The Big Melt: Jonas Bendiksen

Jonas Bendiksen has received numerous awards, including a National Magazine Award for his story "Kibera,'' which was featured in the Paris Review. Other distinctions include a Freedom of Expression Foundation fellowship, second place in the 2004 Daily Life Stories category for World Press Photo, the 2003 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, and first prize in the Pictures of the Year International competition. His coverage on "Dharavi: Mumbai's Shadow City," was featured in the May 2007 issue of National Geographic.

The Big Melt: Jonas Bendiksen

The snow and glacial ice of the Tibetan Plateau supply fresh water to nearly a third of the world’s populace and give birth to Asia’s largest and most legendary rivers-waterways that have nurtured civilizations, inspired religions, and sustained ecosystems.

But a crisis is brewing on "the roof of the world." The lofty plateau is highly vulnerable to climate change, and over the past century has heated up twice as fast as the global average of 1.3°F. That means nearly all of its glaciers are shedding more ice than they are adding. In many places grasslands and wetlands are deteriorating, lakes are drying up, and sand dunes are encroaching on the highlands. By contrast, other parts of the plateau now have too much water. In these places the glacial melt has swollen rivers, eroded topsoil, and caused flooding and landslides.

Scientists say that the worst may be yet to come. If current trends hold, some estimate that 40 percent of the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers could vanish by 2050. Along with acute water and electricity shortages, that could mean a plunge in food production, widespread migration, and dire conflict among Asia’s powers. If there is an answer to this looming crisis, it will lie in regional conservation and cooperation.

California's Pipe Dream: Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is one of Canada's most respected photographers. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of 15 major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "California’s Pipe Dream" is his first assignment with National Geographic.

California's Pipe Dream: Edward Burtynsky

In California, 70 percent of the water supply is in the north, but 80 percent of the demand is in the south and midsection. To correct this "accident of people and geography," as a former governor called it, the state spent the past century building an elaborate water-delivery system: giant pumps and some 2,000 miles of canals, pipelines, and aqueducts.

Today this plumbing is badly stressed. A three-year drought has drained reservoirs to their lowest levels in nearly two decades, forcing water restrictions. Warming temperatures have shrunk the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the state’s largest surface-water storehouse. And the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta-a source of irrigation water for millions of acres of farmland as well as drinking water for two-thirds of the state-is increasingly threatened by sea-level rise, urbanization, and the menace of a major earthquake, which could topple delta levees.

Last fall California passed laws that call for cities to cut water use 20 percent by 2020. This year voters will decide whether the state should take on another $11 billion in debt for more water-delivery systems and conservation efforts. Some experts, however, urge a simpler approach: Use drought-resistant plants, recycle wastewater, and learn to live within the resources of an arid landscape.

The Burden of Thirst: Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson has traveled from Siberia to Zambia with her Leica cameras. Though she has photographed notables from Tiger Woods to the justices of the Supreme Court, her favorite assignments are emotionally demanding stories about ordinary people.  She has received awards from World Press Photo and POYi, among others. Her work for National Geographic has covered everything from zoonotic diseases to illiterate women from India’s Untouchable castes training to become village health workers.

The Burden of Thirst: Lynn Johnson

In wealthy parts of the world, people turn on a faucet and abundant, clean water pours out. In developing parts of the world, the task of fetching water can define life for women and children, human beasts of burden who may spend eight hours a day at this grueling task.

And the water they carry home is often dirty-nearly 900 million people lack access to clean water. Moreover, 2.5 billion have no safe way to dispose of human waste. Together these woes kill 3.3 million people a year-a vicious circle of misery, inequality, and death.

Bringing clean water close to homes is one key to reversing this cycle—and transforming societies. If those millions of women and children had faucets by their doors, the time they spend hauling water could be used to grow more food, raise more animals, even start businesses. Fewer people would be stricken with waterborne diseases. And freedom from water slavery would mean girls could go to school and choose a better life.

To this end, NGOs are working to bring clean water to forgotten places, using technology-like a sand dam to capture rainwater in Ethiopia, where some women must wrest drops from muddy seeps-while ensuring that locals are involved in designing, building, and maintaining water projects. In this way the circle may yet be broken.

Parting the Waters: Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin has won many awards, including eight World Press Photo awards and numerous Photographer of the Year awards, a Leica Medal of Excellence, an Olivier Rebbot Award, the Hansel-Meith Prize and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award. In 2006, he received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. He lives in New York and Rome.

Though its name evokes divine tranquility, the Jordan River has hardly inspired peace on Earth. Water has always been precious in this arid part of the world, and many conflicts have centered on the biblical stream and its tributaries and aquifers. Now a six-year drought and the needs of expanding populations have made it a fresh source of strife for Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians.

In the past five decades the river has lost more than 90 percent of its normal flow. Upstream, at the Sea of Galilee, waters are diverted to Israeli farms and cities. Elsewhere, dams built by Jordan and Syria claim a share of tributaries for agriculture. The result? Today’s lower Jordan is essentially a waste canal full of saline water, sewage, and runoff, while the falling water table of the Jordan-fed Dead Sea has created sinkholes in Israel and Jordan that render land unsafe for development.

Yet all these problems have also led to dialogue and resource sharing. Working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and one another, some Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians are now seeking to improve water quality in their shared river, honor water-sharing commitments in past treaties, build a midstream "peace park," and develop alternative water sources. Will these drops of hope flow into a river of harmony?

Silent Streams: Joel Sartore

A lifelong Nebraskan, Joel Sartore is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. He is co-founder of the Grassland Foundation and a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.  He is the recipient of numerous awards, including top honors in the category of Science/Natural History from POYi.  His recent work for National Geographic includes stories on endangered species and amphibian loss.

Freshwater ecosystems are closely linked to human activity, since most of the world’s industry and agriculture are concentrated alongside flowing waters. Some 126,000 species, including half the world’s 30,000 fish species, inhabit those waters. For years they have been paying the price of proximity, vanishing four to six times as fast as those on land or at sea. In the U.S., nearly half of all endangered species live in fresh water.

There is hope, however: captive-breeding programs. Waterways in the American Southeast are choked by dams and clouded with pollutants, yet many still abound with diverse species, like the spotted darter that swims in West Virginia’s Elk River. To preserve and restore this freshwater life-including the Ouachita madtom of Arkansas’s Saline River-researchers are building what amount to "arks," or seed stock. That means capturing and breeding species, reintroducing them once habitats are clean, then monitoring them-sometimes by unusual means. To check on a catfish called the smoky madtom, for instance, scientists in Tennessee’s Abrams Creek snorkel as they search under rocks.

Success stories are already starting to flow in from such nascent programs, offering a breath of life and a stream of hope.

Sacred Waters: John Stanmeyer

John Stanmeyer works regularly on assignment for National Geographic.  He has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the Robert Capa Magazine Photographer of the Year, as well as World Press Photo and POYi awards.  His recent work for the magazine includes stories about food security and malaria.

From the droplets in a baptismal fountain to the scattering of ashes on a holy river, water blesses our existence. We enter the world in a burst of amniotic fluid; we ritually wash the bodies of the dead. Throughout our lives we are one with water, in every sense-largely composed of it and perpetually in need of it, body and soul. "I must live near a lake," wrote the psychiatrist Carl Jung, who waded into the depths of the psyche and equated water with the unconscious. "Without water, I thought, nobody could live at all."

Waters, the religious historian Mircea Eliade explained in the 1950s, are the "spring and origin, the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation." Versions of that view have been a shared since human history began-and by legend, before. Genesis says the world was brought to life by a God who created a "firmament in the midst of the waters." Babylonians believed in a world made from a blend of fresh and salt water. Pima Indians have said Mother Earth was impregnated by a drop of water. And the archetype of a cataclysmic flood is deeply embedded in cultures from Hebrew to Greek to Aztec.

However varied their beliefs may be, the world’s adherents continue to immerse themselves in a sacred relationship with water.