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Superheroes of water journalism

Ask J. Carl Ganter what process he and his Circle of Blue team use when analyzing and reporting on the world’s most pressing water issues and he will tell you, with a wink: IWT. Which, he will go on to explain, stands for “I was there.” Ganter and his team of reporters, photographers and researchers put themselves on the ground, at the epicenter of big stories, or stories that are about to become big. It was this in-depth research, reporting and convening style that won Circle of Blue the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award in 2012.

As co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, an organization of journalists and scientists that provides frontline information and context about the world’s water and resource crises, Ganter speaks at a lot of water events, from the grassroots to ballrooms. He says, though, that this is secondary to what he does.

“I am a journalist first,” he explains. “Whenever I travel, whether to rural India or Davos, Switzerland, I am a reporter. I recently spent three days in Inner Mongolia with a family that lives on the razor’s edge of the drying grasslands. I go, I see, I report. We try to make it personal.”

This on-the-ground journalism, however, is only part of what Circle of Blue does. “One of our real strengths is being able to step back, spot big trends, find the context and see the big stories emerging,” Ganter says. “So getting on the ground and capturing the narratives and stories, that’s just the tip of iceberg. We also want to know about the big mountain of data underneath that backs up the reporting.”

Ganter compares Circle of Blue’s work — and the wider, complicated water challenge —to engineers trying to solve the Apollo 13 mission. “We have all these puzzle pieces we’ve found, then we put them on the table and convene experts around them and say, what does this mean? What are the next big questions? In the biggest sense,” he says, “we try to not just be at the table, but be the table, a neutral convening space based on fresh, dynamic facts and context.”

“Sadly, most of what passes for journalism is thin, crowdsourced and not based on in-depth research. In a sense, we’re Time magazine meets Google meets the Situation Room. We use the superheroes of journalism, science, data and design so that we have real power and trust when we advance a big story.”

Uncovering China’s water-energy crisis 

For Circle of Blue’s “Choke Point China” project, the organization dug deep into the complex connections between energy and water in the country. “We went in with four separate teams of photographers, data researchers and reporters, and partnered with China’s universities,” Ganter says. “We asked, What is China’s biggest water-energy challenge? We were the first to show that China does not have enough water to continue to mine and process coal for energy at current rates. That’s a major challenge for a country that gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal.”

Circle of Blue, and their research partner, the Wilson Center, found that 20 percent of water withdrawn in China is used to mine, process and consume coal, and that as coal-fired production increases – as it is expected to do by 30 percent by 2020 – water use will increase dramatically. This while water supplies are declining. “What does this mean? It means that staring China in the face is likely the biggest risk to GDP growth.”

As part of their project, Circle of Blue took their findings to experts at all levels in China. “We gave 17 presentations in 16 days, including to China’s Ministry of Water Resources and their staff,” says Ganter. “What we found gave them standing with other ministries. We brought them trusted data and a new narrative, and put it in terms that others could understand.”

Accelerating water challenges

“My very first story as a young journalist, when I was 15, was covering the Great Lakes when Jacques Cousteau had his ship on Lake Superior,” Ganter says. Throughout his career, he’s touched on every form of media. From doing photojournalism assignments for Time, National Geographic and Rolling Stone, to investigative reporting for NBC-5 Chicago. “But water always came back to me as the big story. It’s a very complicated, fascinating story with all the pieces: heroes, victims, villains, hope, optimism, technology – no story is more rich or exciting or important as water.”

Ganter, who also serves as vice-chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security, says that in the last five years he has seen a major shift in how people think about water. “Water is coming up more and more in the conversations. People and businesses are starting to think more systemically, thinking about water, food, energy and climate as an integrated system. So that when we make energy decisions, we are making water and food decisions. That’s the exciting part. The scary part is that a lot of the challenges are accelerating – when we have a shock to the system it ripples more quickly across the globe.”

The biggest opportunity people have now, Ganter says, is to get ahead of these challenges by understanding them and informing and accelerating the decision processes.

“I think innovation is built on hope,” he says. “You will not innovate unless there is optimism for the future, that you can make things better. When I become frustrated, when the challenges seem too big, I think of the people I’ve met. People like the daughter of the Inner Mongolian shepherd family. She knows her GPS coordinates, that she is part of a big, connected world. She is learning how she can become more involved, and how she and her friends, whose way of life is literally drying up, can protect and save their land.”

“There are innovators and heroes at all levels, people who are working so hard every day to make their world just a little bit better. I feel humbled that we can spend some time with these people, that we have reason to find them and tell their story.”

Read more about Choke Point China here.

by Chad Henderson