Water Scarcity | Council on Foreign Relations

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Fresh water is one of those things we forget about when it’s easily accessible. But as soon as it’s not there, even for a short time, it becomes painfully clear how much we need it. Aside from thirst, we rely on water to cook, to bathe, to do laundry. Behind the scenes, much larger quantities are needed to make our clothes and grow the food we eat. 


But as climate change accelerates, water is becoming scarce in arid, highly-populated regions all over the world. From India to Israel, from Italy to Mexico, to Australia. Countries of all kinds are struggling to survive and adapt to a much drier reality. 


At the heart of the problem are outdated rules and institutions that lack the flexibility demanded by a changing climate. If new compromises aren’t reached, the problem is going to get a lot worse. 


My name is Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, water scarcity.   


Al Jazeera News:

0:45 “It’s one thing you can’t survive without and yet more and more people around the world are being forced to try.”



KHON2 News:

0:00 “Severe drought has hit Maui once again.”




0:15 “China’s Taiwan region is facing the worst water crisis in 56 years.”



PBS NewsHour:

0:25 “From the Rio Grande to the Rocky Mountains a mega-drought is underway, it’s shaping up to be the worst water crisis in generations.”




Gabrielle SIERRA   

I hear a lot of scary things about climate change when it comes to this topic, is the world running out of water?


Sandra POSTEL   

The world is not running out of water. But we may be changing where it is, and how accessible it is to us. 



I’m Sandra Postel. And I am the director of the Global Water Policy Project. And what I try to do is sort of connect the science and the policy and the practice around water so we can have water security for all beings.



Sounds like a big job description.



It’s pretty big. I take it in chunks.


The world isn’t running out of water. There is enough to meet the needs of every human on Earth, or at least there would be if it was evenly distributed. Water scarcity isn’t about the total amount of water, but the fact that there isn’t enough usable water where it is needed. And in these places, climate change is making the problem worse, fast. 



The basic physics of it really is that as the temperature of the planet warms, the atmosphere expands, which means there’s more capacity for the atmosphere to hold water. And so in a dry place, that means you’re going to have more evaporation, which is going to dry it out further. In a wet place, you’re bringing up more water, and you’re going to get more condensation, and it’s going to rain more intensively. So as a rule of thumb, climate change will make dry areas drier, wet areas wetter, and the intensity of those events is increasing. 



I think the primary way we’re going to experience climate change, and already are, is through the water cycle. And we’re already seeing that in the southwestern US, we’re in the midst of a mega drought. That it seems the second worst we’ve seen in 1200 years. And it’s something we really have to grapple with. You know, I think we need to also look at our language around this and start talking in dry places about aridification more than drought, because we’re going to see a long term chronic drying, that requires a different response than a temporary drought that we expect to end. There’ll be more rain in certain years than others, but the long term trend will be a drying out of the environment, less water available, less water in the soil. And that’s a different aspect of security for society.


Water is a matter of global security because there are a lot of human beings living in those dry environments, whether it be Los Angeles or Marrakesh. The UN estimates that water scarcity currently affects 750 million people globally, and that by 2035, half the world’s population will be living under high water stress. Alongside the vast human suffering it will cause, that much scarcity has the potential to lead to migration, deep economic problems, diplomatic faceoffs and even outright conflict. A big part of the problem is that the world didn’t plan its cities, or its water infrastructure, with climate change in mind. 



A lot of the issues that we face on water scarcity, as well as water overabundance or flooding are relatively recent and what I mean by relatively recent is the last, you know, even 50 years, 75 years. 


This is Mark Giordano, he holds a Chair in Environment and International Affairs at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.



People didn’t talk about water scarcity in the way they do now or a global water crisis until maybe the early 2000s or maybe late, late 1900s. And I point that out because the institutions we’ve developed to manage water were mostly about building infrastructure to access water and to use water, to build dams, to build canals, to build flood control systems. Because the questions were usually, how can we get more water? Now we’re asking the questions of how can we manage the water we have better because there is no more water to keep developing.



So now we’re in a situation where we’ve over-allocated the water, our institutions were built for something else and now we’re trying to figure out what to do. And a big part of it is building understanding that users of water often don’t know there are other users of water. If you start talking about the water around wherever you live, you will very quickly start using, my water, our water, their water, you’ll appropriate the water yourself. So farmers talk about their water and cities talk about their water and California talks about its water and Colorado talks about its water or US talks about its water versus Mexico’s water. 



The number one thing to remember is that water is a shared resource and it doesn’t belong to any one person, any one state, any one industry. We’re all in it together. We have to make sure we all understand that and remember that, and that if I forget that, the negative impact on you might come back to haunt me later. With that kind of basic idea there, we have to think about setting up institutions that are gonna last over time. That means dealing with variability, thinking through how might the world change and how can we make sure that we can adapt through the institutions we built, whether that be a formula institution on paper or a social institution, that’s, that’s not on paper.


In order to understand how climate change will affect water, first we have to understand the basics of how water functions in the environment. It feels like one of those 101 things that we just never really ask about. So, let’s ask about it. 



So, I grew up in New York and we’re actually kind of famous for our amazing tap water. You know, people say it’s what makes the bagels and the pizza taste good, but beyond that, it’s also just not something I’ve thought about a lot in my life. I think people just kind of expect it to be there. So, can you tell me just a little bit about how water works? You know, where does it come from?



You know, most of the water is salt water, just a very tiny amount, less than two and a half percent, is freshwater. And a lot of that two thirds of that is locked up in glaciers and ice caps. And so we’re dealing with a very small percentage of all the water on earth that’s fresh and drinkable and useful for all the things we need. So having said that, that water cycles, and the basic supply comes down as rain and snow from condensation in the atmosphere. And so, it falls onto the land somewhere. And then depending on what’s going on, it’ll do one of three things really, it’ll run off the land and join a creek or a stream and become what we call runoff. And that’ll eventually end up in the sea, it can soak into the soil, and then potentially recharge groundwater below that, or it can evaporate or transpire back to the atmosphere pretty quickly. So that creates the cycle…



And then the question is how we use and manage the water that’s in that cycle. And the other thing that’s really important, you grew up in New York, well, every place has its own water cycle also. Every watershed has its own cycle, my backyard garden has a little water cycle. So water cycles on different timeframes and on different scales. So that creates some interesting management challenges as well.



you’re going to have a very different relationship between precipitation and evaporation if you’re in a desert, than if you’re in a tropical rainforest. 


Water is constantly cycling and refreshing itself according to natural laws. And this provides a bounty for human use. But if human beings put too much pressure on the water cycle, especially in vulnerable regions, things can break down.  


Take groundwater, which collects under the earth’s surface, filling the porous spaces in soil, rocks, and sediments, contrary to popular belief it is not actually a giant pool underground. Anyway, we drill into these spaces to access and consume this water trapped inside. Groundwater is then replenished by rain and snow, as it melts and seeps back into the land. In places like California’s central valley, farmers drill deep to pump out enormous quantities for use and irrigation. In fact, groundwater extraction has been so aggressive there that the entire region is sinking, sometimes at a rate of more than a foot per year. So the problem is that groundwater replenishes itself very slowly. It can take weeks, months, and even years to renew itself. Extract too much too quickly and the source runs dry. 



We’ve gotten very good at extracting water to meet our needs. You know, the way we primarily do it from rivers, for example, is to dam them up and create a reservoir, which can then be delivering water to farmers and to and to cities, on our own timeframe. If we’re a farmer or a city where there’s groundwater we drill a deep well and then pump that water up from the ground. And so we’ve basically developed these engineering technologies to access that water and of course, developed some very big infrastructure to move the water to where it’s needed. You know, nature has given us kind of a difficult hand when it comes to water because you need a lot of sunshine to grow crops. But when you have a lot of sunshine, you don’t have a lot of rain. And so we’ve had to move water to where the crops are best grown. And that often means, you know, moving water from a wet place to a dry place.



What about the relationship between agriculture and water consumption?



Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water in the world. About 70% of all the water we extract from rivers and groundwater aquifers around the world goes to agriculture, and much of that is consumed, you know, it doesn’t go back into the water cycle right away. It’s transpired by crops back to the atmosphere, so we can’t immediately reuse it. So agriculture is the primary reason we see depletion in much of the world. And I want to say, you know, a good bit of that is that it just takes a lot of water to grow crops. Again, I don’t want to castigate agriculture, farmers are doing great work to provide us with these items to eat and to make clothes out of, but it just takes a lot of water. 


When it comes to agriculture and water scarcity, the most important question to ask is where the crops are grown, rather than how much water they consume. 


So, that may sound a bit confusing, but take cocoa for example. It consumes a lot of water, but it’s grown in tropical rainforests where there’s lot of rain. 


California almonds, on the other hand, consume a lot of water in a very dry place. From a sustainability perspective, that is a problem.  Nonetheless, as droughts have intensified in California over the past two decades, almond production has doubled.


Understanding the “water cost” for any given product can be hard work. And most of us go through our daily lives without understanding just how big our water footprint is. 



So if we’re an average american, it takes about 2000 gallons of water to sustain our daily life, our daily lifestyle. 2000 gallons a day, only five or 10% of that is the water we’re using at home, and half of that is in our diet. A third of it is in our energy use. Maybe 10% is in our computers and phones and coffee mugs and you know the things that we use and buy. And then five or 10% is the water we use at home, indoors and outdoors. So, it’s a lot of water.



And a lot of it’s hiding, you know, if you look around, everything takes water to make. And so if we are wearing a cotton t-shirt we’re looking at, you know what, as much as 700 gallons of water to make that one cotton shirt. Most of that is water used to grow the cotton out in the field. You know, it’s a good thing to recognize that one of the simplest ways in our lives to save water is to not waste anything. 


Saving water is something we have been told to do our whole lives. Whether it is turning off the tap when you are brushing your teeth or making sure you take care of leaks. We’re not as used to thinking about the water that goes into our shirts. But we have to learn how to think this way, because increased scarcity is coming.


Still, lifestyle changes are not enough to address a problem as large as climate-related scarcity. Only nations, and groups of nations, have the resources to build the new, adaptable institutions we are going to need in our water-scarce future. After the break, we’re going to take a look at an example that shows exactly what I mean.  Not in the western steppes of China, or the drying fields of South Africa, but right here at home, in the U.S. 


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Ok. Example time. Close your eyes. Imagine you’re standing at the top of the grand canyon on a hot summer day. You hear the cry of an eagle, and the sound of tourists munching sandwiches. Thousands of feet below, carving its way through the canyon, is the Colorado river. Fed by the snowmelt of the Rockies and other Western mountains, the Colorado is not the largest river in the United States, but it may be the most important. It is also the centerpiece of the country’s struggle with water scarcity. Millions of people depend on it, and every year, it provides less water. 



0:08 “Red flag fire warnings have been posted in several western states where a historic drought is threatening a catastrophic fire season.”



CBS This Morning: 

1:01 “Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, is on track to soon hit its lowest level ever recorded.”



ABC15 Arizona:

0:08 “For the first time ever, the federal government is preparing to declare a drought-emergency on the lower Colorado River.”




It is the lifeline for the American Southwest, supplies water to about 5 million acres of cropland 40 million people get drinking water from the Colorado, it’s shared by two countries, so it is a binational river, the US and Mexico. But it hasn’t been managed in a way that really meets the needs of all of the stakeholders in the basin. And when the river was divvied up in 1922, you know, we were coming off of an unusually wet period. And so the thinking was, there’s more water in the river, than it turns out that it naturally carried even excluding climate issues. 


The Colorado River Compact of 1922 was essential for the development of the West. It was built to meet the needs of the time, to get as much water as possible to the region’s growing cities and farmlands. But it didn’t anticipate climate change or even the notion of scarcity. The pact guarantees amounts of water to states, rather than percentages. So, for example, today the pact entitles California to 4.4 million acre feet of water per year, that’s well over a trillion gallons. Colorado gets 3.8 million acre feet, and so on. Millions of people in these and other states have built their lives around these amounts. Farms, cities, sewage systems, hydroelectric plants, every fountain in Las Vegas, every golf course on the California coast. Every home for 40 million people. 


Meanwhile, climate change means that there is less snowfall in the Rockies, less water going into the river, and less water available to the members of the pact. But every year, each of those 40 million people expect the same amount.  



Plus, and this is an important point going forward, when the water was divvied up in 1922 there were three important stakeholders not at the table. One was Mexico, even though the last 100 miles of the river is in Mexico, and the delta is in Mexico, and it flows into the sea in Mexico, Mexico wasn’t there. The Native American tribes that have lived with the river in the watershed alongside the river for generations and generations and generations and have legally senior rights to the river, they were not at the table, they have not been able to exercise those rights. And third, the river was not represented at the table. And so the river has had no say. 


This idea, called “environmental personhood”, suggests that natural entities like lakes and rivers should have the legal right to resist alteration in a court of law. The idea turns Western notions of property rights on their head, and it’s certainly controversial. Still, it has growing momentum around the world, with indigenous communities leading the charge. Advocates say it’s one of the best ways to protect threatened waterways and other natural features. Different versions of the status have been adopted in countries like Bangladesh and New Zealand, and even in the U.S. state of Ohio, along the shores of Lake Eerie.  



And so those three omissions immediately created a problem on top of giving the seven states in the US more water than the river usually carries. So it was a problem from the beginning. And so now we’re trying to go back and fix this. But it’s really tough, because we’re already in a mega drought, there’s way less water than there’s been throughout this history. And yet, we’re also trying to correct the omissions around that table in 1922. The complication is even more because you have an upper basin and a lower basin, and the upper basin, by law of the river is supposed to provide a set amount of water to the lower basin, well, that’s getting, you know, more complicated and the lower basin is where you have more of the demand. That’s where most of the irrigated agriculture is, that’s where Tucson and Phoenix and Los Angeles are. And so what’s happening is as Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir, along with Lake Powell, they’re the two biggest reservoirs in the country, as those levels go down, they’re approaching a point, and this may happen this year, where, by the rules of the river right now, there’ll be an enforced reduction in allocation of water to Arizona and to Nevada. If the lake goes below 1075 feet above mean sea level, there has to be that reduction. And I think that may happen this year. And so that’ll be the first time that these agreed upon rules kick in, and we’ll see what happens. But, to their credit, the states really have worked together to develop what they’re calling drought contingency plans. You know, this drought is long term, we don’t know when it’s gonna end. And so Arizona, California, and Nevada have purposely tried to keep more water in Lake Mead to avoid getting to that lower level where, you know, the regulations of the federal government will kick in. And so that’s cooperation. And that’s good. That’s saying we’re in this together. But it’s still complicated, and they’re already working on the next round of these rules. So the cooperation is there, the ability to really solve the problems long term, you know, we’ll see.


The pact is still a long way from comprehensively addressing the West’s water problem, but there is reason for hope. The agreement has evolved, Mexico gained its missing seat at the table in 1944, and several smaller amendments over the years have created stipulations to improve conservation and sharing during drought conditions. The capacity for compromise has been demonstrated, but there is going to need to be a lot more before the river becomes sustainable.



What does the Colorado River tell us about the problems that we’re gonna face and the changes that we’re going to have to get used to as conditions get worse? 



I think the Colorado River reminds us that that water is life. We depend on rivers for so many things. You know, we built these dams on the river for important purposes to generate electricity to control flooding, to store water, so we can provide that winter flood water and snowmelt runoff to farmers in the summer. So we can provide drinking water to all of these desert cities that have sprung up so they’re serving very important purposes. And so the river is really being asked to do a tremendous amount of work. You’re in a situation of over allocation and increasing drought and aridification. But we all depend on that river and there’s just so much it can give without, you know, kind of dying out itself.



I mean, it sounds like we all need to get used to a lot more water compromise.



We do need to get used to more water compromise and also, you know, we’re in a different moment of time than we were when we developed the water rights and the laws and the engineering infrastructure that went in decades ago. We’re in a different moment in time. We have more people, we have more demand, we have the big concerns about climate change. We have recurring droughts, we have recurring floods. So in some ways, you know, we need to adapt. 


And the Western United States isn’t alone. The same conflicts are playing out over rivers, lakes and ground sources across the world. And in each place you find the same themes: dwindling supply, overallocation, and institutions that were not built with the flexibility that climate change requires. 



You know, even though there’s a treaty between India and Pakistan over the Indus River, we’ve seen a lot of, you know, conflict around water related issues in Kashmir, for example, even though there’s a treaty that sets out how that water should be shared between India and Pakistan, we’ve seen in in Africa, a lot of tension and violence, even over water between different ethnic groups, because there’s not sufficient water there to meet the needs of everyone in the in the culture and in the form of agriculture in particular that they’ve been accustomed to. 


One of the most talked-about cases of water scarcity is Capetown, South Africa, which in 2017 came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the first major city to run out of water completely. Preparing for the worst, Capetown’s “day zero” plans included shutting off pipes, and deploying resources to deal with social unrest and outbreaks of disease. Strong rains staved off the emergency in 2018, but water anxiety remains a serious problem in South Africa and in many other parts of the Continent too. 



And so, again, it takes many forms. And for example, the Nile basin, you know, 84% of the water is coming from Ethiopia. But Egypt is, from a geopolitical and military sense, the most powerful. And so that’s where you could run into trouble, because the upstream country has, in a sense, the hydrologic power, but not the military power. You look at all the rivers that come out of China, well, China has the military power and the hydrologic power, so you’re not necessarily going to see a war there. But the downstream countries are potentially at risk of water shortage of not having the security of water that they need because of decisions made upstream. And so you have to look at the dynamic from both the geopolitical sense and from the hydrologic side. 


Water scarcity is local, but it doesn’t always stay local. In a world where we import so many things, water problems in one place can easily trickle over to another.



When people talk about water and conflict or water and politics, they’re often thinking about the direct issues or the direct outcomes in some place. But there’s so much trade in agriculture now and many countries are very dependent on agricultural imports that a water problem in one place can transfer to another place via the trade. If people cannot afford food, they are not going to be happy and you can expect food price rises to be associated with political instability, particularly in places where people spend a lot of their income on food. And so, that’s a mechanism where a drought in one country can affect another. 


Cross-border water inequalities can lead to tension. For decades, movies like Mad Max have portrayed “water wars” as the endgame of environmental degradation. 


MadMax: Fury Road:

1:20 “Do not my friends, become addicted to water, it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence”




Do you think that there’s potential for conflict over water, as you know, scarcity and overconsumption continue?



There definitely is potential for conflict over access to water. We’ve already seen this historically, we can see conflict between countries, we can see conflict within countries, we can see conflict between cities and farms, we can see conflict between different ethnic groups. And we have seen this and I think we do need to be aware that this could worsen over time. And I particularly worry about the effect of food prices and rising food prices in particular on that social and political stability. We need to really be on the alert for these kinds of social and political events and really work to prevent that rise in civil unrest from getting out of hand. 


But not everyone believes water conflict is inevitable, or even the most important part of the story. 



The premise of the water war concept is water supplies are fixed, that global populations are rising and in addition to that, as populations are getting wealthier, they’re consuming more meat and, if you’re gonna grow beef or pork or chicken, you know, you have to feed multiple kilos of that grain to that meat. So meat consumption per capita is rising and the number of people is rising and the water is fixed and so people extrapolated that to say, well, at some point, because water is so precious, countries are going to fight over it. 



But the real story of water at the international level has been one of cooperation, not one of outright conflict. As you go down in scale, that’s where you’re more likely to find actual conflict and in particular violent conflict and you can find hundreds of examples of two farmers shot each other. You’re gonna be hard pressed to find an example of of two countries. So, what I would say connects also to the trade issue we talked about, within countries, poor water management coupled with a drought, coupled with other pressures can lead to conflicts, can be a factor in conflicts within a state. Sometimes those conflicts can spill over. People discuss that, especially with Middle Eastern states and some Sahalian states in Africa now. 


Conflict over water, whether between two farmers, two cities, or even, in the worst-case scenario, two nations, becomes likelier as supply dries up. But there are solutions out there.  There is enough water to meet the needs of a growing global population, but there is not enough water to continue all of the habits we developed before climate change. In order to create sustainability, we are going to have to compromise, as individuals and as societies. And we are going to have to build institutions that have compromise and flexibility at their core.  



With better policies and incentives, I think we can have, you know, happy, healthy, productive lives, while consuming less water. You know, I don’t need to eat red meat every day. If we look at our diets, you know, the amount of water that goes into producing the hamburger is way more than goes into producing a delicious non meat meal. And so even if we reduce our meat consumption by half, say that’s going to save water, you’re not using all of that irrigation water to grow alfalfa to feed to the cows, or to grow corn to feed to the cows. And so we have a lot of ability to adjust. I think we need to do it in an equitable way, I think we need to do it in a way that gives people important choice. You know, diet is a very personal thing, I don’t think we should be prescriptive about it, but to provide the information and let people know, hey, you know, some of this is in our control. Some of this is in our hands. And we’ve also only begun to tap the potential of conservation and increased efficiency of water use. We’re saving because of more efficient toilets and faucets and showerheads, and dishwashers and washing machines, were saving 9 billion gallons of water a day, that’s equivalent to nine New York City’s worth of water because of more efficient appliances and fixtures in our homes. That’s really huge. And we haven’t begun to tap the potential in irrigated agriculture, more efficient delivery of water, more efficient application of water, the ability to put sensors in the soil to know how much water is really needed to grow the crops, we can marry information technology to efficiency technology and get more crop per drop across the board. So there’s a lot we can do to solve these problems, it’s not a doomsday scenario, we just need to develop the political will, the social will to make these changes and they can be made. My concern is that the problems are unfolding, the challenges are unfolding much faster than these solutions. Everywhere I look around the world where there is a problem related to breaking the water cycle, there is an example of how to fix it in the real world. We just need to scale these solutions up.



A big part is developing the understanding that there are other people using this water and so communication and awareness is a big part of the institution building process. And I would say on the negative side, we haven’t done that very well so far. On the positive side, institutions take a long time to build and trust takes a long time to build, and we’re moving in a path in the right direction, but these processes take time. So I always say, short-term, I’m a pessimist and, and long-term, I’m an optimist.



I think the only thing I’d say is water, just to get everybody to step back and think about how they feel about water. And when I say feel, I actually mean really feel, like, you know, there’s a reason that you want the hotel room with the sea view and there’s a reason people wanna sit by the river. There’s something about water that is special to us. You’ll be hard placed to find any religion that doesn’t have water as part of its origin story of, of humankind or, or the universe. It has a special place for us. It has a special impact on us in a way that few other things do. And I think if we stop and think about that for a while, how important it is to all of us in every aspect of our life, that maybe we can think a little bit more clearly about coming up with good solutions.



Can you paint me a picture, what’s at stake, if we don’t learn to cooperate and conserve better?



We’re looking at a world that will be less good for us to live in. We will not have the healthy rivers and riverside forests and fish and wildlife that we want to have in our world, they will be gone. And then secondly, you know, we’ll see more conflict because water is life, water is essential to food, water is essential for drinking. And as we see, as things become scarce, they also grow more inequitable, so of course, the wealthy are going to get what they need, and the poor will not get what they need. And so there’ll be more inequity, which breeds more tension, which breeds more violence. And so we’ll have a less peaceful world as well as a less healthy world. And that’s not a world that most of us want to live in.


For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.


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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our assistant podcast producer. Sophie Yass is our summer intern.  


Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Felter and Kali Robinson. 


Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 


For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!


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