For the past eight years, conservation photographer Alison M. Jones and her team have been traveling to major watersheds in Africa and North America, photographing and interviewing scientists, residents and other stakeholders to document the beauty and life of important water resources, as well as the threats posed by human activity. Jones founded a nonprofit organization, No Water No Life, as a way to combine the power of photography and science to promote more support of sustainable management of water resources and better watershed stewardship.
She chose to focus on six watersheds, which collectively represent the global challenges threatening the world’s water supply and riparian ecosystems: the Nile; the Omo, located in Ethiopia; Kenya’s Mara River basin; the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest; the Mississippi; and the Raritan, in central New Jersey. Nearly 50 photographs by Jones of these watersheds – along with a few documenting other waterways, including the Hudson –are on display at the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, in an exhibit titled “Following Rivers.” Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Jones, who is based in New York City.
How did you become a conservation photographer? How does that differ from nature photography?
You can’t be out there documenting nature and its beauty and glory without seeing what is happening to it and being concerned. A group of us nature photographers became conservation photographers, and part of the group started the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Scientists would come to us and say, “We spend our whole lives on a book and people say ‘That’s nice’ and never look at it again. You guys are photographers, and people hang your images on their walls and look at them for years and years. So let’s work together.”
We’re all worried about the same things: species loss, climate change and protection of natural resources. That’s the basis of iLCP’s and my work: to combine the power of photography with science in order to raise awareness of whatever issues there may be. Eight years ago, I chose to focus on freshwater resources and founded the nonprofit No Water No Life.
How did the show “Following Rivers” come about?
“Any river is the summation of the whole valley,” to quote nature writer Hal Borland. What’s happening on the land, the culture of the river valley, impacts the availability and quality of water of the river or aquifer from which we need to drink.
I was thrilled when the Beacon Institute called and asked if I would like to do an exhibition. Like No Water No Life, the Institute is focusing on solutions. They, and we, are engaging scientists, engineers and environmentalists to expand our understanding of waterways.
Can you cite an example of the type of lack of stewardship that most concerns you? Is the situation improving?
Protection of our natural resources was much less prevalent, even 15 years ago. For instance, then there were no conservancies in Kenya. There were a few national nature reserves, but none involving the community and nongovernmental organizations dedicated to conserving the land. In 2000, I was asked to be part of the founding of the Mara Conservancy, which became a successful management model for further conservation in Kenya. Today there are 140 organizations based on that model.
What led you to water resources in particular?
In 2004 and 2005, I spent a lot of time flying in a Cessna over eight countries in sub-Sahara Africa. When I looked out the window I saw miles and miles of absolutely no water and no life – just this huge surface of gray bare land with just a few green ribbons strewn through it. Those were the rivers or lakeshores, where there was life, animals, little villages and communities.
Tell us a little about each watershed and why you chose it.
The Columbia River Basin pours more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in the Americas. It rises from a glacial-fed lake in Canada and flows through four mountain ranges. It’s one of the world’s most dammed rivers and supports a lot of agriculture. On our 2007 expedition, I captured many images of glaciers melting in the headwaters of this watershed.
The Mississippi River Basin is the third-largest in the world and drains 41 percent of the lower 48 states. It’s a vital waterway for US commerce and a source of freshwater for industrial, agricultural, livestock and human consumption. Its freshwater resources are vital to the security and economy of the United States.
New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin is a classic urban watershed. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and this is the largest watershed in New Jersey. It’s also the watershed where I grew up.
The Nile goes through 11 nations and is the world’s longest river. Millions of people in its arid basin depend on it for survival, but overuse of the river threatens the area with desertification.
The Omo River Basin starts in Ethiopia and ends in Kenya. There are amazing 6,000-year-old, intact indigenous cultures, still practicing agriculture based on natural flooding of the river. Now they are being moved because Ethiopia is building hyperdams upstream and selling their lands to Asian investors establishing sugar and cotton plantations. The dams will have a huge impact on Lake Turkana, in Kenya, which is the world’s largest desert lake. It’s now predicted it will be reduced two-thirds in volume because of the dam upstream. There are a few tentative discussions by the government about releasing more water so the lake won’t suffer as much.
The Mara River Basin starts in Kenya and ends up in Lake Victoria, which then drains into the Nile. It supports the amazing iconic wildlife many go on safari to see, but the river’s water flow is threatened by headwaters deforestation, because the politicians are giving the land away for people to settle on. As a solution, there’s an organization fencing the forest so it will be protected.
How many people are involved in No Water No Life, and how is it funded?
Other photographers and bloggers are helping. We have a web designer and two associates; so it’s a team effort. The project is under the sponsorship of Wings WorldQuest, which supports women in the fields of biology and environmental conservation.
How many times have you visited the six watersheds?
I’ve led 22 exhibitions to these watersheds, to document visually what’s going on and interview people who live there, as well as scientists, stakeholders, stewards and other citizens. We are transcribing and editing over 400 in-depth interviews, which will go on our website. We’ve taken over 100,000 watershed images. We’ve created a resource, called “Voices of the River,” which will serve as a working reference point for anyone who wants to do further study. No Water No Life is also working on both an e-book and a print book.
Is there hope that the environmental destruction threatening these watersheds can be stopped?
There is hope. For example, fencing the forest is a great solution and a proven success. Pollution cleanup is happening, and certain ways of fighting, mitigating and adapting to climate change are helping.
My family always told me it was important to do something that has a positive impact. If we raise awareness, we can work together. We’ve got to understand the importance of wetlands; we’ve lost half of them already. We have to approach water issues with a sense of cooperation rather than conflict.
Mark Twain said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” He was referring to the West, but people are fighting over water resources all over the world. We have to work together. There’s only so much water, but we have a growing population, so we have to be smarter about how we manage it. We need to raise awareness of how the water cycle and life cycle are intertwined.
Alison Jones’s “Following Rivers” exhibition, through October 3; Beacon Institute for River and Estuaries, 199 Main Street, Beacon, https://www.bire.org/events.