August 6, 2009

New Documentary on H20 Highlights Potential for Power Struggles Over Water

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

One of the perks of working for the Center for a Livable Future is the opportunity to listen to great speakers and catch the latest documentaries about sustainability and the environment.

Last week, CLF hosted a viewing of “Blue Gold: World Water Wars,” a new documentary about the state of one of our most vital resources.  Food and Water Watch presented the film to students and staff at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and hosted a discussion following the screening.

The documentary, based on the book of the same name by Maude Barlow, who spoke at last year’s sustainability lecture series at the school, stresses the importance of protecting our dwindling water resources and ensuring that water is a public right—not a commodity that is owned by corporations (which is what has happened in many parts of the world, as the film details).

Aside—here’s a short primer on water scarcity from WorldWatch Institute that just popped up in my inbox. It does a good job of quickly summing up the major contributors and potential strategies for dealing with water shortages.  For more background, here’s a March 2009 article from The Nation which explains why experts are concerned about conflicts over water.

Now back to the documentary. “Blue Gold” is an eye-opening and sometimes chilling reminder of the importance of that all-important liquid we often take for granted.  As the narrator points out early on, “This is not about saving the environment.  This is about saving ourselves.”

In one memorable scene that does a masterful job evoking the yuck factor, Mexicans were shown wading through a river near the U.S.- Mexico border. The river is so polluted that U.S. Border Patrol Agents won’t risk going near the river, and must receive a series of 18 immunizations in case they happen to fall in the water.

The film also reaches out to your sense of fairness in its depiction of several multinational corporations vying to control water, and by extension, life.  For example, in France, the privatization of water is so entrenched in the political system that even the former president was powerless to put control of the water back in the hands of the public.

As the title of the film suggests, Barlow and others featured in the film also suggest that as access to fresh water dwindles, there may be increases in violent conflicts.  That remains to be seen—but in hopes of preventing further human suffering and ensuring a livable future, we need to protect our water resources, remediate polluted waterways and find ways to limit water use from the biggest consumers of water: industry and agriculture.

As Derrick Jenson argued in the latest issue of Orion Magazine, this problem is bigger than the individual, and personal conservation efforts will do little to solve the larger global problem of water scarcity.

Jenson writes:

“We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.”

However, this is not to say we are powerless.  It just means that we have to be activists for reform of systems that favor corporate interests over human interests and health concerns.  A 2007 article from Yes! Magazine describes how citizens in New Hampshire fought against a bottled water company that was depleting the water table and degrading the land.

One way to support responsible water use is through Food and Water Watch’s “Take Back the Tap” campaign, which discourages bottled water consumption and commercial control of water resources. Check it out here.


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