Water and the thirst for profit

September 25, 2008

Chris Williams reviews a documentary film on the global water crisis and its causes.

WATER IS quite literally the essence of life. All animal and plant processes occur in cells swimming in water, and humans are 70 percent made of the stuff. Without food, we can survive for weeks. Without water, we die within days.

On a planet where two-thirds of the surface is covered in water, one would think access to clean, safe and sufficient amounts of water couldn't possibly be a problem. Yet 1.1 billion people don't have such access, and 5,000 children die every single day from completely preventable diseases associated with drinking contaminated, filthy water.

This is the subject of the new award-winning documentary FLOW (For Love of Water) by Irena Salina.

Of the water on earth, less than 3 percent is fresh water, and, of this, two-thirds is (currently) frozen in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Much of the rest is trapped in the soil or in deep underground aquifers. This leaves us with access to around 0.01 percent of all the available water on the planet for irrigation (70 percent), industry (20 percent) and us (10 percent).

The growing privatization of the world's fresh water supply means misery for millions
The growing privatization of the world's fresh water supply means misery for millions

Still, even with a population of 6 billion, access to water could easily be provided for everyone--if there was democratically controlled international planning that took into account the real needs of urban and rural populations, regardless of income.

The UN calculates that $30 billion would be enough to assure every person on the planet access to clean water to drink. That represents about 5 percent of annual global military spending, with the U.S. accounting for about half.

Apparently, it is far more profitable under free-market capitalism--and hence more desirable--to build weapons to kill other human beings than to provide them with clean water for a fraction of the cost. Only under a system whose prime directive is profit could this make any sense.

In inspiring and engaging clips and interviews with activists, FLOW documents the grassroots resistance to the raging torrent of water deregulation and privatization that has swept around the world as a result of neoliberalism.

FLOW addresses a number of themes surrounding our most essential resource. In addition to the privatization of water in various countries of the Global South, the film also exposes some of the myths surrounding bottled water, such as the fact that 25 percent of it is tap water, and one company was even getting their supply next door to a Super Fund site!

The documentary also touches on the growing chemical contamination of groundwater supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't regulate 51 different chemicals, including the herbicide Atrazine--which is banned throughout the European Union for its links to gender changes and low sperm counts in amphibians and fish, but is one of the most commonly used chemicals on U.S. farms.

The film gives statistics on the millions of people made landless or relocated to marginal land in Africa and Asia to make way for vast and inefficient (but highly profitable) International Monetary Fund- and World Bank-sponsored dam projects.

In the U.S., the film throws a spotlight on the fight in Mecosta County, Mich., to stop Nestle--owners of several of the most commonly seen brands of bottled water--from stealing the water from under their homes in order to bottle it and sell it back to them and us at wildly inflated prices.

FLOW IS at its strongest and most engaging when revealing not just the depredations caused by the behemoth multinational water companies such as Thames Water, Suez, Vivendi and Coca-Cola in India, but documenting the heroic and sometimes victorious struggles by some of the most downtrodden and oppressed.

Footage of Bolivian army troops getting chased off the streets by rioting workers and peasants in the infamous Water Wars of the late 1990s and interviews with the Bolivian union leader Oscar Olivera form the backdrop to the government being forced to renationalize its water and send Bechtel packing.

In South Africa, there is the burgeoning movement to reconnect water and electricity supplies to those who can't pay. In India, where a community is being poisoned to death by the new bottling plant set up by Coke, the multinational was forced to close after two years of mass demonstrations.

Interviews with the physicist and social justice activist Vandana Shiva, as well as interviews with grassroots engineers and politicians who are providing clean and extremely cheap water and irrigation, showcase some of the solutions possible when people's needs are placed before profit.

As the film makes clear, the aisles and aisles of bottled water available in the West illustrate just one thing--convincing people that tap water is dirty and that only bottled water is safe and tasty can be highly lucrative. Water is an industry worth $400 billion per year, coming in third behind oil and electricity. However, in sharp contrast to publicly-owned water supplies, bottled water doesn't have to be clean or from some shrinking glacier to be poured into a bottle and sold for $2 a pop, since there is little to no regulation.

According to an interview in the film with a former researcher from the National Resources Defense Council, scientific tests of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water show that about a third of the bottles contained synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic.

Furthermore, the huge quantities of energy, water and other resources that go into making the non-biodegradable plastic bottles--almost none of which will ever be recycled even if you dutifully place them in the correct recycling bin, let alone the resource and pollution issues related to transporting bottles by the tens of millions all over the world--are yet another illustration of the enormous waste and pollution inherent to capitalism.

For those seeking to "be healthy" and opt out of tap water (and have the money to do so), it is important to recognize that without clean, publicly-provided and regulated tap water, many of the approximately 116,000 man-made chemical contaminants that leach into the water supply can and are inhaled directly into the lungs and absorbed through the skin whenever you shower.

OVERALL, FLOW is well worth seeing as it exposes, in an unequivocal manner, the inadequacies and inequalities that are an inevitable feature of a privatized system driven solely by the need to make profit. However, partly due to trying to cover so many aspects of the water crisis, and partly out of political differences, there are some weaknesses to the film.

The film concentrates on privatization of water in the Global South and, in an essentially modern-day rerun of the colonial-era idea known as "full cost recovery" this means restricted or non-existent access to clean water for the poor that only a for-profit water supply system could dream up and justify.

However, it would have been useful to comment on recent water privatization developments in the developed world as well because otherwise it can feel as if all of the people in the developed world are benefiting from the huge extraction of wealth occurring in the South by Western multinationals.

Leaving things to the market has been just as big a disaster wherever on the planet it's sunk its ideological talons into the public sector and ripped off the juiciest morsels. Over the last 30 years, deregulators of all political stripes have gorged themselves in an orgy of profit-taking.

In entirely predictable fashion, the newly privatized public utilities in the West, such as water, electricity and health care, have seen profit rates soar as maintenance and service has fallen and prices have gone through the roof. In the U.S., one only needs to reflect on the Enron-inspired gangsterism that caused the energy crisis in California to see how poorly private companies take on the role of electricity distribution.

In Britain, where privatization of the water supply occurred under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, profits have doubled even as leaks by Thames Water have reached such proportions that they lose in a day an amount greater than the entire daily supply required by a major British city. Yet, the pre-tax profits of the 10 British water companies rose by 147 percent between 1990/91 and 1997/98, even as water quality and reliability declined.

As a water campaigner in the film asks, "Nobody sells air, what gives them the right to sell water?" As with all essential resources, the government should be charged with managing them for the public good as a service to the citizens that elect them, not as something to be spun off to the lowest bidder.

The government could and should provide for essential services such as water, sanitation, electricity, health care and mass transit for all. If the U.S. government can effectively nationalize the mortgage and insurance industries, it can run other more vital services free of charge.

Experiments in privatization have proven so disastrous around the world that two countries, Holland and Uruguay, have made it illegal for any aspect of the water and sanitation system to be privately owned. This is a campaign that we need to take up.

More importantly, activists will see an alternative vision of how real change is made from the examples of direct action and organized mass resistance in India, Bolivia and South Africa in this film. One of the most inspiring quotes from FLOW comes from an older Indian Gandhian activist. "Never has there or will there be a technology," he says, slapping his legs, "that can beat these--the People's March."

"We will fight, we will win--the 21st century will be the people's century."

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