In 2015, the photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz was living in China. For two months, he had been photographing the Yangtze River, crowded with shipping containers transporting materials between cities. One morning, Abdulaziz ventured to Donting Lake, a flood basin of the Yangtze, before sunrise. Amid all the ships and cranes, he noticed sand dredgers dotting the water, pulling up the floor of the lake for use in construction.
The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, and—though efforts to preserve the waterway are in place—China’s fast-paced development has polluted the river and threatened its aquatic life. The photograph that Abdulaziz took of the sand dredger that day, he says, conveys the sadness he felt witnessing the machine digging through the water for materials to fuel the developments that continue to threaten the river.
Abdulaziz’s work in China is part of his ongoing project called Water. A collaboration with the HSBC Water Programme, a partnership between HSBC, Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF, Abdulaziz’s images will be displayed as part of the Photoville festival in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York through October 12, 2016.
In 2015, the World Economic Forum identified global water crises—including droughts, flooding, and lack of access to safe drinking water—as the largest threats facing the planet for the next decade. Abdulaziz has been photographing its effects on countries around the world for the past five years. He expects to complete the project in 2026.
Abdulaziz began by photographing the cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2012, focusing on “the crucial links between water, sanitation, disease, access, and infrastructure,” he says. He then traveled the Ganges River in India, and moved on to document issues of water access and scarcity in Ethiopia, Somialia, and Pakistan. More recently, Abdulaziz photographed in Brazil, Nigeria, China, and the United States.
Discussions around the state of global water tend to lead with the statistics: right now, 650 million people lack access to safe drinking water; 2.3 billion people live without basic sanitation. “Water has been recognized as a human right,” says Sarina Prabasi, the CEO of WaterAid America. “We can’t live without it.”
But access to water and sanitation, Prabasi adds, cannot be addressed in isolation. The international development community, “has not always been good about making those linkages between clean water and sanitation and the overall quality of the environment,” Prabasi says. “Water flows through everything; we have to make the connection more clearly.”
Abdulaziz’s project investigates interrelated water crises. His work captures individual relationships to water, as well as its role in larger agricultural and infrastructural systems, mirroring the way that Karin Krchnak, the freshwater program director for WWF, says water issues must be addressed at the policy level.
“The water crisis needs to be dealt with holistically,” Krchnak says, “because if you focus very narrowly, you can create problems in other areas. Water is about food, it’s about energy, it’s about supporting biodiversity in the natural environment, and yes, it’s about drinking water and sanitation, but we can’t get stuck on this.”
Through his photographs, Abdulaziz invites a more considered understanding of the way water inflects life across the globe. The water crisis, he says, is often portrayed dramatically, through “easily digestible illustrations of a very complex topic.” Abdulaziz’s work leaves space for the viewer to contemplate their place in the systems he portrays.
“Water Stories” will be on display at Brooklyn Bridge Park through October 12, 2016.