The Evolution of NWNL

by Alison M. Jones, Director of NWNL

My photographic career began in 1985 on my first visit to Africa. After years of photographing landscapes, wildlife and cultures for magazines, exhibits and stock photography, I had the honor of helping start Kenya’s Mara Conservancy.  From then on I focused on conservation photography, with NWNL as my signature project.

2-K-ELE-2009.jpgLone elephant before establishment of Mara Conservancy, Mara River Basin

Flying low in a Cessna over sub-Sahara Africa in 2005, I saw from my copilot’s right-hand window, what looked like green ribbons strewn on the ground. They were the lakeshores and river corridors dotted with homes and animals. The rest was empty, grey miombo woodland. I kept repeating, “In Africa, it’s obvious. Where there’s no water, there’s no life.” I had a title, but not yet a topic.

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Aerial view of riverine forest in sub-Sahara Tanzania

I considered a “Waters of Ethiopia” photography project, because when most think of Ethiopia they imagine a dusty desert. Few know Ethiopia holds the largest water tower in the Horn of Africa. Monsoonal torrents supply 75% of the Nile River via Ethiopia’s Blue Nile and 90% of Kenya’s Lake Turkana via its Omo River. An environmental resource manager suggested I include watersheds on other continents as well, for more interest and issues. Thanks to this soon-to-be Founding Advisor, focus then centered on African, N. American and S. American watersheds, as I already had photographed these regions.

4-Jones_070630_WA_5501.jpgMount Adams behind Trout Lake, Columbia River Basin

A second Founding Advisor, now Director of African People and Wildlife, suggested NWNL cover only two continents. South America was dropped, and so were incoming queries asking, “Why not India or China?” Now we could zero in on differences and similarities of water issues in developed v. developing nations. While every watershed presents compelling scenarios of threats and solutions, we chose 3 case-study watersheds on each continent. Those 6 river basins would allow us to raise awareness of almost all of the world’s watershed values and vulnerabilities.

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Women washing clothes, Omo River Basin

We established our expedition-based Methodology, outlining a process we’ve followed step by step for 65 expeditions. Each expedition begins in the office as we study our in-house research outlines (many created by summer college interns) to determine our expedition’s focus. We conclude with a finalized itinerary of expedition contacts to interview and sites to visit.

1-MO-JOH-107.jpgRecreational swimmers and sunbathers, Mississippi River Basin

Having set our case-study watersheds, procedures and website, it seemed NWNL was set to launch. But that first Advisor said that I needed to go back to school before the launch.  Even though I was the photographer in our mission to combine photography and science – not the scientist – she worried I’d embarrass myself (and NWNL) in front of Ph.D. scientists. So, I took Columbia University courses in Watershed Management and Forest Ecology. On completion, the forestry professor asked to be a NWNL Advisor; and I thanked that young advisor with 2 Master’s degrees who sent me back to school for being so astute and such a wise daughter!

8-Jones_100331_UG_4184.jpgMunyaga Falls in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Nile River Basin

Credentials of today’s NWNL Team include expertise in still and video photography and training in environment, history and biology, forest and restoration ecology, and natural resource management. Our Advisors and Researchers set the focus and itinerary for our expeditions. Our Staff develops outputs from those expeditions. This structure has allowed me to lead 65 watershed expeditions, often joined by professional or passionate amateur photographers and conservationists.

6-Jones_080503_NJ_0198.jpg“Kids at Play” sign along tributary of Upper Raritan River

Since NWNL began, awareness of the degradation of our water resources has grown – from a bare mention in the news in 2007 to front-page coverage almost daily today. Working in tandem with that growing awareness, we’ve documented the drainage of water from 11 African countries into the Mara, Omo and Nile River Basins (about 10% of Africa’s land mass. With our focus on N. America’s Columbia, Mississippi and Raritan Basins, we’ve gone from coast to coast and covered 50% of the US. Our scope has included the US’s most rural and most densely-populated states (Mississippi and New Jersey).

9-IMG_9861.jpg2015 NWNL exhibition, “Following Rivers,” at Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries

The NWNL Team is proud of the process and products it has created. We hope that – as a result of the efforts of NWNL, the 900+ scientists and stewards we’ve met and many others- nature and all its species will have enough clean water.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

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