AROUND THE WORLD IN SEVEN PHOTOGRAPHS
I’m Nicolas Brown, series director of “H2O: The Molecule That Made Us”. I’d love to share with you some extraordinary things I learned while making the series. The photos below are my favorites from the production, and each one tells a surprising story.
If you’re at all like me, you wash in the morning and scarcely think about water, even as it hits your face. You’ll eat and drink, and scarcely think about the water needed to make your food, shelter and clothing.
That’s why we need “the water lens”. Let’s start seeing water for what it really is—a molecule in the most intimate bond with life imaginable. It’s the molecule that made us who we are.
And it’s changing. Water is on the move—everywhere. There’s a measurable increase in droughts, floods, and shifts in the weather and the availability of this life-giving substance. If we can get to grips with how, and why it’s changing, then maybe we’ll stand a better chance of surviving.
So, how do you use the water lens? Have a look at these photos, and then read the stories that go with them. You may see a few things that might surprise you.
Professor Stephen Mojzsis walks in Krafla Lava Fields
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? This image shows you where water comes from, and makes you think about why water is still here.
In this photo, taken in Northern Iceland, you see a field of lava that is so new the rocks are still steaming. And this process tells us something about the origins of water on Earth.
Professor Stephen Mojzsis is the best man to explain this story and, in a nutshell, it goes like this: water is abundant everywhere in the universe. So 4.5 billion years ago, as our molten hot planet began to cool, the water emerged from the rocks and formed the oceans, the clouds, the rain, the rivers and lakes.
And relatively quickly, Stephen explains, chemicals mixed in the water, and life emerged. All life on earth is intimately connected with water. An adult human is 60% water.
Every form of life depends on water. But what blew me away was when Stephen explained that it’s also true the other way around. Water on Earth has only endured because of life. Stephen put it this way: “with no water would be no life. But with no life would be no water.” (He had no idea that he had just composed a Haiku.)
A quick study of the other planets near us, and you learn they have lost their water. Mars and Venus no longer have oceans or any liquid water. If you want to know more about how life has kept water on Earth, then watch the series H2O: The Molecule that Made Us on PBS.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? The flow of water around the globe shows us how all life is interconnected—and in ways we could never have imagined.
Let’s fall in love with water. I mean, it connects life in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
In this photo you see a “wandering glider” dragonfly, and in the background an African elephant. What if I told you that the parents of these young dragonflies began life in India?
You see, in India it rains during the monsoon season, and those weather patterns sweep off the coast of India and go all the way to Africa, where it rains once again during the African monsoon. One way to look at this (using the water lens) is to see it as a river in the sky, connecting continents! And that river brings more than just rain…
These tiny five-centimeter-long dragonflies fly thousands of feet high in altitude and then “surf” the rain clouds all the way to Africa. (They are also followed by birds like the Amur falcon). On the East African savannah, in pools left by the rains, the dragonflies in this photo spent about six weeks as underwater nymphs before emerging. We took this photo the same day the dragonflies took their first flight.
The dragonfly’s amazing journey, which was only recently discovered by biologist Charles Anderson, takes them across the vast Indian Ocean. These little guys in the photo will soon make the return journey which in total is a 10-thousand-miles round trip!
Not only is this the greatest migration of any insect–even longer than the Monarch butterfly–it has profound consequences for both continents. These tiny creatures are experts at gobbling up mosquitoes, both in pools during the nymph stage and also when flying. They are nature’s best mosquito killer. And that makes them vitally important to people—both in India and Africa. Especially people vulnerable to mosquito borne diseases like malaria and West Nile disease…
Humanity is only now grasping the full significance of these migrations, and of the amazing movements of fresh water across the skies of planet Earth.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? Perhaps the greatest untold story about water is the story of the water you cannot see, because it is hidden underground.
In this photo we are underground with Camila Jaber, a free-dive champion, in a Mexican cave known as a cenote. The water here is famously clear.
I want to use this photo to tell a much bigger story. Almost everywhere you walk on land, there’s likely to be water somewhere beneath your feet. Most of it won’t look like this—it’s most often trapped in soil and rocks. It may also be contaminated, like the hazy cloud below Camila which is infused with Hydrogen Sulphide.
The discovery and harnessing of underground water may be one of the great untold stories of our time. For centuries humans have known that if you dig a well, you might be able to lower a bucket and pull up fresh water. But recently, with diesel engines and drilling machines, we can now pull up water from thousands of feet below ground.
The result? A huge explosion in human development. Anyone who has been to the “sun cities” of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver or Las Vegas may not realize, but these relatively young cities only exist because of the water beneath them. And it’s not just cities that are made possible by underground water, it’s also food. Today, as much as 43% of the water used to irrigate crops comes from underground.
We need the water lens to see this story, because it underpins our modern civilisations.
Center Pivot and Crack
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? These images tell a story about what is happening beneath our feet, without our knowledge.
I wanted to combine these two photos because together they tell a story—think “cause and an effect”. Center Pivot demonstrates how water can be drawn up from deep underground to grow food. It’s a profound business, because it means that even in a desert, with so much sunshine you can grow food all year round. There’s no reason to stop. It’s hugely efficient, and it’s big business.
The Centre Pivot photo was taken just outside the city of Phoenix, Arizona. The water that they’re pumping up is known as “fossil water” because much of it was deposited during previous ice ages. In fact, much of it was snow and ice that melted and trickled underground over thousands and thousands of years.
What that tells you is that this water isn’t being replaced very quickly. In other words, once it’s gone, we may have to wait thousands of years to get it back again.
Which brings us to Crack. This photo is also in Arizona. There are many of these cracks appearing on the surface because we’re using up Arizona’s underground water so quickly. I think of it as a pie. If you remove a pie’s filling, the crust on top is unsupported so it begins to crack and sink down.
We know of basins in Arizona where the depth you go to reach water—called a water table—has dropped over 500 feet. That water takes up space, and when it’s gone the land on top subsides downwards. Geologists estimate that the land on the left side of this crack is over 10 feet lower than on the right side.
Once again, the water lens can help us see a story unfolding that may not be apparent to the naked eye.
Foamy Rio Tiete
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? What’s in the water? When you figure that out, then can you figure out why it’s in there?
When I show people this photo, they sometimes guess that the white stuff is “ice”. But they also sense that it’s not. If it’s ice, then why is there a green tropical forest in the background?
It’s actually foam. And it’s toxic. We were told stories of people who were exposed to this water and later died. I’m not surprised—just standing on the banks made me feel ill. Sometimes there’s so much foam it swallows up trucks on bridges.
I spent my 50th birthday here, on the banks of the Rio Tiete near Sao Paulo, Brazil, filming kayaker Dan Robson risking his life to take water samples in the saddest river on Earth. And the locals told us how they used to swim and play here just a few decades ago.
The pollution in the Rio Tiete isn’t normally this concentrated because there is generally enough rain to flush the pollution downstream. But Brazil keeps getting hit by mega-droughts. The 2015 drought was so severe that residents of Sao Paulo ran out of water. There were riots in the suburb of Itu, just a few miles from where this photo was taken.
Of course, it would be best if this pollution never made it into the river in the first place. But as the water molecule is changing its path, even places where there’s typically a lot of water all of a sudden have very little, and the results are alarming and unpredictable.
Cyclist in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan
WHAT TO LOOK FOR? These images tell a story about what is happening beneath our feet, without our knowledge.
This photo is from the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, currently home to nearly 80 thousand refugees from the Syrian Civil War. I’ve included it because I think that the most advanced use of the water lens is to see the role that water plays in current affairs.
In H2O: The Molecule That Made Us we follow the research of Oxford geographer Troy Sternberg who followed an unprecedented series of droughts that rippled across the globe from 2006 to 2011. From Australia to China to Russia and the Middle East, these droughts devastated farmers. And they directly impacted the price of wheat, which began to skyrocket.
By 2010, people in countries like Egypt were unable to afford wheat to make bread. This fuelled their anger, which led in part to the Arab Spring uprising. In Egypt’s case, the Arab Spring led to a change in government. In Syria, it led to civil war, made all the worse by the most severe drought to hit Syria in 500 years. It was a perfect storm of drought and civil unrest.
Water—and drought—has never been the only reason for a civil war. But when people can’t grow food (80 per cent of Syria’s livestock died in the drought), and they can no longer feed their children, they become desperate. And when they are desperate enough, violence can seem like the only solution.
The Syrian Civil War displaced about 6 million people, with 1 million fleeing to Europe. As devastating as this has been, what if a similar situation led to famine in India, or Mexico, or China? These are countries with much larger populations than Syria, but with a similar amounts of water stress. We must use the water lens to keep an eye on our collective future.
Nicolas Brown – Producer/Director
Nicolas Brown is one of the UK and USA's leading documentary filmmakers. His latest film for cinema release, The Serengeti Rules has won 21 major awards at festivals around the world including Wildscreen and Jackson Hole. Nicolas’ other films have won 3 Emmy awards, two BAFTA awards, and over 50 major festival awards in the USA, China, India, and Europe. For the past 7 years he has worked for Passion Pictures as a creative director, and ran Passion’s Blue Media Lab (a conservation think-tank). At Passion he directed and produced Earth: a New Wild, which won a Panda Award at Wildscreen for "Best Series". He also recently directed National Geographic’s award winning Giant Screen IMAX film Pandas 3D: The Journey Home (in IMAX cinemas now). A regular at the BBC, Nicolas directed the award winning Earth’s Natural Wonders, two BAFTA-winning episodes of Human Planet, and the multi-award winning Climate Chaos with Sir David Attenborough. For the Discovery Channel his film The Truth About Global Warming with Tom Brokaw won the Emmy for Best Long Form Documentary. Other credits include the Emmy nominated Mankind (The History Channel), First Peoples (PBS), and the Emmy nominated series Frontier House and Colonial House (PBS/Channel 4). Brown’s latest series with Passion Pictures entitled H2O: The Molecule That Made Us premieres this April 2020 on PBS as a NOVA Special. He is now in production with Off the Fence on a film with Pope Francis about the Pope’s encyclical (book) titled 'Laudato Si’.
Water is Life
Life has perpetuated the liquid water on the surface of our planet for geologic time.
Rivers in the Sky
The greatest migration of any insect has profound consequences for two continents.
Watch free Diver Camilla Jaber dives in a cenote, in the Yucatan, Mexico.
Cracks in the Earth
Our demands on groundwater are creating huge cracks, across the earth’s surface.
How much water does it take to get a tomato to your plate?
The Foamy Rio Tiete
Mega-droughts in Brazil lead to toxic foam polluting the Rio Tiete.
Global Consequences of Drought
See the role drought can play in war, and in politics around the world.