Belt talks water conflicts, solutions in morning lecture


Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

There could be an international war over water in our future.

Don Belt, current contributing writer for and former senior foreign editor of National Geographic Magazine, gives that warning not in an ominous, threatening way, but from the perspective of a man who has spent more than 30 years experiencing international life in more than 65 countries through the lens of ordinary people.

“Conflicts over water are historic. They’re long-standing,” Belt said. “But climate change has made it even more imperative that we figure out ways to resolve these problems before they erupt into some sort of war.”

Belt will present on those water conflicts — specifically conflicts in Bangladesh, Iraq and along the Jordan River — at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater. He is the capstone lecturer on National Geographic’s week: “Water Matters.”

He will tell anecdotes and show pictures from his field experience. Belt will give examples of ordinary lives adversely affected by water and examples of solutions and compromises that have been made in some of the world’s most war-riddled countries.

“I’m going to try to put a human face on geopolitical conflicts over water,” he said.

The three areas on which he focuses are the three areas where he has had the most recent direct experience, he said.

For his April 2010 story on the Jordan River, he traveled to the West Bank and witnessed Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian scientists working together as environmental stewards.

For his May 2011 story on Bangladesh, he lived with those who have dealt with frightening floods and damaging droughts due to climate change and the diversion of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. It is estimated that a good portion of the already over-populated land will be submerged in water due to those two factors, he wrote.

For his upcoming story on Iraq, Belt spent several weeks living with the Marsh Arabs, whose efforts to reconstruct their marshes, drained by Saddam Hussein until 2003, have been thwarted by Turkey’s diversion of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“I have always been touched or moved by people who are dealing with extremes of one kind or another,” Belt said. “The bottom line is I enjoy people and getting to know people. I enjoy spending time and getting to see the world through the eyes of the people I cover. And then trying to convey what makes them heroic or noble or admirable to the readers of National Geographic who are all over the world.”

The South Carolina native was inspired by years spent traversing the rivers of the state with his soccer pals as a young man and by a trip to Mexico and Central America while studying at the University of South Carolina.

“That’s been the great blessing of my work,” he said. “It’s been a rich life. I’m wealthy in friends around the world, because of this.”

Motivated by the stories of those he met along the way, he trained himself to be a journalist and based the first story he wrote for National Geographic on one of the rivers he knew best: the Chattooga River, which runs through his home state.

Though water issues have served as a thread through many stories for the magazine, it was just a happy accident, he said. It was merely a topic of interest that wove its way into the complex strands of his many works, and serves as the tie to his trip to Chautauqua.

Besides Friday’s lecture, Belt will also teach two Special Studies classes on reporting during his week on the grounds.

One, called “Wet Boots, Dry Notebook,” will present his experience reporting for National Geographic and will be at 3:30 p.m. Friday in Hultquist 101. It will cost $50. The second, called “Fault Lines and Field Notes: Covering Pakistan for National Geographic,” will be at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Hurlbut Sanctuary. It will also cost $50.

For Friday’s talk, Belt said he hopes to simplify larger water issues, put a face on the problems and discuss real, plausible solutions.

“As the effects of climate change are even more profound and conflicts over water become even more acute, there’s going to be a need to ramp up the system of international law to deal with these things,” he said. “If there is no way to resolve them through law, then the prospect begins to grow that there will actually be armed conflict over water, which we haven’t really seen much in the course of human history.”

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