Environmental Journalist Erica Gies has seen the impact that rapid climate change has made on peoples’ lives. She grew up in California and now makes British Columbia her home and has witnessed first-hand the aftermath of raging forest fires, unprecedented temperatures and the loss of homes and communities in both countries as well as the decades-long drought in California.
“Just this summer, my parents had to evacuate from the Dixie Fire in northern California and that same fire, a good friend and colleague, her little town, Greenville, actually burned completely,” she says. “The whole town and community are gone. Last summer, there was period of about ten days in British Columbia where you really couldn’t go outside. I would get a headache, I would feel nauseous, that was pretty common. Everybody has these apps where they’re always checking the air quality and comparing it to places around the world that are polluted in other ways.”
Not surprisingly Gies’s focus is on solutions to climate change, particularly our relationship with that most precious commodity, water. She previously wrote about renewable energy, and before that worked for WIRED. It was in the early ‘00s when she realised that climate change wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. “Editors would say, ‘nobody cares about that’ because people really weren’t paying that much attention to environmental issues let alone climate change,” Gies tells me.
Gies has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Guardian and she also has a book due out next May called Water Always Wins: Thriving in an age of drought and deluge, which looks at our relationship with water. “There is a lot of magical thinking involved in our current economic system – that resources are infinite and that we can control water. That is why my book is called Water Always Win sbecause it’s an illusion that we can control it. These ways of thinking about it recognise that if we don’t take care of the water it won’t take care of us.”
Given that her work focusses on solutions, Gies tends not be the reporter at the scenes of disasters but rather interviewing experts and innovators about new ideas. And she says she has found that in the fields of ecology, historical ecology, biology and landscape architecture there are lots of women. Many of the people Gies speaks to advocate a more holistic approach to climate change, and in countries like Kenya and Peru, these holistic solutions are having real-world positive impacts on communities.
“When I was out in the field in Kenya, I was looking at both forestry and farming projects that help to keep water on the land and restore forests at the top of the water towers that generate water,” she says. “The two agricultural experts that took me around to introduce me to these small landholders and to the people in the national parks that were doing the forestry, were both women. I encountered a lot of women in my reporting across sectors, but where I really noticed it was the scientists, some of the urban planners and landscape architects.”
These holistic approaches are having positive impacts already. Kenya has historically had a problem with soil erosion in the highlands. When it rains heavily, the water runs off taking the soil with it, creating multiple problems: damage to crops, contaminating the water with heavy sediment that then needs cleaning before being used for drinking, and also not capturing the water for when the farmers need it in the drier seasons. Agricultural officers have started introducing farmers to techniques to hold the soil on the slope and to capture and store the water. “These farmers are doing these techniques and having much better crop yields and the water quality down below is much better.”
Gies tells me that in 2016, the Peruvian government approved the regulation of its Ley de Mecanismos de Retribuciones por Servicios Ecosistémicos (MRSEs), a law passed under the leadership of Peru’s then Environment Minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. This regulation, which is now sanctioned under Peruvian law, requires that all water utility companies give a percentage of their profits and invest it in natural systems, instead of solely allocating funds to building dams and levees that cause significant damage to the environment and to people. “The idea is to protect and restore the good things nature does for us. They are also restoring this really cool Indigenous system that’s 1,400 years old, in which water is stored in the wet season for the dry season by moving it underground.”
Gies has noticed that Indigenous cultures tend to view water as a ‘who’ and not a ‘what’, like a member of the family. She says: “In all of these ways of thinking about water [Kenya, Peru], it is more holistic. You are looking at the whole system in which the water operates, not just trying to get that product of drinking water or trying to get that one goal of putting up walls to prevent flooding. You are looking at all the connections.”
It is statistically women who are disproportionately affected by climate change and therefore suffer from the lack of investment in infrastructure and solutions according to a 2016 UNDP Report looking at the linkages between gender and climate change. India still does not have an adequate, consistent and safe water infrastructure nationwide that stores and distributes water regularly to villages, towns and cities. Even in major cities, women are still responsible for making sure their family has water. “I have middle-class friends in India, and it is still the woman’s job, even if both the husband and wife are professionals. It is the woman who gets up at four in the morning to pump the water to the roof to make sure their family has water for that day”, says Gies.
Through her reporting and research, Gies has found that it is women who are often more open to the communal or holistic thinking that is having the positive impacts that can be seen in countries like Kenya and Peru. “I don’t want to be sexist but it’s possible that women are more interested or more open to that kind of communal thinking or maybe they haven’t been socialised as much to have that linear problem-solving mentality that leads to dams and levees and things like that.”