Above is a short discussion filmed after a full dialogue TV episode last week; for the full interview, please visit the Wilson Center.
“We have serious issues that we need to address, yet we’re largely unaware of them because water seems so abundant,” said Alexandra Cousteau in an interview at the Wilson Center. “That myth of abundance is finally reaching an age of limits.”
“Traditionally our understanding of the global water crisis has been very narrow,” said Cousteau. “We have talked about it mostly in terms of the very real water and sanitation crisis that is happening in the developing world.” Without minimizing the severity of the situation in developing countries or oversimplifying the tangled nature of their problems, she characterized these water and sanitation struggles as fundamentally “solvable.”
Cousteau argued that there are also substantial water problems in the United States. Pollution due to runoff and over-utilization of major riverways are threats that are much different from those in the past.
“In Nixon’s time, when he signed the Clean Water Act, it was because rivers like the Potomac were in such bad shape, and they could see it from their office windows,” she said. “But the threats to our water are different today…before, it was industrial effluent, and what we were putting in the water that we could see. The Hudson River would change color daily based on the paper mills and what color paper they were printing that day.”
Today, chemicals may impact water quality without changing the appearance of water: “You don’t see it, the water can be perfectly transparent.”
Blue Legacy Expeditions
Cousteau has taken two expeditions with Blue Legacy to highlight water issues around the world. The first in 2009 was global; Cousteau and her team traveled from India to Botswana and beyond. Throughout the voyage, she worked to make her travels accessible to the general public and was surprised at her success.
“It was an experiment, but it worked. And when we came back to the United States, we got a lot of feedback, and one of the things people said was, ‘Gosh, that was an incredible adventure, thanks for taking us along for the ride! Clearly, there is a global water crisis, now I understand that. I’m just so relieved it’s not happening in America.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, I guess we have an expedition to do in America!’”
Cousteau’s interview was particularly timely in light of global economic troubles which have led some to say the environment should take a backseat. Cousteau said this doesn’t have to be the case. She emphasized the interconnected nature of the environment and the economy, saying that policymakers don’t have to choose to focus on one or the other.
“We feel like we have to make a choice between the economy and the environment, and that’s a false dilemma. A healthier environment is a more prosperous economy. And when we fail to realize that we don’t have to sacrifice one to have the other, then I think we wind up sacrificing a lot of the quality of life and the opportunity that we take for granted.”