“Where does your drinking water come from? Where does your waste water go?”
In the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars by Sam Bozzo based on the 2003 book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Tony Clarke & Maude Barlow, water, it turns out, is one more thing to add to the list of endangered resources. Which begs the question: is water a right, resource or a commodity? Who owns it? Does your (hopefully) representative government have the right to, for example, give it away, sell it, or pollute it? Water is the stuff of life. Without it we’re no better than any other lifeless planet, but the three percent that is fresh and replenishable here on earth is being divvied up by corporations for profit. Largely in the way Monsanto is aiming to control the food supply through genetically modified seeds, a handful of transnational corporations (Suez, RWE, Vivendi) are looking to consolidate and control the world’s water supply.
World Water Wars
The world bank has predicted by the year 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages. Scary stuff. The 90 minute documentary narrated by Malcolm McDowell suggests that the current wars being fought over petroleum will give way in the coming years to wars for water. The California Water Wars of the early 20th century (the inspiration for Robert Towne’s Chinatown) are nothing compared to the grim possibilities: corporate armies of extra-national mercenaries patrolling cities and countrysides searching for water sources, militias and small brigands of citizens forced to band together in a last ditch effort to do what most people from the first world take for granted on a daily basis: drink water from the tap. The important thing to realize is that this is not some far off distopia but is already widespread in impoverished African and many other third world countries, not to mention gaining a foothold in the U.S.- remember Katrina?
The film goes on to say that privatization is not the way to go. In several cases, largely unreported by the mainstream media, privatization led to cost increase and poorer water quality, mostly due to corporation accountability to shareholders rather than citizens, and corruption, among other depressing words associated with faceless multinational entities. In her 2000 essay Power Politics, Arundhati Roy says that “privatization is a mutually profitable business contract between the private (preferably foreign) company or financial institution and the ruling elite of the third world.”
The world bank’s prediction that many in the world will face water shortages is interesting in light of their choice to make privatization an explicit condition for aid recipient nations throughout the 90s, like in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America. After the raising of water prices left thousands of poor families virtually waterless in Cochabamba and El Alto- causing massive protests- only grass roots revolts finally proved to be enough to oust Bechtel and Suez. It should be asked: is this a permanent victory for the people or a minor setback for the corporations?...water has been redefined by the U.N. as a commodity rather than a resource. Click To Tweet Since the Reagan / Thatcher market economy of the 80s water has been redefined by the U.N. as a commodity rather than a resource. But if recent history has shown that privatization is not the answer, what is? Ric Davidge, a water hunter for speculative firms offers that when water is “owned” either publicly or privately there have been abuses on both sides, but if there were a “private interest with government, it would balance those things out.”
Beyond the hydropolitics, the science is alarming. Groundwater sustainability is a key issue, but it seems that many countries pump up to fifteen times more water from the local watershed than is replaced, creating an imbalance, which when added to the problems of overgrazing, wind and flooding (often due to clear cutting trees) leads to soil erosion, a hardening of the top layer of earth, making it difficult for rainwater to be absorbed, thus allowing it to run out to sea. This in turn does two things: further exacerbates the groundwater problem and aids in the growing problem of desertification.
Groundwater imbalance and desertification may not seem problematic for some countries, like Japan, but then again given the yearly drilling for hot spring water in Tokyo alone, should there be an earthquake, the results could be devastating. The National Institute for Environment Studies has reported in a recent study that annually over 5 million tons of yellow sand blows from the Gobi desert and lands throughout the archipelago, some making it as far as California. This sand (Kousa 黄砂 in Japanese) can cloud visibility, damage property and even ferry bacteria, viruses and other pollutants.
Other problems loom. There is the damming of waterways by nations upriver, many of which are vital to numerous countries downstream (China / Laos, Israel / Jordan, Turkey / Iraq / Syria, India / Bangladesh). The massive rate of urbanization since the end of WWII is leading to paving over much of our open land, not allowing rainwater to absorb into the groundwater system and thusly running off into the ocean. Reports done by independent review committees (often patchworked together by the World Bank, IMF or other Export Credit Agencies) generally fail to mention the human factor when constructing dams.
In India it’s mostly the Dalit and Adivasi people (who don’t have electricity anyway and thus are not “counted”) who have been subjected to confiscation of lands, resettlement, coercion, and the inevitable death, disease and flooding that happens when the government is dead set on building a dam where you live. What about the Wall Street solution to sustainable water contracts: desalination, which suggests the usage of vast amounts of fossil fuels, or alternatively nuclear energy, to construct and operate plants? Like nuclear fusion itself, is this the best answer?
What is the renewable process of the hydrologic cycle? Deconstructing dams? Limiting privatization? Simple education? While acknowledging a fundamentally global problem which is largely indifferent to class status or wealth Bozzo’s documentary differs from many others of the same vein in offering opinions and ideas from a varied number of professionals and experts that could lead to tangible solutions. It’s another in the long recent line of revelatory documentaries spouting heavy doses of reality, but the questions need to be asked by us all, not just famous authors like Roy, who when confronted with her own country’s desperate push to construct over 3600 Big Dams (the really big ones) asked, “Who owns this land?”
One better is, “Who owns the water?” Do you know your rights? And what are you going to do to assert them?
A Purple Turtle Films production. (International sales: Purple Turtle, Irvine, Calif.) Produced by Sam Bozzo. Executive producers, Mark Achbar, Si Litvinoff. Directed, written, edited by Sam Bozzo, based on the book “Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water” by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke.