Photographer: Life needs water, so don’t ruin it

TUPPER LAKE – “No water, no life” seems like a simple enough statement, but its implications might be oceanic in size.

Alison Jones, documentary photographer and founding director of No Water No Life, spoke at The Wild Center last week about the work of the nonprofit organization. She explained how the organization’s members monitor and study the health and viability of six major river basins – the Columbia, Mississippi, Raritan, Nile, Omo and Mara – and use those data to educate citizens and reach across geopolitical boundaries to develop sustainability plans for those basins. Her visit was sponsored by the Essex County Adirondack Garden Club.

No Water No Life started eight years ago, after Jones made a six-day climb to the top of the 19,241-foot-elevation Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point.

“I decided to do this because I wanted to know the geologic features of Africa, but what left a greater impact on me was Kili’s future,” Jones said. “I learned that this rooftop of Africa had lost 82 percent of its ice field in just the last 80 years, and by 2020 most of that ice will likely be gone.”

Jones said that loss made her think about the necessity of water in sustaining life. She realized her photography could speak to that issue, perhaps as loudly as scientific research or news stories.

The resulting, brightly colored images of moisture-speckled forests, bright-red desert landscapes and the people and beasts who call the featured watersheds home accompanied Jones’ talk at The Wild Center.

Jones knows her approach isn’t new. Many other conservation-minded photographers came before her.

William Henry Jackson photographed the West and used those photos to convince Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park.

Eliot Porter used photographs to document the Colorado River basin in his book “The Place No One Knew.” The book was released shortly after a new dam in the Grand Canyon flooded the photographed places, transforming the book into a eulogy for the landscape lost to that project.

Those photographers and many others have used photography for similar purposes, to impart the need for taking action in the form of protecting the Earth’s natural resources by capturing the necessity, and beauty, of those places. Jones wants to continue that legacy.

“From above, it was clear that rivers and lakeshores are the ribbons of life for all species, which is especially obvious in Africa,” Jones said. “I realized I could no longer be a voyeur, enjoying Africa’s beauty while watching its wilderness disappear and its people suffer. I decided to use nature and cultural photography to remind viewers that we can’t let ourselves live in solely human and otherwise isolated environments.”

As an unintentional precursor to No Water No Life, Jones created a 50-page journal in 2003 on sustainable water usage in Africa, where the effects of damming and irrigation along the Omo River basin are expected to cause the water level of Kenya’s largest lake, Turkana, to lower by two-thirds.

“Experts predict that wars of the 21st century will be over water,” Jones said. “Finite river systems are overtaxed by pollution, deforestation and infrastructure. The demand for water is growing twice as fast as the population is growing.”

Jones said a catastrophe similar to the Omo River basin’s is happening in the Ohio River basin, where coal mining operations have poisoned the water and air. She described how her visit there made her eyes burn and caused her to start coughing, two symptoms of life in the valley.

“It’s a very narrow valley,” Jones said. “It’s dark; it’s dreary. The Ohio River just cuts through the rock, and the pollution is trapped. The local people who took me in told me about the Ohio Valley grunge – the cough. They’re used to it, and they have it all year round.”

Jones noted how the Adirondacks have felt the effect of Midwest pollution in the form of acid rain, which contains high levels of nitric and sulphuric acid and kills vegetation and wildlife, especially in aquatic ecosystems.

Jones said No Water No Life will continue to impart those lessons to people everywhere.

In September, an expedition to the lower Mississippi River basin will study how the barrier islands have been destroyed by storms, the effects of upstream agricultural runoff, and the lingering effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In October, the organization will shift its focus on the Columbia River basin in Washington, where trans-boundary water issues between the United States and Canada are being discussed.

Jones stressed that the water issues No Water No Life focus on affect everyone, everywhere, and she implored everyone to get involved.

“I want you all to join me in bringing people together in breaking down barriers of ignorance and sowing ideals worth pursuing,” Jones said. “There are ways to do this beyond photography. All of us, from artists to plumbers to big business, must adopt less consumptive patterns and sustainable water usage for the sake of everyone’s pursuits. When people don’t have enough water, money doesn’t matter.”