Jacques Leslie

Hell or High Water

Recorded: October 8, 2014

Not only is Jacques an award-winning author and journalist, he is also an important humanitarian and environmentalist. He has won numerous awards for his nonfiction and has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his foreign correspondence (Vietnam and India) in 1972 and ’75, respectively. Jacques tells the story of how he began his career in journalism, and through his foreign correspondence became a champion for human rights and the environment. Jacque is an award winning journalist and author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment.   

Jacques an award-winning author and journalist, humanitarian, and environmentalist. He has won numerous awards for his nonfiction and has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his foreign correspondence.

His book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment was a finalist in the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Nonfiction and it was also named as one of the top science books of 2005 by Discover Magazine.

Jacques work has been published in a number of magazines including: The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Orion, Wired, OnEarth, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review and Reader’s Digest among others. Jacque obtained his B.A. in American Studies from Yale University and graduated with departmental honors. He was a Yale-China fellow from 1968-70 and was a tutor of English at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

For more information about Jacques, you may access his website at http://www.jacquesleslie.com.

Huey Johnson:   Jacques Leslie, Welcome.

Jacques Leslie:   Thank you, Huey.

Huey Johnson:   Good to see you. The question of our age is: what are we going to do to survive water shortage? In your work as a writer, done some writing there. When, and how, and where did you decide to become a writer?

Jacques Leslie:   It was a perfect marriage of my parents. My father was a lawyer, who was very interested in politics and my mother was a screenwriter. And journalism, I discovered, enabled me both to write and to maintain an interest in politics and it just was perfect. When I graduated from college, I thought I would probably be spending my entire career in the United States and had an opportunity to be in a program called Yale in China, which consisted of teaching English to Chinese University students in Hong Kong. And I thought this would be my last chance to get out of the country, so I’ll do this. So I spent 2 years studying Chinese and got pretty good at it, and that eventually led to my being hired by the Los Angeles Times and sent to cover the war in Vietnam, which was a crazy idea. But the idea was that I would get training there so that I could then go on and cover China. Well to me, that was like putting someone in the World Series to prepare them for the regular season. It just didn’t make a lot of sense but I was happy to do it. And I went to Vietnam. That was my first fulltime job in journalism at the age of 24. I did not at that point know whether a captain or a lieutenant was higher ranked. I knew nothing about the military. I knew a little bit about Asia having lived in Hong Kong for two years, but I learned pretty quickly I had all kinds of exclusive stories. I was the first American journalist to go into Vietcong territory and South Vietnam and come out alive and write about it. And then went on to other assignments, but always had the feeling that everything was anticlimactic after that experience, and wondering what I could possibly do that would touch this. And I eventually wrote a memoir about Vietnam and Cambodia called The Mark, and then moved on to environmental journalism.

Huey Johnson:   Why did you select environmental journalism?

Jacques Leslie:   I felt for many years that the environment was the neglected story of our time. It took me a long time to get editors interested. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s I would constantly propose stories and almost invariably they would be turned down. It wasn’t until 1999 that my fortunes really changed. I proposed to do a piece on global water scarcity for Harper’s Magazine and that introduced me to the world of water, and it also led me to the discovery that at the center of every controversy over water, there seemed to be a dam, and that led to the book I wrote called Deep Water, The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, which was about social and environmental impact of dams around the world.


Huey Johnson:   If you look at 10 years from now and the condition of California water policy, which I allow is the worst in the nation, and as corrupt as any institution has ever been, where are we going to be?

Jacques Leslie:   It’s clear that things can’t go on as they are, particularly with the drought that we’re facing, we’re now moving into our 4th year of drought. If policies don’t change, there will be many communities that are without water, there’ll certainly be a lot of agriculture without water, and there’ll be cities around the state having to figure out what they’re going to do.

Jacques Leslie:   Los Angeles of all places, has been figuring out a solution. They realized that they could supply as much as half their water needs if they started capturing water. And they discovered that it cost them 800 to 1,000 dollars an acre-foot to import water. It cost them 300 dollars an acre-foot for local water, so what better incentive is there than that?

Huey Johnson:   Wow!

Jacques Leslie:   To pull this off, they had to get a lot of agencies that were used to being autonomous– to work together–and that was probably the biggest obstacle they faced.

Huey Johnson:   What patterns have you seen in world use of water and the hope for a future?

Jacques Leslie:   It’s not being done right anywhere, or virtually anywhere. There are very few countries that are dealing with all these environmental issues in a reasonable way. There are a few exceptions, but even the ones you can think of — and I’d probably start with Holland and New Zealand — there’s still massive problems that they have to deal with, which I think just shows the enormity of the environmental issues they face and the pressures at the same time of capitalism, of free enterprise, which are run so contrary most of the time to a healthy environment. Now people are beginning to understand that they are all the same problem — that if you don’t solve your environmental problems, you’re not going to solve your poverty problems or your food problems. They’re all part of the same thing and they all have to be addressed at the same time. I think you could look at conflict after conflict that’s going on now, not just in Egypt, but certainly those a part of Darfur where the shortage of water is part of what creates the conditions that lead to enormous conflict.

Huey Johnson:   What can a young writer do that would get them on a path to be read?

Jacques Leslie:   My job was to write about what I felt was important, to tell people what they needed to know, whatever happened to it after that was out of my control. And my other job, at least the one I assigned myself, and that I cared deeply about, was to write with as much beauty as I possibly could. To make every sentence as beautiful as I could. If you do the work, if you put in the hours, then things that you think are lucky tend to happen. But it’s not really luck, you put in so much effort that something like this was bound to happen — and I keep on discovering that — and I think other journalists and other writers find that all the time. If you do it with passion, and with determination, good things tend to happen.