How do changemakers form bold ideas, and turn them into a massive project like a major documentary film? Today we talk with Courtney Nichols, producer of the new film Blood For Water, on how she came from the world of business to take on the global problem of water politics head on. She’s planning on turning the film into An Inconvenient Truth, about water.
And the film, we’ll read, talks about the implications for people living in the Middle East.
So here she is: Courtney Nichols, a 38-year-old NYC resident, and founder/CEO of CampaignWater Inc.:
How did you transition from the world of business, to as you say “make a real impact?” in the world of water. Was it a dream in the middle of the night, an aching sensation, or just something you were leaning towards? It was a slow creep really. I quit my job after four years because i wanted to find a way to use my skills at launching businesses to doing something more connected to “doing good” but I also just needed a break!
About a year ago, I sat around a table with some folks and heard them talking about the water crisis. Now, I consider myself a relatively engaged person, maybe not the MOST informed, but certainly caring and connected to the world around me and yet I have never heard this talked about.
I thought, How is this possible? What came to me as this NGO talked about its goals for fundraising was this: what you basically have is a branding problem.
This issue needs to be “marketed” to a mass audience so people understand that water, in fact, is at the root of or related to many of the problems they hear about: disease, conflict, environmental degradation and food shortages as well as lack of education (mostly women and children). I began to volunteer my time advising two fantastic organizations: Charity:Water and Blue Planet Run both with strategy advice/connections and fundraising.
About 6 months later at a dinner I was hosting just to start reaching out to friends, influencers etc. to get people talking about water, a friend told a story having just returned from Sudan (south) about seeing men with guns fighting over access to a well.
He was there to research the subject of his book (Stefan Templeton subject of biography by David Matthews, to be published by penguin in 2010) who works as a humanitarian mercenary of sorts and is dedicated to this issue of water as a source of conflict. As he was talking, I thought, that’s it, let’s make the Inconvenient Truth about water!
We have this great character as our guide (to keep it from being well-intentioned but boring doc that few people see) to tell the story of access to water as the ever increasing source of armed conflict. So we wrote a treatment and I started talking to experts in the field to find out if there really was an issue and the answer was very clear, water needs to much higher up on the agenda and conflict is the most under-reported aspect.
So we decided to make Blood for Water. From there it just expanded into CampaignWater as i just didn’t see anyone else filling the gap of a mass audience awareness campaign.
You’ve written: “The real crisis is probably less Israel/Syria for the moment and more Egypt/Ethiopia/Sudan over the Nile which will become a serious hot button locale…..” Any ideas how this will play out? Could there be wars, political upheavals, starvation, or all of the above? So yes, today its not Israel/Syria. The three main areas of potential conflict or the Nile (i.e Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan), the Tiger/Euphrates and the Tibetan plateau (which effects China, India, Pakistan). Yes, all of the above.
Right now, most conflicts are occurring within countries between wealthy and poor/ upstream versus downstream but most agree its headed to more international conflict as the food crisis becomes more acute. For example, the UAE ( I believe) just bought 1 million hectares in Madagascar.
Now I assure you the people living there have no idea that a country just bought the water from underneath them for future use to grow grain that would then be exported back to the middle east. Similarly, Ethiopia sits on top of one of the largest aquifers in the world but they can’t afford to drill down but those with money elsewhere (primarily in the Middle East) can…its a new type of colonialism, the buying of resources out from under the native population.
What can we do, as citizens in the Middle East? Are they orgs we can join? How can we help fight for water? Well, we believe that anything that is a path to war can also be a path to peace (such as the conversations now taking place between Israel/Syria, or the Indus Treaty in ’67 between Pakistan and India) so our goal is to help prevent fights over water.
The biggest impact, really, will come from more efficient use of water to lessen the need to import, conflict over resources vs. finding more water.
The primary use of water goes to agriculture so advocating the migration of water intense growth to more efficient uses is key. Its geographically specific but i think a good place to start for advice is The Pacific Institute, the leading research organization on water issues. That said, I think addressing awareness and action on an individual level is key as it connects us to the larger problem (much as you saw with the environmental movement where individual recycling is not going to have an impact but it slowly moves it up the national agenda).
- avoid water intensive activities
- golf (one of the worst!)
- skiing (believe it or not, snow production for ski resorts fast becoming a use waste of water)
- swimming pools
- lawn watering
And awareness that every piece of clothing, every piece of food you eat required water to make. Meat is one of the worst offenders on this front (can get you the stats if you don’t have), so moving towards a more vegetarian lifestyle is positive as is avoiding bottled water. It takes 3 litres of water to bottle 1, so the impact at scale is not insignificant as is the impact on local communities where for-profit companies can remove water with little capital and sell it back to them at a profit (this may not be as applicable where water management in ME is much farther along than here in the US).
Specific organizations that I have seen up close and believe are doing work on the ground (100% of your donation goes to the building of wells etc. not overhead):
I went with Charity:Water to Ethiopia in August to see what they were doing. Amazing work with very little money.
Why can’t technologies like desalination plants solve the problem overnight? Well, desalination (already well under way in ME due to necessity) works. The problem with this is the enormous energy required for the reverse osmosis to desalinate.
This makes it cost prohibitive for most folks not to mention you now have energy use which has its own problems in terms of resource use. No studies yet on how widespread use would effect ocean/hydrological cycle.
If someone could create a way to use reverse-osmosis with very little energy, it might be a huge help. This is why we want to sponsor the XPrize which provides and incentive for the scientific community to focus on solving one problem and task them with coming up with technological solutions to the water crisis.
Tell us a little more about your film, who are your partners, and when we can expect to see it? We are fundraising for the film now. We have just completed shooting our trailer and hope to start filming in April. We are fortunate to have Oscar nominated directors attached and a great deal of support from our board of advisors. Our goal is to have the film shot by the end of 2009 and out to the public in 2010.
COURTNEY NICHOLS BIO
Eleven months ago, Courtney Nichols, a serial entrepreneur (most recently COO of CLEAR the fast pass for airport security) quit her job to find a way to use her skills and her network to make a real impact. It was clear that the potable water crisis now facing the planet (climatologists recently reported that 32 states in the US will be in drought conditions within 5 years-this is not just a “them” problem) needed to be “marketed” to the western world, that even relatively engaged and informed people were unaware of the scope of the problem, now considered by many to be the greatest crisis facing the 21st century.
In addition to serving as an advisor and fundraiser both to Blue Planet Run and Charity:Water, Nichols is making a documentary, Blood for Water, focused on access to water as the ever increasing source of global armed conflict, told through the eyes of a humanitarian mercenary (Stefan Templeton, our protagonist, is the subject of a biography to be published by Penguin Press, 2010) desperate to turn the tide.
The film, with Oscar nominated Directors attached, will only be the start to a larger campaign Nichols is now building, in conjunction with her advisory board, to generate a groundswell of attention and action in advance of its release.
Nichols is working on a variety of companion media platforms (web, XPrize, video game, soundtrack with major artists such as KT Tunstall already committed to donating music and book release) to augment and turn the film into a movement to incite coverage of the issue and action by individuals as well as governments and ngo organizations.