Artists and the Environment

Ethiopia - Abdou Yassin, 40, a peasant from the Omoro tribe, saw the water rising on its fertile fields following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the river Gibe in Ethiopia in 2005. The State has not compensated and he had to leave his village.

Ethiopia – Abdou Yassin, 40, a peasant from the Omoro tribe, saw the water rising on its fertile fields following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the river Gibe in Ethiopia in 2005. The State has not compensated and he had to leave his village.

Now that world leaders have gathered in France for the UN Summit on Climate Change, I thought this would be a good time to look at how the arts are contributing to this debate, specifically around the issue of access to clean water, which is increasingly becoming a flashpoint around the globe.  A few weeks ago I attended a talk at the Maison Française at Columbia by French photojournalist Franck Vogel, who, since 2012, has been documenting the effects of human intervention on water supplies around the world.  In his presentation, Vogel focused on three major transboundary rivers which have, or will have dams which will have negative effects on the water flows in neighboring counties:  the Nile, which passes through 11 countries, and whose water allocation system was determined decades ago, stands to be impacted by the Millennium Dam Project in Ethiopia; the Brahmaputra, flowing from the Himalayas, supplying water for Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh, is the subject of competing dam building projects by  India and China; and the Colorado in the US, the only river in the world that doesn’t regularly flow out to the ocean, due in no small part to the various dams and management systems along its route, and a water allocation system determined decades ago.  Through his  stunning photographs, Vogel clearly shows the effect these projects have had on local populations whose ability to fish, farm, raise livestock or get clean water has been seriously, if not irrevocably curtailed. 

What I like about Vogel’s photos is that they don’t hit you over the head; they shows life as it is.  It wasn’t easy for him to get many of these images, as some of these projects are classified as military installations or are heavily guarded.  He cautioned the audience not to believe everything they see in the papers or on social media, recounting how one government planed staged photos of “activists” protesting a neighboring country’s dam building, to deflect from their own building plans. He also told of how some dam building companies are supplying local populations with opium and alcohol, which renders them addicts and unable to oppose the projects. 

Dulen Mili (35y) is fishing with the traditional net on Brahmaputra river near Modarguri village. The net is oriented to catch fishes going upstream.

Dulen Mili (35y) is fishing with the traditional net on Brahmaputra river near Modarguri village. The net is oriented to catch fishes going upstream.

Vogel’s photos raise the question of whether we’re witnessing folly or ingenuity when we look at various endeavors to remake the deserts so that they support activities that are intensely water dependent, such as the construction of lakes and golf courses in Nevada; growing alfalfa in the Egyptian desert for racehorses, or raising cattle in the Imperial Valley in California.  Through the Transboundary River project, which aims to cover seven rivers, Franck Vogel is using his artistry to raise important issues by documenting the impact that government decisions have on people’s lives.  While he doesn’t yet have a book on this subject, you can find his work on the Nile and Brahmaputra rivers on his website ; his work on the Colorado River was just published in Geo Magazine France .

After his presentation, Vogel spoke with Anthony Acciavatti, who has just published a book “Ganges Water Machine,” which documents the 10 years he spent mapping the Ganges River Basin – since there were no maps of infrastructure in the basin or of the Ganges Canal, Acciavatti had to find a new way of mapping the choreography of the water!

Wooden Bow Harp, Egypt, 1878-1650 BC Metropolitan Museum

Wooden Bow Harp, Egypt, 1878-1650 BC Metropolitan Museum

The Nile River has also inspired a group of musicians to use their talents and instruments to address the sustainability of this body of water.   The Nile Project  brings together musicians from Uganda, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and from Ethiopia, from Sudan, and from Egypt, whose objective is to  “collaborate on music that merges many of their traditions and styles and instruments … [and use] this music to inspire a larger conversation about water and about all the challenges we face in the Nile Basin.”  Another of the project’s goals is to create a network of student leaders who will build a transnational network of youths focusing on the cultural, social and environmental sustainability of the Nile.  You can hear some of the wonderful music of the artists of The Nile Project on AfroPop who also talk about how this project has introduced them to new music forms (different time signatures, different scales, different instruments) and cultures in the 11 countries through which the Nile flows.

For a list of art events around the globe related to the climate change summit, check the website of ArtCOP21

Leave a Reply

* required fields