Managing Director and Co-Founder
Circle of Blue
On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took what became one of the most famous pictures in history: a breathtaking image of a tiny, vulnerable blue planet hanging in space. Twenty-five years later, Jerry Linenger flew on the space shuttle Atlantis to the Russian space station Mir, where he would spend five months in orbit around Earth.
“Looking out the window, I could see the great sources of freshwater on the planet,” he told me. “Lake Baikal. The Great Lakes. The mighty rivers of the world – Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Amazon. But still, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, not so much different from our little orbiting space station. A closed ecosystem, with only so many sources of life-sustaining water. And all the creatures of Earth, just like the three of us circling it, all dependent on water.”
Water was so scarce aboard Linenger’s fragile ship that he spent countless hours studying where he wanted to live down below. Of anywhere in the world, he chose the shoreline of Lake Michigan, a place with abundant water resources.
But today, on this small planet – seen whole for the first time four decades ago – we have systemic failure. A global freshwater crisis.
The world’s demand for freshwater is growing so fast that water scarcity is disrupting energy production, triggering food shortages, upending economic development and threatening political stability. The impacts are being felt now in the U.S., which lost a full point of gross domestic product in 2012 due to a severe, ongoing drought, as well as in Asia and the Middle East, where recent droughts and floods triggered serious disruptions and political unrest.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 21st century is that as many as 800 million people around the world don’t have access to safe drinking water, and more than 5,000 children die each day from waterborne diseases.
Fortunately, water is one of the easiest of our global challenges to talk about because it’s the easiest to understand. You can go without electricity if need be. You can survive for weeks without food. But you can’t live more than a few days without water.
Most water-related challenges can be solved with hard work. We can break down traditional silos and think more holistically about the intersections among water, food, energy and climate, and about how we can develop solutions that reach beyond corporate fences and political boundaries.
When we do bring safe water and sanitation to places that need it, we see remarkable improvements. Children are able to go to school because they don’t need to spend hours every day in search of drinking water, which helps break the cycle of poverty and illness. When we fix the water challenge, we fix so many other problems.
But the water crisis is subtle, not sexy. It is slow to unfold, and, until the taps run dry and the crops wither, it’s not very relevant to those who have the most power to avert it. Until the water issue becomes dire, it’s not breaking news.
This critical moment – when the supply-and-demand balance of water, food and energy are colliding – requires a new scale of data, front-line reporting, collaborative science, social engagement and accelerated solutions.
The media, businesses and governments need to do a better job connecting the dots and demonstrating how water issues affect us today and into the future. At this pivotal point, we need much greater engagement from the corporate sector. Beverage companies have, for obvious reasons, been active in the water arena. Without access to water, they don’t have a product. Their supply chains hang on a tenuous blue thread.
The practice of water risk assessment is reaching into other sectors, especially manufacturing and consumer products. More and more firms are making their products more resilient to water disruptions, reducing their water use, and playing the role of advocate and educator on water issues within their communities. Indeed, those companies that are moving the needle furthest and fastest on water issues have embraced the risks within their supply chains and turned them into competitive opportunities.
But how do we bring governments into the conversations so they, too, start acting systemically and create a positive regulatory environment? Most governments simply are not prepared for the threats that water issues may pose to law, policy and stability. Business needs to play a role, leading by example and making the solutions – and the risks of inaction – visible.
From orbit, astronaut Jerry Linenger said he could watch the dust storms of Inner Mongolia blow across the steppes toward Beijing, and on to Los Angeles. Water, drought and pollution know no boundaries.
I co-founded Circle of Blue in 2000 to reach across these lines, to use world-leading journalists, scientists and data experts to tell the world’s most important stories. In a decade, we’ve seen remarkable progress on the water front. We are moving into an age of solutions. More and more, we realize that surviving, even thriving, in a new waterscape requires us to use the right lenses to view the connected issues and shape cohesive responses. Innovation is built upon optimism, and the greatest innovations often occur when we face the greatest challenges.