A view of Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua: This slideshow features outlying areas of the city including Ascension, the desert to the west, the Juarez Valley to the east, and Hudspeth County in Texas. Here addiction, organized crime, gang-led violence, and corruption spawned by drug cartels have become a part of daily life.
In the Nepalese Himalayas in 2009, I trekked into the Langtang Valley, just short of the Tibetan border, and to a village of empty plywood cabins. The arrival of the summer monsoon season had chased the trekkers away.
Just uphill was a Buddhist temple and, behind it, a wrinkled sea of gray ice reached up the steep mountain walls into the clouds – the Langtang Lirung glacier, one of thousands that make up the largest body of ice outside the poles. In the winter, these glaciers capture precipitation that melts off in warmer months to feed the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra rivers – and 1.5 billion people in eight countries who depend on them.
At night I could hear the thunderous crackling of distant avalanches on peaks above. By day, I saw shepherds, whose yaks couldn't withstand the summer heat, chanting a prayer for safe passage to higher, cooler climes.
The monsoon, seasonal rain that sweeps across the Indian subcontinent before crashing into the world's tallest mountains, was late, causing the worst drought in 30 years in Mumbai (Bombay), a thousand miles south.
Villagers talked of the arrival of mosquitoes – heralds of warmer summers and milder winters. The accelerated glacial melt is expected to increase floods in countries downstream over coming decades; earlier melts can reduce water when it's needed most.
In the long run, says Madhav Karki, director of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the rivers themselves may become seasonal, with potentially profound effects on the countries below.
Water is power
My travels in South Asia were a reminder of an ancient truth, often lost at the magical turn of a tap: A society's fate turns on its water supply. Water is power.
Covering global water issues, I've seen up close how the gap between the water rich and the water poor is often the line between life and death. In Haiti, I met people who took their water from rivers or nearby wells. Since the outbreak of cholera, those very water sources threaten their lives.
In Bangladesh, I saw how too much water creates problems: More intense rain deluges, that one scientist with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told me might already reflect climate change, had increased flooding and river erosion. I met people whose homes, crops, and water supplies were repeatedly wiped out. In a country with a population roughly half that of the United States packed into an area about the size of Idaho, they had few options but to move to low-lying, vulnerable coastal lands. Or they joined the nearly 1 billion slum dwellers worldwide trying to ascend the economic ladder and increasing demand for water in all its forms.
Water: source of life and conflict
In Pakistan, I saw how water crises are not self-contained. Several analysts and historians I talked to that summer believe the initial spark of the region's most enduring conflict – the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan over the Muslim region – was perhaps less about religious differences and more about control of the region's vital water resources.
Kashmir is home to the headwaters of the Indus River, Pakistan's primary water lifeline. India also harnesses some of the river's flow for hydropower. But the fragile status quo that governs sharing of the river is under threat from booming population demands and the impacts of climate change. Both nations are racing to complete hydroelectric dams along the Kashmir rivers, elevating tensions. India's projects are of such size and scope to worry Pakistan about water shortages at critical times and massive deluges at other times.
Water stress has triggered unrest in both countries. In India, competition for water has set communities against each other. When I visited Pakistan in 2009, water stress had recently triggered food riots, bringing the military out to guard grain elevators; and it stoked protest and sectarian grievances in one region that some feared was on the verge of revolt. Water stolen from public pipes and then resold from tankers is a lucrative industry in Karachi, which depends on the Indus. And upstream elites divert large quantities of water before it reaches the city. But most Pakistanis blame their water problems on Indian dams – part of an alleged strategy to "make Pakistan into a desert."
The fear is an example of water's psychological impact. "If there is a war here in the future, it will be over water," the former chairman of Pakistan's Securities and Exchange Commission, Tariq Hassan, told me. International water disputes worried him, but so did domestic water conflict. "That could be tomorrow."
More recently, militant groups have used water to mobilize anti-India sentiment: Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Pakistani militant group allegedly behind the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, accused India of "water terrorism."
At the time I was there in 2009, officials were occupied with fighting the Taliban in the Swat Valley and dealing with more than a million displaced people. In Mardan, where some had fled to, I watched thousands of tents rapidly filling in a green field. The fortunate among them were close to blue water tanks spray-painted "UNICEF." The next year, after they'd returned home to the Swat Valley, they were hit by a devastating flood from the Indus – a phenomenon that will be intensified by accelerated glacial melting and more erratic monsoons.
The challenge of understanding the water crisis is recognizing the myriad ways water shapes lives and how the narrow margins on which many survive may change.
The consequences will fall the hardest where the margins are thinnest. In Islamabad, I stood on a dusty hill above a small, polluted stream where hundreds of tents were set up to receive refugees from the Swat Valley conflict. A doctor made rounds, treating waterborne illnesses. It was a scene that would be repeated after the floods the next year, and it didn't inspire optimism about global preparedness for the complex challenges ahead. Pointing at the dry, sunbaked slope beneath his feet, one refugee told me: "There is no life here."
The majority of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau in central Asia are shrinking rapidly, according to a comprehensive study published this year in the Nature Climate Change journal.
Photographer Sean Gallagher recently visited the region to document how rising temperatures have affected the vulnerable communities and ecosystems on “the roof of the world.”
When he was exploring a crevasse at the base of the Hailuogou glacier in China’s Sichuan province, he narrowly dodged a falling rock.
“A glacier is a dynamic thing, always changing in size and position,” Gallagher says. “As a result, when you stand inside one you can actually hear it cracking and groaning as it moves.”
“Any changes to the supply of water emanating from the plateau will have incredible consequences for the people downstream,” Gallagher says.
Since the early 1990s, Dubai’s population has grown by more than 200 percent. The emirate's rapid expansion, its fast-paced lifestyle and its embrace of Western consumer habits have created a natural market for convenience food. Shopping malls are stuffed with food courts, and a sharp increase in obesity has now become a national concern.
“Obesity is a big problem in this part of the world,” says Waffa Al-Bassum, clinical dietician and diabetes educator at the Dr. Sulaiman Al-Habib Medical Group. “It’s an issue that’s been going on for a while, and people need to understand that obesity is a disease and it needs to be treated as such.”
The Tibetan Plateau covers approximately 25 percent of China’s surface area, spreading out over 2.5 million sq. km in the west of the country. It is home to the largest store of freshwater outside of the North and South Poles, feeding water into Asia’s major rivers which supply water to over a billion people.
As a result of anthropogenic climate change, temperatures are rising on the Tibetan Plateau faster than anywhere else in Asia. The effects of these changes are becoming more evident in the form of melting glaciers, increasing desertification and degraded grasslands.
Forced resettlement programs have been introduced to relocate tens of thousands of nomads who are blamed for contributing to the deterioration of the plateau. Increased mining operations near so-called protected areas also fuel degradation on the plateau creating conflicts between native Tibetans and Han Chinese.
This project highlights the major challenges associated with climate change and the resulting social issues that have appeared in recent years. The vivid transformations on the Tibetan Plateau have important ramifications not only for China, but also for the rest of Asia as climate patterns change across the continent and fragile communities are further threatened.
The border was less than an hour’s walk from their villages, but they slowly crawled for two days in the broiling heat across the steep mountains.
They said they feared for their lives all the way.
Terrified by widespread bombing unleashed by government forces, Syrian Turkmen from several villages picked up and fled several days ago. They formed a long weary line of more than 2,500 souls.
“They arrived hungry and sick. They didn’t have food or medicine or clothes or even water,” said Dr. Mohammed Sheik Ibrahim, a Syrian Turkmen who fled to Turkey eight months ago. “They are like people who are a little dead.”
As the tide of Syrian refugees has swollen, Turkish officials have scrambled to find places for them, and Syrian expatriate medical experts, who have rushed here to help, have become increasingly worried about a largely civilian population suffering from the wounds of an all-out war.
With 43,000 Syrian refugees in camps spread across southeastern Turkey, a 75 percent increase in only a few months, Turkish officials said they are rushing to open two more camps that can house another 10,000 in each. Until this week, they had talked about opening only one more camp.
In the summer of 2012, nearly two years after the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, the devastating illness remains a pervasive threat. When the disease first surged in October 2010, the bacteria affected not only waterways but also the daily lives and cultural psyche of Haitians. Cholera has claimed the lives of 7,000 Haitians. It also casts an ominous shadow across life-giving community water sources and taxes the limited resources of the government and health care providers.
Now, as the disease becomes endemic, the seasonal spikes of cases provide a backdrop to questions about how the country will respond. Historic distrust of UN peacekeeping forces has evolved into bitter blame. Allegations as to the UN's role in bringing cholera to Haiti dominate a Haitian court case against the world body. Aid agencies and government bodies scramble to confront the epidemic, but concerns have arisen that such services are only a quick fix for a problem that lies deep within Haiti’s water and sanitation infrastructure. Medically, treating cholera in an individual is relatively cheap and easy. But for the country as a whole the challenge is only getting more complicated.
When Huang Dongyan visited home to celebrate the Lunar New Year in 2011, her son refused to call her "Mom." Huang, 38, tried coaxing him with baby talk and tickles. But five-year-old Zhang Yi ignored her and buried his face in his hat. For the rest of her visit he avoided her, favoring the attention of his 17-year-old sister, Zhang Juanzi, instead. Huang's every attempt at intimacy -- games, shopping trips, cuddles -- was rebuffed. "I was a stranger to my son," Huang recalls, blinking back tears.
Fourteen years ago, Huang left her village of Silong -- and her children -- to find factory work in Guangdong, 500 miles away from her home province of Hunan. Huang eventually settled in the smoggy city of Shenzhen, the heart of the Pearl River Delta manufacturing boom known for its easy access to Hong Kong and insatiable appetite for cheap labor.
Just three decades ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village. Today it boasts a GDP of roughly $150 billion and houses factories making goods for the world's best-known companies, including consumer electronics maker Foxconn, which employs an estimated 230,000 workers in its Shenzhen plant. This is the story of one migrant worker family coping with the changes wrought by China's breakneck growth.
After Huang moved away, her mother-in-law watched over the grandchildren in Hunan, as Huang's work schedule only allowed for visits once or twice a year. Huang and her husband, Zhang Changyong, left their oldest child Juanzi in 1998, when she was only four. Over time, Juanzi grew detached. By sixth grade the moon-faced girl who once wept at the sight of her departing parents appeared to barely notice their visits. She grew bored with their attempts to catch up on her life. Answering their phone calls became a chore -- except when she needed money. Her brother, little Yi, disconnected at a younger age by refusing his parents' phone calls and crumbling into his sister's arms when they approached for hugs. "My son didn't like being with me," says Huang, who, like many peasants, was allowed two children under exceptions in the one-child policy. For more than three decades, rural residents in China have relocated to industrial cities for work, comprising the largest migration in human history. Today the country has some 221 million internal migrants, according to the 2010 census, of which roughly two-thirds move from rural to urban areas. But while this migration has fueled China's economic growth, it has also churned up domestic turmoil and social dislocation.
In recent years, researchers have estimated that 58 million children like Yi and Juanzi have been left to stumble through their most formative years of life without parental guidance -- a difficult choice on the part of their parents, but one born out of necessity: Rural children lose their rights to subsidized education, health care, and other basic services the moment they step into the city.
As dawn neared and the light grew, the scene at a municipal dump outside Nairobi, Kenya, was hard to imagine.
Otherworldly sunlight filtered through biogas steam and smoke from burning chemicals and plastic. The smell of rotting debris from 4 million people, piled up over four decades in this dump, overpowered the nose and carried with it substance and density that clung deep inside the throat. Thousands of scavenging, prehistoric-like storks cawed and spread their massive wings. Pigs, brawling dogs and a menagerie of lesser birds picked through the garbage side by side with hunched-over men and women. This hardly seemed like a place for humans to live and work and eat.
I came all this way to better understand Kenya's Dandora Municipal Dump Site, the only waste site in Nairobi, east Africa's most populous city. For the people who work here, the conditions are among the worst I've ever seen. The neglect and disregard for their lives should be unacceptable. Yet the mountains of garbage that sustain them are also endangering their lives and those of their children.
To search for recyclable material to sell, Rahab Ruguru rummages through the smoldering debris with a piece of rebar she uses as a makeshift rake.
"Working here is how I am able to feed my children," said the 42-year-old mother of six. "Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no, it's not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere."
Ruguru and the other pickers – an estimated 6,000 people – scavenge the sprawling 30-acre dumpsite from 5 a.m. to sundown. They make about $2.50 a day. They exist on the lowest rung of the economy, an informal chain of middlemen and women, working in horrific conditions, doing the dirty work for recycling companies. They sort and place into large sacks material that cannot be eaten, but can be sold for recycling. Metal, rubber, milk bags, plastics, bones and electronics tend to be among the most sought-after material.
Lake Titicaca glows like a sapphire amidst the subtle shades of brown on the high Andean planes. It sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and the Inca considered the 3,200-square-mile lake the birthplace of mankind. The waters continue to support thousands of indigenous farmers and fishermen today.
But as cities in Titicaca's watershed experience a sharp population increase, water contamination from growing urbanization becomes more acute, endangering the lake and those who depend on it.
Rivers of orange and red
The rapidly growing city of El Alto, Bolivia, is home to more than 1 million people, mostly low-income Aymara Indians from the countryside who migrate, seeking employment and education. As unplanned neighborhoods spread outward, the largest city in the Titicaca watershed struggles to provide basic services.
About 80 percent of homes in El Alto have access to potable water, but just 50 percent of its businesses and homes are connected to sewers that lead to the city's one wastewater treatment plant. The rest of the wastewater is piped directly into rivers, increasing health risks in a country of 10 million where around 30,000 children die each year from diarrhea due in part to inadequate sewers and sanitation.
Improving sewage treatment is often pushed aside due to inadequate budgets, says El Alto Mayor Edgar Pataña Ticona, and environmental laws are rarely enforced. “We have rules. They aren’t very strong, but we have them,” Mr. Pataña says.
A lack of quality sewage treatment in El Alto, as in many parts of Bolivia, means industrial waste also feeds into rivers. In sharp contrast to the deep blue of Lake Titicaca, opaque, foul-smelling water trickles through rivers in El Alto. Those rivers run red with blood from slaughterhouses, green with chemicals from factories, and vivid orange from mineral processing. Dead dogs and trash litter the banks, and are swept toward the lake when the rains come each year.
“El Alto doesn’t have an industrial park,” Marco Ribera Arismendi of The Environmental Defense League in Bolivia says. “Most of the medium and small businesses are dispersed through the city and plastic, paint, detergents, and metals from factories go into the rivers and then the lake.” A 2011 United Nations report found “alarming” concentrations of cadmium, arsenic, and lead in various parts of the lake.
There is a proposed second wastewater treatment plant for El Alto, which would rely largely on international funds for completion. But that addition alone will not be enough to allow the city to deal with all its wastewater.
Titicaca is big – larger than the state of Delaware – which makes it resilient and means the majority of its water is still clean. But for populations that live along polluted rivers and lakeshore areas, inaccessible clean water matters little.
People downstream from El Alto say their attempts to fight back have not yielded major change. In 2004 the Bolivian government passed a law declaring the Pallina River, one in a string of rivers that connects El Alto to the lake, an environmental disaster zone. But little action followed the passage of the law, so locals blocked a key highway leading toward the Bolivian capital of La Paz. The roadblock raised national awareness of the river at the time, but years later the water of the Pallina still runs dark and foamy.
“When I was a child the Pallina River was clean, the water was crystalline,” says Rigoberto Rios Miranda, an Aymara farmer who has lived on the bank of the Pallina his entire life. “About 15 or 20 years back they contaminated it. There were fish here – then one day waters came – I don’t know from where, maybe a tannery, but all the fish were dead.”
Mr. Rios Miranda, like many farmers, is digging wells on his property after deciding livestock should no longer drink from the river. Another economic blow for people along the Pallina is that they can no longer process tunta, a dried potato that was washed in the river water and sold for relatively high prices.
Challenged by tourism
Despite all the pollutants El Alto sends toward Lake Titicaca, it is not the only source of contamination. Rivers winding toward the lake pass smaller towns that contribute human and industrial waste, and some gold mining operations in Peru use a smelting process which releases mercury into the water. Livestock grazing along the shore loads the lake with organic waste, as well. This can fuel explosive aquatic plant growth, sucking up oxygen and cutting off sunlight other plants and animals need to survive.
Tourism is yet another concern: a double-edged sword that brings better income to the impoverished region, but also environmental challenges. The Peruvian city of Puno and Copacabana in Bolivia receive tens of thousands of national and international visitors each year.
Eco-tourism and infrastructure must be developed carefully to avoid further damaging the lake, says ecologist Francisco Fonturbel, who has studied the lake extensively. Government and non-governmental projects aim to address this issue, but much work remains. In Puno, Peru, for example, the city relies on overtaxed sewage treatment pools, and trash and raw sewage, exacerbated by sharp population influxes due to tourism, find their way into the lake.
“Right now we can see that the number of fish is decreasing,” says Marcelino Coila Choque, an Aymara fisherman who lives a few miles from Puno. He says overfishing and pollution are killing his livelihood.
“What will happen to our children in the future when the fish disappear? What will become of them?” Mr. Coila says. “That’s what we worry about … and not just here, but in different places all around the lake.”