Jonas Kakó: The Dying River

Jonas Kakó: The Dying River

As a result of human intervention and climate change, the Colorado River continues to dry out daily. At the beginning of the 20th century it still rushed, unhindered through the Southwest of the USA; since then, irrigation projects, agriculture, diversions, and the construction of dams and reservoirs have led to water levels dropping to critical levels. Photographer Jonas Kakó set out to explore and capture pictures of the tamed river.

Covering over 2,300 kilometres, the once immensely powerful Colorado River flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. In many places, however, the loud sound of rushing water has turned into a soft murmur; while the river still currently provides water for around 40 million people, it could dry up completely in just a few more years. Considering the urgent relevance of this issue, photographer Jonas Kakó carried out comprehensive research before heading for the USA to explore life along the river.

The project took Kakó over snow-covered mountains and dusty deserts, all the way to the coast. It led him into numerous conversations with beekeepers, farmers, scientists and indigenous people. The images he was confronted with were similar in many places: he met people doing everything they could to counteract the desiccation; the debate about the lack of water is happening everywhere. He discovered that the degree of dependency upon the once mighty Colorado varies vastly among people of different areas: while fast-growing cities, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, require enough water from the diverted river to fulfil the needs of residents and tourists alike, the fish reserves for the Cucapá people on the Mexican side of the border are almost completely depleted. This not only means the loss of their livelihood, but also of a defining part of their culture. It is such touching stories as these that make Kakó’s series so haunting and thought-provoking.

“This project was the most comprehensive and challenging one I’ve done so far. I was able to develop my photography on the trips to the Colorado, and I’m very happy to have been able to present the project in these dimensions.”

The photographer originally planned to spend just one week on the project. Yet, after a first visit to the region, he quickly decided to return to the river for a second time, together with Stern editor Raphael Geiger. Little by little, Kakó wove together a multi-faceted story, where relics of the past, prognoses for the future, and people in the here and now all gradually fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. The outcome is an impressive, insightful and, at times, distressing portrait of a majestic region that waits, in vain, for rain.

Though the subject may seem gloomy at first glance, Kakó does not give up hope for the Colorado. Speaking in an interview, he explains that there are possibilities and efforts being made to save the river – with water treatment plants, for example. At the same time, new methods for using the remaining water more efficiently are being researched. The photographer emphasises, however, that the problem cannot be dealt with, exclusively, as though it were a localised drought; rather, it is very clear that this is one of the consequences of the global climate crisis. Therefore, it is necessary to take a global approach to finding solutions for this, and countless similar issues around the world.

So, the story of the Colorado is not yet fully told. However, Kakó’s photographic series is already contributing towards raising awareness concerning the meaning and the protection of the Colorado River. His work offers an impressive visual example of how the current global climate crisis is being handled.

Kakó’s project was proposed by Gilles Steinmann, who was among this year’s 60 international LOBA nominators.

Jonas Kakó

Born in 1992, Kakó studied Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at Hanover College. For some years now, his photographic work has been dealing with the climate crisis and its impact on people and nature. His stories have appeared in the likes of National Geographic, Stern and de Volkskrant. In 2023, he was the recipient of the World Press Photo Award in the category of Singles – North and Central America. 

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Portrait: © Jonas Kakó