18 Conference Report #techonomy2018

Carl Ganter on Designing Water’s Future


  • J. Carl Ganter at Techonomy 2018, Tuesday, November 13, 2018. (Paul Sakuma Photography)


J. Carl Ganter
Co-Founder and Managing Director, Circle of Blue

Description: Water scarcity is disrupting energy production, triggering food shortages, upending economic development and threatening political stability. The impacts are being felt everywhere, as recent droughts and floods triggered serious disruptions, political unrest, and epic human migration. We need to redesign water’s future.

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading. 

Speaker: Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Ganter:  How many people here feel hydrated? Everybody have enough water today? Oh, I hope so. Awesome. Great. Well, I’m Carl Ganter and thanks, David, for getting us all together here. I’m a journalist and photographer and Circle of Blue, what we do is we activate the superheroes, quite literally. And we’re covering what we believe is the biggest story on the planet. And I wanted to start with this quote from Sunday, “We need to align intention with attention.” That was Justin Rosenstein. And so I’d like to draw your attention please to our little blue planet, our water planet. And so a good friend who is an astronaut, Jerry Linenger, and Jerry spent four months in Mir, which was basically held together with duct tape and baling wire. And he called it—his epiphany was it’s a closed ecosystem, 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. So he was in his closed ecosystem. He had to make his water from sweat and urine in space. So talk about a circular economy.

So anyway the global goals—we heard about this earlier. This is what these pins are, the sustainable development goals. Water is one of 17 of the goals, and I would argue that water runs through all of them. So clean water and sanitation, zero hunger, gender equality—sorry, it’s a little hard to see up there—and responsible consumption and production, pretty much everything, sustainable cities, industry, innovation, and infrastructure of course, affordable and clean energy. We’ll touch on that in just a minute. And number seven, we also talked about earlier, collaboration, which is the real reason a lot of us are here.

But then back to Jerry’s orbit—not to scale. Houston, we have a problem. So our blue planet is thirsty. And the World Economic Forum, its Global Risk Report, which comes out every year, water’s been scooting up on the list. So yes indeed, we are relevant, because most of us are mostly made of water. Water crises is the number one most profound risk facing the planet according to pretty much every expert on the planet. It’s even above failure of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and these other exciting ones like profound social instability. Water crises— and we did get that “i” changed to an “e,” so it’s not just one crisis. This is the band of crises, this is the band, the region on the planet that we should be most worried about.

Now, I won’t go into detail, but look at the maps, look at our global risk.  This is the confluence of groundwater depletion and also availability and pollution and contamination. So this is where it’s happening. Also where it’s happening—this is a profound number. I could really drown you with numbers but this is a—700 million people could be displaced if we don’t respond to this crisis now by 2030. This is a UN number. This is a favela in Sao Paolo that I visited where the streets are actually named for the small villages that people have moved from. And this street was named—I can’t remember the village, but named from a village that was affected by severe drought. So people are actually moving to the cities because of severe drought and they’re living in the slums.

So how many people here saw “Day Zero” in Cape Town, right? Cape Town almost ran out of water. But how many people here are counting what other cities are on that Day Zero track— Day Zero candidate cities. So there are some really obvious ones here too, but there are some non-obvious ones also. So I imagine we all see ourselves in this picture. Again, a very profound challenge.

But back to Jerry—so I’m a journalist, and I like to take the big picture but then I like to get a little bit more micro on the ground. And our secret sauce at Circle of Blue and in the journalism world, and I’m giving away secrets here, we use a process called IWT. That means “I was there.” So when Jerry showed me this picture of dust storms over Inner Mongolia blowing to Beijing and blowing all the way to Los Angeles, he saw that we’re in a system. We are on this closed planet, this ecosystem. So I said, “Jerry, if you dropped a golf ball out the window, where would it land?” And basically defying all physics, and I’m not an astronaut, if it fell straight down, it would land here in ground zero of those dust storms, which are some of the largest coal mines on the planet. So IWT, I went there. So this is near Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, six massive mines that are fueling and powering China’s economy. But there’s a major shift in play. It takes a lot of water to mine and process coal. So what’s happening—this is Wu Yun. She’s the daughter of an Inner Mongolian shepherd, and their well is going dry. The mines are draining the water and the power plants are also draining the water to cool themselves. So now they have to drive 15 kilometers to get water for their sheep.

Well, what else is happening? I took my camera to the Mekong Delta and what else is happening is you’re seeing profound shifts when we talk about salinification, extraction of water, but then also salinification due to sea level rise. So what’s happening here—this may be the last rice harvest in this community in the Mekong Delta. But then what’s also happening is you have the entrepreneurial spirit. Great, okay, we’ll dig out our rice paddies and we’ll raise brine shrimp. Perfect plan, right? Well literally, I turn around from this spot here, and there comes the sea. That’s the Mekong River being the confluence of the ocean. So literally on that day, salt water had been measured 78 kilometers upstream, the furthest upstream in history.

So what do we have to do? We have to really align our values—heart and soul, water—with our value. What is our water budget? What are we going to spend our water budget on? Ideally not like this. This farmer gets free electricity, and the water has no value, so he lets his pumps run 24 hours a day. So it’s truly mutually assured depletion. Many parts of the world, but particularly India here, water has no value until it’s gone.

Well, what happens when it’s gone? the satellites show green rice paddies, etcetera, but literally IWT, I went, and the water reeked. So where’s this water coming from that they’re planting rice in? So I literally went upstream and found the paper mills, and found the tanneries, and found the slaughterhouses. This is their source of water when their wells are going dry. In India, a profound challenge—a profound challenge to the food supply and to the social structure. So they’re actually praying that this wastewater will continue to flow until they can move into the city. So we’re seeing these transitions around the world.

So then you go outside of Bangalore. Great, they’re washing the beets, awesome. Except they’re washing the beets in groundwater, but these are beets that have been grown with raw sewage flow because their wells have also gone dry. So India I would say is again a massive crucible we need to be looking at and helping to respond to the water crisis.

So also, if you look at water, we talked about food. So when you irrigate your beets or your food supply with industrial waste and raw sewage, you end up with contaminated food supplies. So these are other little shots from around the world that we’re covering. Dams, unfortunately, are being blown apart. The base of the Himalayas, water supply, energy. This is a Somali shepherd who has actually moved to Saudi Arabia in search of water for his sheep. And of course, we all know the tragedy of the Paradise fire and the fires here in California. This was flying in the other morning. This is flying in Saturday morning. Driest—it was drought all year basically in Paradise, no rain, and this is what it looked like.

So the world is not a click away. We talk about data. But this is the data center in Punjab. I was really careful not to wake up the servers [LAUGHTER]. Data joke.

So what do we have to do? We have to align our perception, reality, and context. We’re at a major confluence of data, a major confluence or way of measuring and monitoring our blue planet, a way of measuring our global risks, a way of measuring our climate change and water and interplay and the system approach here. So a company called Vector Center, which we founded outside of Circle of Blue, is taking and aligning these pieces. We’re aligning the perception—what are the farmers doing and why, what do they believe—with the actual reality so we can monitor in better and more real-time these profound challenges around the planet. Because we can monitor groundwater resources, we can monitor in a sense the soil moisture, either from the sky or sensors. Because pretty much every place on the planet has a water challenge of one sort or another. And like I said, India is one of these crucibles, one of the hot spots that we’re watching, and I think that we as a planet need to be watching and helping India tip the right way, not the wrong way. Because the data is delayed, it’s oftentimes without context, and we really need to bring this together in a situational analysis to understand if our perception aligns with our reality.

So the earth is the ultimate machine learner, right? And it’s learning and it is reacting and for the most part it’s reacting badly. That’s why we have these sustainable development goals, to give us a guide forward, and a moment forward.

So back to Justin. I really like this quote, “We need to align intention with attention.” But if we flip that around, we need to focus our attention on our intention and align really our values with value, and a nod to Techonomy, with our new, really our aquanomy, because it does flow through everything. And so I’d like to challenge everyone to join us because we really do need to design water’s future. We need to use every tool of technology, every tool of behavior and social science, not just the hard sciences but the softer sciences, and we need to design water’s future. This is an initiative we’ll be launching very, very soon, likely in Davos. And the reason that we’re doing this is because Wu Yun. Remember Wu Yun? Fast forward. I’ve been back four times now. The coal mines are getting closer, unfortunately, and the green and grasslands are turning to sand swales. And this is on the border of India and Pakistan, and I went with these young women. And it was really profound. I went with them to capture water. And truly—the UN report said when kids grow up without water, their IQs are actually lower. So they said we could lose an entire generation because of drought and water mismanagement. So I would challenge us all to design water’s future so that we can save that generation.

Thank you very much.


Kirkpatrick: Thank you, Carl.

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