May 6, 2021

Why the World's Water Scarcity Matters Here, Now

Hear from Traverse City native and Circle of Blue Founder J. Carl Ganter
By Craig Manning | March 13, 2021

What happens when the taps run dry?

That’s one of the key questions J. Carl Ganter will be discussing at 5pm on Thursday, March 18, during an event for the Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) International Affairs Forum (IAF) titled “Global to Local: Climate Change, Water, and Food.” The event will address how issues of water scarcity, pollution, and climate fluctuations could affect everything from the agricultural supply chain to global conflict.

Born and raised in Traverse City, Ganter is an esteemed photojournalist whose work has appeared in publications from Newsweek to Rolling Stone. He’s also the founder of Circle of Blue, a journalistic organization that seeks to shine a light on global issues involving “water, food, and energy in a changing climate.” His IAF presentation will take attendees from the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil, to the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, pairing Ganter’s firsthand accounts with photos that encapsulate growing crises of water accessibility, scarcity, and pollution.

“It’s easy to get stuck in numbers and abstracts when discussing matters like water and climate change,” Ganter said of his presentation. “My mission is to connect the dots on the ground with the issues, and then to make those stories relevant to anyone, whether it’s kids in a classroom or global leaders on a major forum stage.”

Northern Express caught up with Ganter ahead of his IAF event to discuss the global implications of water scarcity, the potential consequences of letting the issue go unaddressed, and why northern Michigan locals should start paying attention right now.

Northern Express: You’ve said before — and many environmentalists agree with you — that water is going to be the driving issue of the 21st century. National Geographic recently ran a story about the relative fragility of the Great Lakes ecosystem and about how it's the most important resource our continent has. Tell us a bit about what the “status quo” is at the moment, for water issues.

Carl Ganter: You used the two best words: “fragility” and “system.” Water is what defines us. That's why the first thing we do when we go to Mars is look for water. It’s this magical molecule, and life as we know it wouldn't exist without it. But that system is incredibly fragile and finite. There's only so much water on the planet, and we’re not making more. So we face a grand kind of crisis, a system crisis, and water is absolutely at the core, because it’s at the core of everything we care about.

When we talk about water, we're talking about food, because most water use goes to agriculture. When we talk about water, we're talking about energy and energy production. When we talk about climate, whether it just climate or climate change, water is the definer.

More and more, we are seeing stress points in the world [in terms of water]. We have very large urban centers on the brink of what a headline writer in South Africa termed “Day Zero,” which means the day when taps could run dry. Imagine a major city like São Paulo; Chennai, India; Cape Town, South Africa; imagine what happens if the taps actually run dry. [Those cities] came very close to running out of water. When rainfall patterns were changing, or the rain gods didn’t smile, the reservoirs neared single-digit capacity.

If you're in a township in Cape Town or Johannesburg, or a slum in Delhi, you typically have to walk to get your water. It may not be safe to drink; you may have to boil it. And then the sanitation side is pretty dismal. Some billion people on the planet don't have access to safe drinking water on a regular basis. And some 2 billion don't have adequate sanitation. If you don't have sanitation, it contaminates the water.

Another side is the potential for conflict. We've seen water be a force-multiplying factor: Syria, Arab Spring, and other kinds of crucibles around the world, where water could be a point of serious contention.

Express: Living where we do, surrounded by beautiful freshwater every day, it’s hard not to care about it at least a little bit, but it’s also easy to take for granted. Why should locals care about the topics you’ll be discussing, and what should they know as we face the future of this water crisis?

Ganter: Tens of millions of people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. We’re not at a Day Zero situation, unlike other parts of the world, but we have serious threats to the Great Lakes. Toxic waste sites; chemicals coming in through the atmosphere; invasive species; management of the water supply and the infrastructure that we build around the Great Lakes. We’ve read about toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, which in 2014 shut down drinking water for Toledo for three days. Those algae blooms are entirely avoidable; primarily, that's extra nutrient runoff from farm fields [causing the issue].

There’s a term “blue economy,” which asks: what role does water play in your economy? The economy of the entire Great Lakes Basin is built on water. A recent report from the intelligence community in Washington says something like half of the jobs around the world have a direct link to water. So water isn’t just ecology and environment; it’s not something that can be sublimated. It has to be right upfront — in our decision-making about national security, about economic security, about health, about energy, about food. It's the thread that ties everything together.

Express: We’ve gotten an unusual glimpse over the past year into what can happen when the supply chain stops working, including in terms of food production and food processing. How does food supply link into water?

Ganter: Around the world, ag uses about 70 percent of water withdrawals for growing, for irrigation. The ramifications of that get us into perception and reality, they get us into climate change, and they get us into economics. Let's say you're a farmer in Punjab, India, and you believe that there's plenty of water underground for your irrigation, for growing your rice or your wheat. Then your farm community lobbies for free electricity, because you’re the backbone of the country and you feed the nation! What do you do in a free electricity? You leave your lights on. In Punjab, they leave their pumps running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The farm that I was on, their switches are literally hardwired, so they can’t turn the water off.

The problem is what happens when that runs dry. [The farmer’s] field is barren and parched, and their well has run dry. Maybe they drill deeper. If that doesn't work, maybe they turn to other sources of water. Even if there is raw sewage coming from that village over there, they’re going to drop a hose in the canal and pump from that. And if that’s not enough – and this is a true story – then there’s another flow of water from the paper mill upstream.

So now you're irrigating with a mix of toxic waste and sewage. How does that affect the supply chain? How does that affect the beets or the onions or the rice that you're growing, now that you're literally growing it with toxic waste? That is one future, and it's not a very bright one.

But on the positive side, you do have this moment where all these issues are coming together. Companies are realizing that a supply chain risk means risk to their bottom line; it means risks to the reputation; it means risks to their brands. Company and government leaders are, more and more, being held accountable for the demands for clean water and even sanitation.

People are waking up to it, but we're not moving fast enough. These issues are complex, and in many ways, the water story is fragmented. It needs more connected storytelling and more cohesion. It needs more coordinated action. The agricultural sector, the energy sector, the water sector: they all need to work together. They are still on different planes. It’s very siloed. One thing [Circle of Blue] is working hard to change is to break those silos.

Express: In northern Michigan, there have been big initiatives from local government to move us toward greater use of renewable energy. How can we aim higher, both as individuals and a collective, to avert or reduce the scope of these catastrophes you’re talking about?

Ganter: The good news is that here in the Grand Traverse region, we have a whole range of organizations that are taking on different slices of the issue. At Circle of Blue, we're telling the stories in the Great Lakes and around the world; imagine us as the journalists. Then other organizations like FLOW, are working on the policy piece. And then you have the education piece, and we have the NMC Water Studies Institute — which is really unique in the world — right here. We have these leadership organizations right in our background, so how do we activate that at a higher level to have [more of a regional, national, and global] impact? I think that’s the really big question.

Express: Looking forward, there are a lot of worst-case scenarios here, from long-term health complications, to climate change putting coastal communities underwater, to a world war fought over freshwater resources. What are some of the things individuals can start thinking about right now to pave the way toward a brighter future?

Ganter: The first step is understanding where your water comes from, and where it goes. And then pay attention to the policies, pay attention to the investments that communities are making. Because that's the biggest lever: it’s building and supporting the community response, the preparedness and resiliency, and putting water at the top. Because it's that old adage, that we really don't care about water until the taps run dry.

Interested in attending the virtual International Affairs Forum event with J. Carl Ganter? You can register free (suggested donation $10 for non-IAF members) at

*Photo above courtesy of J. Carl Ganter.


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