Cousteau’s granddaughter talks world water woes

By The Daily Advertiser
April 24, 2009

MARRERO – Like Jacques Cousteau, her famous grandfather, Alexandra Cousteau tells stories about the world of water, but her film crew has worked mostly from above the waves on a 100-day journey to document the world’s water woes and their interconnections.
That isn’t the only difference between her work and that of her grandfather the undersea explorer and her father, Philippe Cousteau.
"They were extraordinary storytellers. They really made people feel as if they were part of the journey. … I don’t think anyone has really been able to live up to the standards they set," she said Thursday during a stop at a swampy national park 20 minutes from New Orleans.
But theirs was a different world, technology and audience, said Cousteau, who interviewed David Muth, resource manager for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve as part of her coverage of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone – a huge oxygen-depleted area of sea bottom born each summer from fertilizer and other runoff from throughout the 31-state Mississippi River basin.
"They could spend three or four months filming a one-hour film, and that film would be a novel thing, whereas today, documentaries are a dime a dozen," she said.
Her look at the dead zone – from the Midwest farm fertilizer that feeds it to its formation beyond the end of the Mississippi River, is the fourth of six topics she’s including in a video and blogging project called "Expedition: Blue Planet – exploring the life support system of our world."
What has most struck her? "Everyone we’ve spoken with has just on their own, without any prompting, said in the course of conversation, ‘Water is life.’ And it is.
"It’s our most important life-support system. It’s the vehicle through which we’ll feel the impacts of climate change. Managing this resource has never been more important."
Her journey started in India with a look at pollution of the Ganges River: the trash disposed there, the living who enter the river to wash away their sins, the dead whose bodies are put into the river for the same reason, and a project to create sewers to drain the wastewater of slum villages.
They’ve also been to Botswana, where herdsmen and fishing people have blocked a water diversion project that would irrigate farmland, provide drinking water and supply a diamond mine but threatens Africa’s largest oasis, the Okavango Delta.
And to the Middle East, to look at how water projects have aggravated the divisions between Israel and its neighbors, and a nonprofit group that brings people from Israel, Jordan and Palestine together to study peace, leadership and the environment.
The next stops will be the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Perth, Australia.
Some historians "believe Angkor fell because of mismanagement of water resources," Cousteau said. "Australian scientists believe that Perth may be the first modern ghost metropolis for the same reasons that Angkor fell."
They also plan to film a coral reef in the Red Sea, where much of her grandfather’s Silent World series was filmed.
Ultimately, Cousteau plans for a book to be published in 2010. Her group provides video and other content free to seven media partners including the National Geographic, CNN, Grist, and The group hopes to produce TV specials and perhaps even a miniseries or short films for theatrical release, said executive producer Justine Schmidt.
A half-dozen sponsors, the biggest of them Coca-Cola Corp.’s Dasani bottled water, underwrite the project.
"I think the challenge is to take the storytelling to a tech-savvy audience and make it widely available, free of cost," Cousteau said.
Alexandra Cousteau, right, granddaughter of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, interviews David Muth, resource manager for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, at its swampy Barataria Unit on Thursday outside New Orleans. Cousteau is working on a 100-day video and blogging series about the world’s water problems and their interconnections. She was in Louisiana to discuss the dead zone that forms in the Gulf of Mexico every summer, fed by fertilizer, sewage and other runoff from the 31 states in the Mississippi River Basin. (The Associated Press)