Troubled Waters

IF ONLY PEOPLE COULD SEE with their own eyes the grieving harbor master standing on the hulk of a ship aground in the toxic desert that once was the Aral Sea, or the red-eyed children crowding into line for water from a truck, or the saffron-skirted girls walking seven miles a day with gallons of water on their heads. Then, no one would continue to allow the worldwide assault on the Earth’s fresh water or discount the human costs of desperately scarce and degraded drinking water. This is the premise of Dieter Telemans’ stunning new book of photographs, Troubled Waters.

Telemans traveled around the world to document the lives of people in drought- and flood-ravaged places: in sand-drowned villages in the Horn of Africa, flooded Bangladeshi cities, forsaken refugee camps in Chad. His photographs are the basis of a traveling exhibition, a school curriculum, and now a large-format, full-color book.

The photographs are gorgeous, even as they are excruciating. Telemans finds a swirl of scarlet cloth around the face of a starving baby, and bright colors in the broken shoes of children waiting for a Red Cross truck.

Of course, the risk of a book of photographs so artful is to make the water tragedy just one more charismatic crisis, as if human suffering could be redeemed by beauty, and to reduce the people to faces without names or stories.

But Telemans makes sure that no reader escapes the enormity of the crisis. At every chapter break, statistics roll like a muffled drum, page after page in faded type, difficult to make out, terrifying to grasp: More than 1 billion people do not have adequate access to drinking water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s people are likely to be living in areas of acute water shortage. Waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death in the world.

If seeing is believing, then Troubled Waters is a credo: human life depends on water. As people have a right to life, they have a right to fresh water. The damage we do to water or to the Earth’s ability to provide fresh water is also damage to people and a violation of basic human rights. Once we know this, once we see it with our own eyes, the obligation to act is inescapable.