NOVA recommends the documentary, "H2O: The Molecule That Made Us," a three-hour series from WGBH Boston which dramatically reveals how water underpins every aspect of our existence.
Earth’s changing water cycle—and a globalized movement towards water for profit—is forcing changes in humans’ reliance on water. Can a geopolitical crisis be averted? (Premiered May 6, 2020)
"H2O: The Molecule that Made Us” is a production of Passion Planet for WGBH, with funding from Draper, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Lynn Bay Dayton and Bruce C. Dayton, Anne Ray Foundation and PBS.
H2O: The Molecule That Made Us: Crisis
PBS Airdate: May 6, 2020
KELLY MCEVERS: Sometimes the best story is right there in front of you, but you don’t see it. How did I not see water? I’m Kelly McEvers and I’m a radio journalist.
Every morning I take a shower, I drink my coffee, but it never really occurred to me. I now believe this humble molecule—the one that’s hitting my face every morning—could be the most important, untold story of our time.
So, with a team of filmmakers and scientists, this is our podcast-style documentary on the story of water. It’s easy to follow this story through a record-breaking drought or in the increasingly frequent mega-floods. But sometimes the connections to water are less obvious, like when dry forests burst into flames or when water shortages wreak havoc on stock markets.
Without water, we struggle to feed ourselves and people get desperate. Changes to the supplies of water on Earth are shaping a new world order around us.
So, I have a new saying—“If you want to understand why our world is changing…follow the water.”
So, what does a water crisis even look like? Does it look like war? Does it look like a famine? Or does a water crisis hide in plain sight?
Just 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, Gaza is near the epicenter of Middle Eastern conflicts. But instead of politics, for a moment, let’s just follow the water.
YEHIA JEDALLAH: God mentioned in the Qur’an that all living things come from water. Ever since we were born we’ve been struggling to get water.
KELLY MCEVERS: Yehia Jedallah lives with his father and brothers in a neighborhood called Al-Shati. For 4000 years people here have gotten their water from wells, but because the aquifer is now overdrawn, the saltwater is intruding from the sea.
YEHIA JEDALLAH: The government is supposed to deliver water to the people every day. Our water comes from a charity who dug a well and filter it. We collect water from the schools and mosques.
KELLY MCEVERS: Today 97 per cent of Gaza’s wells are unfit for human consumption. If nothing is done the United Nations predicts that Gaza will soon be unlivable.
YEHIA JEDALLAH: It’s possible the war could end any day, but the water shortage never ends in Gaza. It’s very hard for me because without water I can’t wash, cook, or drink. Nobody can live like this, you start to hate yourself. Never in my life have I met someone who has a 24-hour water supply.
KELLY MCEVERS: Watching this you might think “Whoa, that is really bad…for them.” But you’re also probably thinking: “My water problems are never going to get that bad”.
But here is the thing, experts are saying that in 10 years the worldwide demand for water will outstrip supply by 40%. So, statistically at least, for many of us, Gaza is the future.
Maybe you think this couldn’t happen in one of the richest nations in the world? Well, take a look at this…
The Salton Sea. A place that once attracted more visitors than Yosemite National Park.
PROMOTIONAL FILM: Here is truly a miracle in the desert. Today, the Salton Riviera beside the blue Salton Sea is the place for you to take charge of your future. This unusual city has a date with destiny…
KELLY MCEVERS: That date with destiny did not end well. Water scientist, Jay Famiglietti, understands what happened here. I like to think of him as the water detective.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Welcome to my office…
KELLY MCEVERS: Jay told me that we used to let fresh water reach the Salton Sea. But now, we have diverted the water for other uses. The only water that reaches the Sea is farm run-off, which is so polluted that the entire basin is a public health risk!
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: One of the things that I think is really clear from looking at the satellite picture is that the need for humanity to grow food is really putting one of the biggest fingerprints on this global map of changing water availability.
And so, what that says to me, is that we’re having a huge impact and so we really need to think about it.
KELLY MCEVERS: For Jay, the Salton Sea is also a glimpse into the future.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: If we think about worst possible situation, take a big city like Phoenix runs out of water, this is what it might look like.
KELLY MCEVERS: Jay often gets accused of being Dr. Doom and Gloom.
CONTROLLER: Rock, R C. Countdown one.
KELLY MCEVERS: But get him around his rockets, and he perks up a bit.
CONTROLLER: Clarify range for screening. Go for launch.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: I’m literally getting the chills, and it’s not from the cold weather…
KELLY MCEVERS: The total amount of water on Earth does not change. You can’t make it or take it away. So, the question is: where does it go?
To answer that, Jay, and his colleagues at NASA, created the GRACE mission.
COUNTDOWN: AFDS is ready for launch.
KELLY MCEVERS: And now after 15 years of successful measurement, GRACE is getting a major upgrade.
CONTROLLER: F9 is in startup.
LD go for launch.
10, 9, 8…
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Yeah, it’s a huge deal for, obviously for me personally but… I don’t want to sound too corny, but it is a huge deal for humanity…
COUNTDOWN: And lift-off of Grace Follow-On, continuing the legacy of the GRACE mission of tracking the movement of water across our planet.
CONTROLLER: People pitching down range.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: You know it reminds me of sending my son off to college, when we dropped him off at the airport. There he goes, he’s gonna do great things.
NASA CONTROL: We have… Stage separation confirmed.
Stage separation has been confirmed.
KELLY MCEVERS: GRACE can help us finally understand how water moves across our planet. Several of NASA’s satellite missions have already been gathering decades of data that can be pieced together. And they picture the ancient pathways that water has taken since the last ice age. A pulse—intimately connected with all life on Earth.
Scientists in the Amazon recently discovered that in tropical forests, the trees themselves pump water back into the sky. Above their canopies, this tree-water gathers into aerial rivers that can flow for thousands of miles. But recently, even the most ancient patterns have been changing.
And we know this because, for the past 15 years, Jay’s GRACE satellites have circled the Earth every ninety-four and a half minutes, gathering data. With remarkable precision, they measure the weight of every snowstorm, flood, and drought.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: We’ve been able to construct this pretty incredible map. And it’s a really unprecedented look at how water’s moving over the Earth, in a way that we’ve never been able to do before. And we see a very, very distinctive pattern. The wet areas, they’re getting wetter. And the dry areas in between are getting drier.
The availably of water is much more fragile and tenuous than we think and so, even in the developed world, we shouldn’t take it for granted.
KELLY MCEVERS: I live in Los Angeles, and one of the things that worries me the most is drought.
NEWSREADER: Cape Town’s main reservoir is a dust bowl. Cape Town is about to find out whether a city can survive when the water runs out. Day zero has arrived.
KELLY MCEVERS: Drought hit South Africa in 2015 and for the next three years they had almost no rain. The city of Cape Town was within days of shutting off their taps. We sent a team to film the approach of Day Zero. And as they followed the water, the trail took an unexpected and dark turn out of the city and into the once wealthy farmland of the Western Cape where farmers were dying with the stress of the drought.
BURRE BURGER: I lost three friends during this drought who took their own lives. Because they had no hope for their farms, they had no hope for nothing. And that’s the thing why we still try to do what we do.
KELLY MCEVERS: Burre Burger’s charity delivers water and feed for livestock to farmers, who are no longer able to farm the land...
FARMER: Well, we are on the point that we are basically giving up. Four years since we last had proper rain. Most of our animals we had to get rid of. It’s a battle against nature.
BURRE BURGER: The thing with drought is...the farmers know how to farm for a year, or maybe a year and a half, but not for six, seven, eight years. On some of the farms they’ve had no rain for almost seven years now.
So, then you struggle. Then you struggle with life.
KELLY MCEVERS: The UN reports that world-wide, areas affected by droughts have more than doubled in the past 40 years. And droughts affect more people than any other natural hazard.
BURRE BURGER: If there is one thing I’m going to change in South Africa, through this project of mine, I’m going to bring back unity to our country. We try to get people together and it’s because of water. That one molecule [LAUGHS]… Yah.
KELLY MCEVERS: If you’re caught in the middle of a drought, it’s easy to imagine that the whole world is running out of water. Far from it. In fact, as the GRACE data shows us, the moisture lost in a drought-stricken area almost always finds its way to somewhere else.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: One of the consequences of a warming world is that the atmosphere can hold more moisture.
And if the atmosphere can hold more moisture, that means its gonna drop more moisture.
KELLY MCEVERS: When water is on the move...so is Mike Olbinski.
MIKE OBLINSKI: We gotta haul ass!
KELLY MCEVERS: As a professional storm chaser, he is one of the few people who benefits from new weather extremes!
MIKE OBLINSKI: Yeah, look at that. It’s really looking good out there…
Yeah, it’s really gorgeous.
KELLY MCEVERS: Most storm chasers want to see tornadoes, but Mike tracks these rare, giant thunderstorms known as super-cells.
MIKE OBLINSKI: Oh, this is stunning
At this point it’s pretty, but I want a mothership supercell, so we’ll see if we get that. And so hopefully it’s gonna be a beastly supercell with some good structure after a while.
Alright I think we should go. It’s getting close, and I wanna get in front of it.
KELLY MCEVERS: Supercells can be ten miles high, 25 times the volume of Mt. Everest, and drop billions of gallons of water in just hours. They produce softball sized hail, high winds, severe lightening and even tornadoes.
In the American Midwest, storms like these are a third more common than when Mike was born. Big storms are dropping 10 percent more rain than they did 25 years ago.
MIKE OBLINSKI: I felt a drop
CREW: That’s hail!
MIKE OBLINSKI: Oh, was that hail? Hey, probably gotta go.
MIKE OBLINSKI: That hail just hit me in the head!
KELLY MCEVERS: And it’s not just moisture, storms feed on heat, so warmer conditions also mean more raw power.
MIKE OBLINSKI: [HUFFS] Now the nerves come out, now the adrenaline’s pumping.
(Excited shouts) Ha woo—it’s what we freaking live for right here. This is great; I hope my exposure is right.
KELLY MCEVERS: Mike finally finds the super-cell storm he’s been looking for.
MIKE OBLINSKI: Ah man it’s so great! Just, keep, just move slow baby. Just move slow.
This is one of the best super-cells I’ve ever seen. It’s literally all, like, run by water. They need this for the crops and if you didn’t have it, then no one would live here.
CRISTIAN DIMITRIUS: That was good man, thanks
CRISTIAN DIMITRIUS: That was good.
KELLY MCEVERS: It has been a good day for the storm chasers. But these grand movements of water also tell a tragic story—one we’ve been tracking all over America.
NEWS REPORTER: Supercells have been spotted on the radar.
Tornado alley has already been hammered.
That is a wall of water right now.
Flood waters rising as high as ten feet.
KELLY MCEVERS: One storm in particular caught our attention. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence acted strangely, as it hit the Carolinas.
NEWS REPORT: Florence will produce catastrophic flooding over parts of North and South Carolina for some time.
KELLY MCEVERS: Instead of blowing through, like most hurricanes, Florence stalled on the coast. Like a supersize vacuum, it took moisture from the ocean and poured it on to land, as rain. Florence broke 28 flood and rainfall records for the Carolinas.
WOMAN: That’s the top half of our garage. I don’t know where the rest of it is.
KELLY MCEVERS: We headed to the Carolinas with photographer Gideon Mendel. Gideon has been documenting the increase in flooding around the world.
GIDEON MENDEL: Can we just pause for a second so I can get the reflection of the church? That’d be cool.
I guess I have kind of fascination with this landscape. There is something about a flooded environment which I actually find very visually alluring.
MAN 1: He ain’t gonna come in the boat.
MAN 2: That’s a big old blue runner! He’ll chase ya!
GIDEON MENDEL: At the heart of the whole project is a series that I call submerged portraits, and, you know, it’s a series of pictures of people affected by flooding, engaging with the camera directly.
Would you be open to us talking to you and photographing you maybe?
GEORGE: Yeah. I’ve been 34 years on this beach and I’ve never seen it like this.
And they’ve been saying it’s coming up another three feet. That will just about reach the roof of my building. I got a lot of tools in there.
[CHOKES UP] I thought we was gonna be alright, but I guess not.
GIDEON MENDEL: I’m so sorry George. Can you just come a little bit forward here? That’s perfect.
It is quite amazing how long people will sit there and stand there in the water and engage with me. 15, 20 minutes, half an hour sometimes…
Portraiture and the direct gaze at the camera, for me, is so important.
KELLY MCEVERS: For Gideon, the increase in flooding, is a global story. In the past 12 years he has photographed 20 floods in 13 countries.
GIDEON MENDEL: The water connects all the people I photograph. Despite huge differences in culture, class, location, when the water’s in your home they have a shared vulnerability to flooding, to climate change, to global warming.
KELLY MCEVERS: Extreme rain and flooding is now four times more likely than it was 40 years ago. Hurricanes are 60 percent more powerful than 50 years ago, and their top wind speeds have increased 25 percent. So, there’s more flooding…
And there’s more drought…
And honestly, it’s amazing that farmers are still able to feed the world.
But what I didn’t realize, is the extent to which farmers are tapping into a secret stash of water, a hidden source that is not affected by droughts or flood. Water that lives underground.
Deep under our feet there are aquifers that together hold more water than all the lakes and rivers on Earth. They don’t often look like this—most ground water is held in layers of rock or sand. Many aquifers contain what’s called “fossil water” and what that means is it took thousands of years to get here. It is not easy to follow the water that is hidden underground. But you might have seen these circles from a plane.
With a metal straw and a diesel engine, we can reach aquifers 3000 feet down. Humanity started this kind of industrial pumping of water just a hundred years ago. And it’s been so successful nearly half the water used for farm irrigation comes from underground—this water grows almost one fifth of the world’s food supply.
We have been draining aquifers with little idea of how much water is in them. Until now…
When Jay, and his colleagues, launched GRACE—which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment—they designed the system to do the impossible... to see into the Earth’s crust using gravity.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: We can see storage changes in the world’s great aquifer systems from space. I like to say GRACE works like a scale in the sky.
KELLY MCEVERS: GRACE is actually two satellites. As they approach an area that has just had a storm, for example, the extra weight of that water pulls the satellites.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: So, as they approach this region that has more mass and therefore a greater gravitational tug, the first one gets pulled down and accelerates a little bit. Second one comes in, it gets pulled down, accelerates a little bit. So, the distance between the two changes.
That’s the measurement that the GRACE Mission makes, it’s the position of the satellites.
KELLY MCEVERS: In this way, GRACE can tell us the difficult truth about our aquifers.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Sadly, ground water is barely managed around the world. And so ground water is quietly disappearing.
KELLY MCEVERS: In California, the ground water took thousands of years to accumulate, and we are using this fossil water much faster than it can be replaced.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: This is the definition of unsustainable. The disappearance of ground water is really threatening the water security of the western US and really no one’s talking about it.
KELLY MCEVERS: Jay has been doing what he can to get the message out.
BILL MAHER: He’s a professor at the University of California at Irvine and Senior Water Scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jay Famiglietti!
[AUDIENCE CHEERS] Alright, so, finally, a witness who will tell us expert testimony about this...
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: You know, here’s the thing. The drought situation is much worse than I think is generally perceived. And this may be why we’re not getting the public response that we want.
BILL MAHER: Yes, show that chart, look at this. It’s green and now it’s red. Now doc, I’m not a scientist…
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Red is bad!
BILL MAHER: Red is bad. That’s what I know, red is bad.
[LAUGHTER KEEPS ECHOING]
KELLY MCEVERS: It’s pretty safe to say that Jay is frustrated more people are not taking his breakthrough insight more seriously. But the truth is, it’s hard to stop pumping the water. Farmers need water. All of us need food. If anything, we just keep pumping faster.
STEVE ARTHUR: So what we’re doing here is, we just got down to the second casing yesterday afternoon…
KELLY MCEVERS: It wasn’t until we met Steve Arthur that we got a sense of the scale of these wells. He drills thirty new wells each year.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Can you see the water table fall over time?
STEVE ARTHUR: Well, I remember when I was a kid, we would drill in the Madera area. We would go 240 to 300 feet. 300 feet was considered a deep well! Now we’re replacing those wells with 5- and 600-foot wells.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Oh, okay!
KELLY MCEVERS: Steve says it’s become a kind of a race to the bottom. If one farmer drills deep to get the water, the next farmer drills even deeper. And all this drilling is not cheap.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: If I’m a customer, I don’t have a well, I want you to dig a new well. It's 2000 feet deep. How much is that gonna cost me?
STEVE ARTHUR: It’s gonna cost you a little over half a million.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Whoa!
STEVE ARTHUR: Half to three quarters, depending how it’s constructed.
KELLY MCEVERS: That is an insane amount of money! Which tells you that water is big business. It also tells you why so many of America’s aquifers are running dry.
The Ogallala aquifer—one of the biggest on Earth—lies beneath eight Midwestern states, from Texas to Nebraska.
MIKE CALLICRATE: This is Ogallala Aquifer water. Comes through the water system over here with the big storage tank.
KELLY MCEVERS: Like most of the families in St. Francis, the Callicrates have farmed here for generations.
MIKE CALLICRATE: My grandkids, Wilson and Charlie, ‘ll be the fifth generation on this land.
KELLY MCEVERS: But Mike does not see High Plains farming as a success story.
MIKE CALLICRATE: We have just flat squandered this resource over the last 40 years that I’ve been associated with, with farming and ranching and cattle production in this area.
If we would stop pumping today it would take six thousand years to recover the, the amount of water that we’ve taken out… in just the last forty or fifty years.
KELLY MCEVERS: The aquifer under St. Francis is already a third empty. Mike blames the industrial model of agriculture—the one he was taught in college.
MIKE CALLICRATE: I’ve had a front row seat in this disaster, and I hate industrial agriculture.
KELLY MCEVERS: Most of the water from the Ogallala aquifer is used to grow grain for feed lots full of cows.
MIKE CALLICRATE: This is the biggest feed lot in the world off to your left. It’s 130,000 head of cattle in one place.
From a business perspective entirely, you’re thinking about the Ogallala aquifer as a gold miner would see a gold mine. As an asset, as a resource to be extracted and utilized. And when it’s gone, it’s gone!
KELLY MCEVERS: What worries Mike is what happens when the water runs out, and the mining operation moves on.
In St. Francis, Mike thinks industrial agriculture has broken the hope these communities have for a sustainable future. And it has already hurt the community that lives here.
MIKE CALICRATE: You know when we look at this main street of Saint Francis, Kansas, what you’re really looking at is the approach of industrial agriculture.
It doesn’t care about people, it cares about return on investment, it, it cares about a bank account and everything else doesn’t matter. It’s no wonder we’re losing rural communities and losing farmers.
KELLY MCEVERS: Down on the southern edge of the Ogallala, the aquifer is already running dry, and putting farmers out of business. Without the farmers, the local economy collapses. And if the trend continues the town of Happy, Texas is the sign of things to come. Four churches, but not a single store open for business.
Jay knows this underground water problem is not only in America. GRACE sees into aquifers all over the world.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: There’s thirty-seven major aquifers around the world. And over half of them are past sustainability tipping points. Which means we use more than is being replenished on an annual basis and we’re technically mining them.
KELLY MCEVERS: Given that nearly half of the water used for farm irrigation depends on these aquifers, you can understand Jay’s alarm.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: So, as that groundwater disappears, our ability to produce food for the world’s growing population will be threatened.
KELLY MCEVERS: In fact, there’s growing evidence this is already happening. And it is having serious consequences.
This story begins in Syria in 2006, when the country was hit by the worst drought in 500 years. Farmers began to overdraw water from their aquifer. And with GRACE, Jay could see it as it was happening.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: We saw the Syria hotspot and we saw that ground water depletion way ahead of time. And we did try to communicate that to the Pentagon…
Err State Department ummm…and its, you know it’s tough, it’s tough to get attention. You know, who are you? You’re some Professor that walks in with a research paper err and a colorful map erm and it’s hard to really convey what’s, what’s happening. But, you know, we made our efforts repeatedly.
KELLY MCEVERS: I was actually reporting in the Middle East at the time. And when protests, and later war broke out, we knew it was connected to the drought. But what we didn’t know was how it was connected to a much larger global story.
NEWS REPORTER: Now the protesters are battling for regime change.
KELLY MCEVERS: The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is home to about 80 thousand refugees from Syria’s civil war.
Troy Sternberg is a geographer from Oxford University and another detective who follows the story of water. He wrote a paper showing how global droughts caused a chain of events that influenced not only Syria’s war, but politics around the world. His interviews with refugees, like Mahmoud Al-Kadr, add a human dimension to the data.
TROY STERNBERG: Mahmoud, could you please explain what brings you to the refugee camp? What factors drive you here?
MAHMOUD Al-KADR: The lack of rain have reduced the amount of crops growing naturally. So, people had to go and start getting water from underground. But they also stopped the diesel. So, there is no diesel to be able to pump water. So, there was no water to drink. There is no food with the drought. We start eating the grass.
KELLY MCEVERS: 85% of Syria’s livestock died and hundreds of thousands of farming families like Mahmoud’s had to abandon their farms. They ended up settling outside Syria’s big cities.
Troy’s research shows that there were much larger global forces at work, more than just a drought in Syria. When Troy followed the water, he documented a series of droughts… that connected Russia, China, the Arab Spring, and politics across Europe.
TROY STERNBERG: This globalized world is very interconnected, things that happen in one part of the world can have a great knock-on effect in another part of the world.
Sometimes we talk about this as the butterfly effect, but I think it’s more direct. And it’s really climate, drought, anything that happens that we can’t control or can’t count on. One way might be to look at it as a series of dominos.
KELLY MCEVERS: It was a set of dominos that collapsed over a ten-year period. And it started when Australia faced a drought described as: “a 1000-year event.”
NEWS REPORTER: Australia is dying of thirst.
And where there used to be water, there is only dry, cracked earth.
KELLY MCEVERS: During the winter, countries in the Northern hemisphere depend on the Southern hemisphere for wheat.
And the drought threatened Australia’s ability to supply this winter-wheat to the rest of the world. Then, the next domino fell. In 2010, mainland China suffered its own drought.
REPORTERS: The drought ravaging China is being called the worst in a century.
TROY STERNBERG: Wheat is a global commodity traded on the international market, so liable to market forces. So, if China needs more wheat, my thinking was: Does this have another impact somewhere else in the world?
KELLY MCEVERS: Troy followed the trail to the Middle East where farmers were suffering from their own drought. And with the wheat issues in Australia and China, it affected food prices in Syria and Egypt.
TROY STERNBERG: So, as Egypt needs more wheat and China needs more wheat there is less wheat available.
KELLY MCEVERS: Then in 2010 another domino fell. Russia, the largest exporter of wheat to the Middle East, was gripped by a devastating heat wave.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: [DUBBED] Due to abnormally high temperatures and drought, I believe it is reasonable to introduce a temporary ban on grain and wheat products export.
KELLY MCEVERS: With wheat exports from Russia reduced by 80%—world prices skyrocketed.
PAXMAN: It’s Christmas for the speculators as prices drive upwards.
...Wheat by a whopping 130%.
TROY STERNBERG: There’s a limited supply, great demand…
KELLY MCEVERS: Speculators on the commodities market saw an opportunity—they bought and held on to the wheat… while prices rose. Richer countries can stockpile the grain.
TROY STERNBERG: They have a great physical and infrastructure power—ships around the world that can transport wheat. Other countries don’t have this possibility.
KELLY MCEVERS: By the time some Arab governments realized what was going on, it was too late. Prices for bread went way up.
TROY STERNBERG: In Egypt, the wheat prices skyrocketed 300 percent and more.
NEWS REPORTER: In recent weeks there have been long queues in front of bakeries, rising prices have even caused riots in the Nile delta.
KELLY MCEVERS: Hunger began to fuel people’s anger toward their governments.
EGYPTIAN CROWD: Bread, Freedom, Justice!
TROY STERNBERG: We see food riots in Cairo...
NEWS REPORTER: After Friday prayers, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir square.
The people of Egypt have toppled their leader. Egypt will never be the same.
TROY STERNBERG: And that’s where the Arab Spring really brings everything together.
KELLY MCEVERS: Which brings us back to Syria. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and suffering from their own drought, Syrian protesters also took to the streets.
NEWS REPORTER: The Syrian government made it very clear today that it will tolerate no dissent.
KELLY MCEVERS: Events escalated And Mahmoud’s family was caught in the crossfire.
MAHMOUD Al-KADR: I lost my son and I lost my wife in this war. My wife was on the way to the market in Damascus—on the roof top there was some snipers and she have got a shot in the head.
So, I’m afraid for the rest of the family and we came here, and here they were helping us, and they were supporting us.
KELLY MCEVERS: Water or drought is of course only one factor that influenced these events. But when a million refugees fled to Europe, the falling dominoes came down much closer to home.
NEWS REPORTER: These people calling for the regime to change are on the back foot. They’ve been forced from their homes and pushed towards the border with Turkey.
TROY STERNBERG: As migrants pour into Europe, in the UK, we see this filmed on TV throughout the summer of 2015. It plays very well into the Brexit Leave debate.
NEWS REPORTER: The leave campaign celebrates. As the UK votes to cut its ties with the European Union.
KELLY MCEVERS: The fear of mass migration directly impacted the Brexit vote in Britain. And, according to Troy, even had an impact here in America.
TROY STERNBERG: If we go further, this news plays out in the US. And Donald Trump gets elected on this very nativist ‘America first’ theme.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will build a wall.
KELLY MCEVERS: Troy’s concern is that the water crisis can spark an even more dramatic chain of events, in other parts of the world.
TROY STERNBERG: What will we see next? What happens if we have a climate disaster in India or China or Mexico or Pakistan? Then we’re talking about very serious dynamics and very serious outcomes.
KELLY MCEVERS: In our globalized interconnected world, no country can afford to ignore water and climate. For the past four years, the World Economic Forum has ranked the impact of the water crisis alongside weapons of mass destruction, disease outbreaks, and failure to address climate change.
Looking for solutions we came back to the US, and we went to New York City. And, we reconnected with Giulio Boccaletti who wrote a seminal report for the World Economic Forum.
In it he calculated that, ten years from now, the world will need 40% more fresh water that it can supply. But Giulio thinks that if more people knew about New York’s water story they could avoid that grim fate.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: New York has a very particular experience but one that I think holds the key to the solution to the water crisis for the whole world.
I suspect most New Yorkers, you know, assume that water just comes out of the tap and yet behind that tap there is one of the most sophisticated integrations of nature and water that has ever been seen on the planet.
KELLY MCEVERS: Giulio took us to meet the CEO of WaterAid America, Sarina Prabasi. While Sarina has worked on water issues all over the world, here in New York, she and her husband also own a coffee shop. She cares a lot about New York’s water.
SARINA PRABASI: Water is the life blood of our business, like there is no good coffee without good water.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: So, you work for WaterAid and what do you think people imagine when they think about the water crisis?
SARINA PRABASI: People have thought about the water crisis as something elsewhere. But now I think there is more understanding that the water crisis is all around us.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: So, New York had a proverbial fork in the road, right, and had to take one option rather than the other.
SARINA PRABASI: In the 80s the water was getting very polluted, and in the 90s I think there was a real strategic decision to make. Of how the future of New York City water would be handled.
One way could have been, a bit more business as usual, invest in infrastructure.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: And this was, we’re talking about treatment works right, a treatment plant?
SARINA PRABASI: Treatment, filtration, technology: high cost, I think six billion dollars. Definitely a more energy intensive approach.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: And what about the alternatives?
SARINA PRABASI: And the other option was to really look at where the water is coming from.
KELLY MCEVERS: Because, where the water was coming from was the Catskill mountains. So, instead of a new treatment plant, New Yorkers chose to invest in a nature reserve, that doubles as a giant water farm.
SARINA PRABASI: The water is being filtered, by trees, this natural environment serves like a sponge, holding the water.
KELLY MCEVERS: A forest replaces heavy industrial infrastructure, with the added benefits that the place runs itself. Maintenance free. And supplies 90 percent of New York’s water!
SARINA PRABASI: For New York City it was a radical choice for the time, but it was going back to something that has been working for millennia. The water cycle belongs to nature.
GIULIO BOCCALETTI: In a way it’s the most simple of answers back into nature, find the answer back at the very beginning from the eco-systems that we came from... and yet it can support one of the most modern societies on the planet.
KELLY MCEVERS: Making the most of our connection to nature is undoubtedly the best way forward. But what works for a wealthy city, in a moist climate, won’t necessarily work everywhere.
JAY FAMIGLIETTI: I don’t think we’re really gonna find any silver bullets. I think as we look around the world, region by region, each one is gonna need a different portfolio of approaches to manage their way through water scarcity.
KELLY MCEVERS: Maybe it’s not surprising, but we found in the places on Earth where there is less water, people value it more.
And of all the places we went to, it was in the Middle East where we saw, not only the challenges ahead, but also glimpses of hope. Since its inception, Israel has valued water much like America values oil. They even went to war over it. So here, controlling water is a matter of survival.
Israel recycles 90 percent of its water, compared to just 1% in the US. And they achieved this not just through wealth and power, but through winning hearts and minds.
ADVERTISEMENT: Israel is running dry. It’s happening all over the world. It’s not just a drought year. And we can’t waste any water.
KELLY MCEVERS: It’s this appreciation of water that Mike Callicrate would like to see here, in the US.
MIKE CALLICRATE: I would like to see us not pump a drop more than what the recharge rate is. And we know what those numbers are.
Water is the public’s resource and it should be used responsibly and preserved. We can do this.
KELLY MCEVERS: So, in the end, each of our water experts agreed we can do this: that, unlike some threats we face, the water crisis is solvable. But we are vulnerable.
And in this finely tuned globalized world, if we don’t respect water or the climate, collapse will follow. When we understand the connections, where our water comes from, then we value it for what it is... the fuel of life itself, the molecule that made us.
ORIGINAL MUSIC BY
Maria Haase Coelho
POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR
Lily Jane Stead
Simon de Glanville
Kris Lavington Woods
TITLES DESIGNED BY
and Passion Pictures
POST PRODUCTION FACILITY
Written and Performed by Courtney Hartman
Water advert part of long-term campaign, accompanied by educational activities, of the Israeli Water Authority
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SPECIAL THANKS TO
The Nature Conservancy
Hub Culture Davos Pavilion
WITH THANKS TO
The Al-Kadr Family
Hamada Abu Ghali
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
World Economic Forum
Shan Shan Tam
LEAD BUSINESS MANAGER
NATIONAL AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
LEGAL & BUSINESS AFFAIRS
Pablo Velez, Jr.
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Produced by WGBH Boston and Passion Planet Ltd.
©2020 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved
- Mahmoud Al-Kadr, Steve Arthur, Burre Burger, Mike Callicrate, Cristian Dimitrius, Jay Famiglietti, Yehia Jedallah, Bill Maher, Kelly McEvers, Gideon Mendel, Mike Oblinski, Troy Sternberg