You’d expect someone who has spent most of her life at or below sea level to sweat a little harder hiking up 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro on the Summit on the Summit climb last January. Not so for Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques, lifelong water advocate, and a National Geographic emerging explorer. While she can’t explain why altitude sickness didn’t affect her on Africa’s tallest peak, she can shed light on why we all are connected to the climbers' cause, the global clean water crisis. Here Cousteau explains the issues surrounding water scarcity worldwide, her upcoming Blue Legacy expedition, and what you can do to help out.
You grew up diving the planet’s great oceans and are now a leading advocate to help improve water issues worldwide. Did you feel a little like a fish out of water climbing the world’s tallest freestanding mountain?
That was definitely the first time I had scaled a mountain of that size. It was challenging to trek five to seven hours every day at altitude. The weather was not cooperating very well. We had fog, rain, hail, and snow. But I was fortunate in that I didn’t experience any physical ailments at all.
Kilimanjaro may not be the most difficult climb, but the altitude has prevented many hardy hikers from summiting. You spend most of your time at sea level. How did you fair?
I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness at all. I had as much energy at the top as I did at the bottom, other than whatever fatigue I had from trekking uphill eight hours in the night. I felt great at the summit. When we got there, we had whiteout conditions, so we couldn’t see anything at all, which was really unfortunate.
Can you give us a sense of why clean water is such an urgent issue right now?
To give perspective to the water crisis that we face right now, there are a few things we need to keep in mind. One is that our planet is 71 percent covered by water—and only 2 percent of that water is fresh. Of that 2 percent, only 1 percent is available to sustain life. To put it differently, if you put all the water into a gallon jug, only one teaspoon would be available to us.
Not only is the quality of that teaspoon of water declining due to pollution, but the quantity of water is also declining as well. This is largely because water is a vehicle for climate change. We’re seeing areas that used to be arid getting precipitation. And areas that were once quite moist are now drying up.
When we talk about the United Nation Millennium Development Goals, we also think of a billion people who don’t have access to freshwater. There are almost three billion people who don’t have access to sanitation, leading to horrible waterborne diseases that claim so many lives.
Considering the melting glaciers in plain view, Kilimanjaro seems like a natural place to discuss water issues.
Kilimanjaro is a good example because the glaciers are melting very rapidly. It’s a reminder of how urgent these issues are. The water of Kilimanjaro feeds a lot of the commununities downstream from it. So those communities will experience a lack of water as those glaciers disappear.
For those of us living in U.S. cities, it’s easy to feel like clean water is more of an issue for the developing world. What we work on at Blue Legacy is helping people understand the interconnectivity of our water resources. We often think that water scarcity is something that only affects the developing world, but actually here in the United States we have huge water issues.
For example, we have one of the largest dead zones in the world in the Gulf of Mexico, an area where there is so much pollution—mostly nutrient pollution—that comes down the river. Once it reaches the ocean it forms algal blooms. As they die and sink to the bottom they absorb all the oxygen in the water, making it impossible to sustain life.
Water is our most critical life support system, and it’s getting degraded here as much as anywhere else. We’ve got all the same issues here of misuse, overuse, and pollution that are happening in different parts of the world. In fact during our Blue Legacy expedition this summer, we’ll be spending four months traveling around North America looking at water issues here.
What will you be doing on your expedition?
We will be spending the summer months traveling from Alaska to Florida in a biodiesel, solar-powered tour bus looking at different ways that water is important to our society. We’ll be working with local communities to help restore their watersheds. We’ll be talking to universities to build awareness and engage people to take action on water issues here. Climate change is not going to spare the United States. We live in a hydrosphere, and all of our resources are interconnected.
Are there steps we can take to reduce our negative impact?
One of the most important things you can do is find your local watersheds and learn what’s impacting them. Then you can figure out how to help protect them, such as being part of a local cleanup.
What about something as simple as picking a different shampoo?
Biodegradable products are really important. Just because something goes down our drains does not mean that it disappears. It continues to have an impact. Here on the Potomac River a lot of the bass are starting to become transgender because of birth control pills. Medications pass through urine and do not get removed by treatment facilities. They end up in the environment. We have all sorts of hormones and chemicals going into the water. And it’s not only impacting wildlife but also the people who recreate in the water.
One of the things that is often overlooked is water infrastructure and treatment facilities. We have done a dismal job investing in these areas so far. This determines the quality of water we live with, so it is very important.
It seems that preventing many waterborne diseases, such as cholera, is as easy as letting people know to wash their hands.
That’s one of the most important things we can do to increase quality of life and decrease child mortality. We also need to encourage education and economic productivity within the entire community, using water as a building block for other parts of society. When people simply don’t have clean water, they don’t have [good] health or the ability to build their communities in productive ways.
We have these Millennium Development Goals and all these organizations that are working to get water and sanitation into the developing world. That’s already very challenging because there are so many people in need. And water is a local issue, so different solutions apply in different places. But despite all the innovations and all the good work that is being done, we need to invest more. We need to appropriate more in this country for water and sanitation issues in the developing world. And we need to do it now because our population is growing quickly.
Will new technology provide solutions? Or do we need to start with our own behavior?
I think it’s both. New technology and innovative ideas are going to be critical to solving these problems. I think engaging local communities and letting them be part of the solution is going to be very important. And mitigating the impact of climate change is going to be very important because that is going to influence the availability of water in certain places. And of course, it is critical to make wise choices here at home, understanding that all of our water resources are connected and that we are all downstream from one another.
Watch a documentary featuring this climb on MTV on Sunday, March 14, at 9 p.m. For more information or to get involved, go to www.summitonthesummit.com.
Text by Mary Anne Potts; Photograph by Jimmy Chin