Water Wars

My girlfriend has my taste in movies down now. Basically, if it sounds boring, I’m probably interested. She was right on the money when she ordered Flow, a documentary about water, from Netflix this week.

I’d been waiting for Flow to come to DVD after putting a note about it on the Green Page last winter. The film digs into the growing scarcity of water worldwide, and provides a warning about the water wars to come. The Great Lakes region experienced a low-wattage battle over water with the efforts to pass the Great Lakes Compact last year, but that struggle doesn’t compare to the battles to come and those already under way in the world’s most desperate regions.

Director Irena Salina takes you beyond statistics (though there are plenty of startling numbers) and tells the story of water scarcity in human terms, raising enough ethical questions to get your head spinning. For instance, in many developing nations, people have simply walked to the river to fill buckets of water for use at home. But now those rivers are contaminated and the water unsafe to drink thanks to chemicals, farming practices, and other pollution.

Institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations have moved in to try to supply safe drinking water to the masses – through privatization of the water supply. Now the millions of impoverished third world people must pay for a resource they always got free from the earth. In the United States, we’re battling about whether health care is a right, but that pales in comparison to a battle about whether people have a right to water, a necessity of life.

The corporations (yes, publicly traded corporations) that now have control of the water supply in many of these countries, must recoup the costs of running pipes, digging wells, and cleaning the water supply. They must do this at a profit acceptable to their shareholders. Meanwhile, other corporations, beholden to their own set of shareholders, are polluting the water, making it hazardous for people to drink without going through the water supplier. Seems wrong to place the financing burden of this dilemma on the world’s poorest people, but that’s what’s happening, and it’s only the beginning.

This is only a fraction of the story. In Michigan, Nestle has battled with residents to bottle hundred of gallons of water from streams every day, shipping it around the country, and selling the natural resource back to the public. Other companies are bottling water from the Great Lakes, thanks to an allowance in the Great Lakes Compact.

That bottled water is usually no safer than tap water, but we pay a premium for it, at the register and even more so in the form of resource depletion. We were up in arms about our lake levels dropping and our shorelines getting ugly, but around the world, and in the American southeast and southwest, the lack of water is a problem not of property, but of survival. And as Flow tells us, it’s only going to get uglier.