to images of endangered species and threatened ecosystems. NWNL believes that conservation photographers and scientists can and should serve each other. Scientists inform and validate our reports and publications. In return, our visuals and video interviews help publicize and disseminate scientists' work to a much broader audience than that of scientific journals.

A Karo boy collects water from   Omo River floodplain in Ethiopia.
A Karo boy collects water from Omo River floodplain in Ethiopia.
© Alison M. Jones
Of the various hotspots you're focusing on, which one is closest to your heart, and why?
Jones: The watershed closest to my heart is usually the one I am currently documenting. In the Omo River Valley I was absorbed into homesteads of indigenous tribes and became a part of their daily rituals. Goats would wander into my tent as I watched elders paint spotted designs on their bodies with river clay and then onto black gesso-ed canvases I'd brought. I've swung to river-themed Blues in juke joints along the Mississippi Delta. I've grilled salmon under ancient cedars on the Salmo River, a Canadian tributary of the Columbia. From my childhood to today, I've lived in a cottage in the Raritan River Basin watching dragonflies and young skaters skitter over ponds. And in Kenya's Mara River Basin, I stand tall and feel more in harmony with nature than anywhere else, as elephants splash in mud holes and wandering wildebeest decide whether to cross the river. Each river has its own winding course and its own character. Every river I've known has captured me with its movement, music, geology, riverine habitats and communities, changing moods and its essential, although vulnerable, gift of water.

What are the most exciting things you have on your plate for 2010?
Jones: Three expeditions are planned for 2010 to further document our case-study watersheds. I will co-lead a safari in Uganda's White Nile River Basin in order to document Murchison Falls and the biodiversity, forests and habitats now protected by Uganda's National Parks. Then our team will document the start-up of a Lake Victoria Basin Integrated Health Initiative. Sponsored by Direct Relief International, this initiative will address water-related health issues on the lake's Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan shores. This fall we're planning an expedition to the Texas Panhandle in the Mississippi River Basin. This region struggled through the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. A severe lack of rain and water availability the last few years has again devastated local ranches, farms and ecosystems.

What lessons have you learned from the project?
Jones: Managing this project has meant taking crash courses in fundraising, video, interview techniques, hydrology and organizational workflow. But most importantly, I have learned that science is accessible, intriguing and essential to understanding and effectively addressing the sustainability of our freshwater systems. In school I dodged every science class I was supposed to take. Now I tell students how much I regret that. Science holds the key to new technologies needed to purify, recycle, store and distribute our water. It's the sci-fi nature of cutting-edge solutions, such as nano-sponges and toilet-to-tap recycling, that will help the planet's rapidly growing global population deal with its growing thirst.

It wasn't until NWNL's first source-to-sea expedition that we understood the significance of stakeholders as citizen scientists. Expedition meetings with local stakeholders were originally conceived as a chance to learn about places and people to document. Instead scientists, farmers, fishermen, Native Americans, RiverKeepers, poets, politicians and stewards are anxious to share with us their struggles, their on-the-ground knowledge, and their need for solutions so that we can help their causes..

Most importantly, NWNL has learned that solutions to sustainable freshwater management must be both top-down and bottom-up, with a focus on reducing human consumption, waste generation and extraction of natural resources.

It can be discouraging to focus on troubled areas where you have little clout to change things. What gives you hope?
Jones: Our hope for the future comes from listening to the many stewards and community partners working tirelessly and creatively to effect sustainable change. Even small grassroots acts reveal the power of the human mind to devise solutions and change behavioral and consumptive patterns.

Perhaps most significantly, I am encouraged by 8th and 9th graders we are working with, who are often more aware of critical water issues than adults. I applaud teachers who are adjusting their curriculum to incorporate our recommendation to plan their river-study curriculum with schools upstream and downstream so students can better explore and visually record their regional watersheds. Students following the NWNL model and sharing their findings with their communities represent one more step in raising awareness when they submit photographs, essays and letters to their local newspapers and other media. More and more, adults and students are understanding that our water supply is finite and that humans must change their patterns of consumption and waste in order to protect our natural resources - the most vital of which is our finite supply of fresh water.

More information: 

Alison Jones' project, No Water, No Life
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