National Geographic photographer Pete McBride, known in his native Colorado for documenting the story of the drying up Colorado River, traveled to central Kenya, in 2012, in pursuit of the legendary water god, Ngai. According to local religions, he dwells in a hiding place on the holy Mt. Kenya, but no one knows where. While McBride didn’t solve this mystery, he did encounter the mystique of legend: electricity storms that threatened the voyage, a meal of goat’s blood, and trepidation for the nation’s water supply which is rapidly changing, and in turn, threatening the livelihoods of the country’s inhabitants.
Why this region for your first film?
I love East Africa; I climbed the false summit of Mt. Kenya with my family when I was nine. It changed my perspective on many things. I saw my first glacier, and always wanted to go back and see it I could climb the actual summit. The mission to climb the summit became a vehicle to do a comparison of how the mountain has changed in the last 30 years.
What are your personal concerns for the future of the region?
My big concern is Africa is so rich in resources, particularly wildlife, when you have abrupt changes especially with water, it plays out with people, their agriculture, where they go, what they do with their cattle, and of course, the wildlife. If people aren’t earning enough money with their cattle, they start looking for other options. We are already seeing an out-of-control poaching epidemic. We went to a national park to see how the water flow is affecting the elephants there, and many have been poached since I was there last summer. I’m worried that more pressure on the water resource will ripple out and create pressure on all the resources. Sadly, a quick way to make a buck in Africa right now is to poach ivory. It’s all connected: the corruption, the water, and population growth, as well.
How do contextualize water issues for different audiences?
I try to think of ways to convey to people that for instance the Colorado River runs dry. It hasn’t reached the sea since 1988, and for instance people in New York City might think well, who cares, it doesn’t affect me. Well, I try to link people to their resources. The Colorado River produces the lettuce crop for the entire United States. So whether you live on the river, or on the coast, you are eating the Colorado River. So just helping people connect the dots.
What’s your feeling surrounding the global movement of climate change?
I think the majority of the world understands that significant changes are happening and have felt the effects of the extreme storms we are seeing continually. I am sad to see the ongoing debate we are having about it despite the fact that the scientific community has said unanimously that there is a problem and that it is related to man, so I am frustrated, but I think there are some good minds on it. People are waking up. A positive is in Kenya, I saw a water project where the people use their cell phones as a credit card to text over funds to control and buy water in their village. It’s innovative and efficient, and cuts down potential for corruption. There are signs of hope but I think we have a long way to go.
Water Tower plays 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 at Boulder High School. See www.biff1.com for more.
This story is part of our complete coverage of BIFF 2013.