The world’s population was 2.8 billion when I was born. Not quite six decades later, 7.2 billion humans inhabit the planet. This fact runs through almost all of my photographs, but it became especially relevant when I started to think about taking pictures of the earth’s water.
My journey began in California, in 2008. National Geographic had asked me to contribute to an issue devoted to water, and California, with 38 million people and an enormous agriculture industry, turned out to be a good place to start.
For agriculture alone, the evidence of California’s dependence on a vast network of state and out-of-state rivers, water conveyance systems, reservoirs, and groundwater basins is massive—so massive that I soon realized a cherry picker could not give me the lofty perspective I required to tell the story.
Water, and the impact of climate change on our supply, is simply too big a subject. I needed to convey this immensity. Once I came to understand the scale of what I was looking at, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft became key tools for the project.
I have always been drawn to landscapes, in part because we all are. Landscape, as a form of communication in art, is embedded in Western and Eastern traditions. Images of lakes and river valleys and distant snow-capped peaks reach across cultures. Even when the content of a picture is nothing like the pastoral origins of landscape, we understand the language.
My photographs reflect the impact of humanity, not its absence. They are pictures of our footprint, and the diminishment of nature that results. They are distressed landscapes: images of land, and now of water, that we have altered, or diverted, or transformed, or used in this unprecedented period of population growth, agricultural expansion, and industrialization. Documenting the point of impact between humankind and its evolving environment has turned out to be a life’s work.
My nationality has something to do with this obsession. As a Canadian, I have a reference point you might lack if you grew up in the Netherlands or Manhattan. Of course, Canadians have cultivated and manicured spaces. I live in downtown Toronto, hardly a wilderness, but in Canada we are never far from places where one can see how the land looks without our presence. Around the globe, this has become a rare perspective.
The sense that untouched nature embodies something spiritual constitutes a part of who I am, both as an artist and as a citizen. It is why I am so saddened by the environmental policies of many world governments—especially our own. It is why so many of my landscapes are laments.
Being Canadian also has something to do with why—after photographing rail cuts, tailings, quarries, ship breaking, and factories—I have turned to water. As a photographic exploration, the Water project is cut from the same cloth as my previous ones. It is a continuation of the same story. It feels natural to me, even obvious, that a Canadian should want to tell it.
I wanted to understand water: what it is, and what it leaves behind when it is gone. I wanted to understand our use and misuse of it. I wanted to trace the evidence of global thirst and threatened sources. Water is a part of the pattern I’ve watched unfold throughout my career. I document landscapes that, whether you think of them as beautiful or monstrous, or as some strange combination of the two, are clearly not vistas of an inexhaustible, sustainable world.
Canada borders the Great Lakes, which contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. The other one to three million lakes in this country (depending on your definition of “lake”) hold even more. We are custodians of over one-fifth of a resource that is utilitarian in the broadest and most necessary sense: water enables everything to live. Without it, there is wasteland—end of story.
Contrary to the propaganda of our federal government and the oil extraction and production industries, we are not an oil country. We are a water country. The implications and the responsibilities of this are enormous, and growing bigger by the day.
The drama at the heart of water is that we have no alternative. Water has no workaround. When we talk about energy, we can talk about alternatives to fossil fuels. When we talk about communication, we can talk about better, more sustainable delivery systems. We have no options when it comes to water. We either have it—which makes our planet the miracle that it is—or we do not, in which case our precious earth is just another chunk of barren rock hurtling through space.
Edward Burtynsky has photographs in the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York, and other collections around the world.