…by Meg White
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Hustle and Flow: The Privatization of Water
Categories: Copy, Reviews

by Meg White

Ownership is a tricky thing no matter what you’re talking about. But when the subject is the most ephemeral physical necessity on the planet, possession is hardest to determine.

To illustrate, imagine yourself at a stream in the middle of a forest. Try cupping your hands and taking home a watery souvenir from your sojourn in the woods. You’d be better off chopping down a tree and lugging it away.

OK, maybe that’s a little silly. Instead, watch FLOW. Nothing illustrates the wackiness of this concept better than this new documentary, the title of which stands for “For Love Of Water.” The idea of owning the world’s water may seem ridiculous, but the takeover is already underway.

Earlier this week, we examined the effects of Reaganomics and privatization on local communities. Today, we’re looking at trickle-down on a global scale, with companies going after our most precious collective resource: water. 

Though forward-thinking individuals have been warning about water becoming the new oil for years, many don’t realize there has already been a war fought specifically over water as a resource.

In 1997, the World Bank basically forced Bolivia to privatize its water. Bechtel and Suez — both among the largest water supply companies in the world — took over water supplies in two Bolivian cities. As a result, residents not only saw prices rise dramatically, but many homes were simply cut off from water service altogether. So, they took to the streets in what was called the Water Wars. Within months residents kicked Bechtel out of Cochabamba, and in 2007 the Suez contract with the city of La Paz was canceled.

As the film illustrates, this kind of thing is happening all over the world. In South Africa, the rural poor are forced to pay for what was once free with a charge card of sorts being required to access local wells. If they can’t afford that, they must buy medical tablets to add to the river water to purify it. Short of that, they drink river water with often fatal results.

In Delhi, India, Suez is hoarding water from the Ganges, a river with major spiritual significance. According to FLOW, the company plans to sell the water back to Indian citizens for more than ten times the price they now pay for water service.

The same thing is happening here in the U.S. In Michigan, Nestle bought land and just started pumping water — to the tune of 450 gallons per minute — without any right to that water. Neighbors’ wells began drying up and nearby ponds turned into mudflats. Not only that, but the tax abatements given to Nestle meant that they weren’t even contributing to the local economy. Instead, they shipped water out of the forests of Mecosta County and sold it right back to residents in the form of Ice Mountain bottled water.

Some may say everything is a commodity and that’s why water collection and purification processes should be done by large corporations who know their stuff. But any elementary schooler could explain that the nature of the water cycle means it is both a resource and responsibility for all.

However, the film shows several cases where local communities have returned to what has worked for thousands of years: rainwater harvesting. Through a relatively simple cistern and run-off management system, one home can be engineered to provide enough fresh water for an entire family.

In India, they’ve returned to a conservation tradition of utilizing underground aquifers. The natural filtration process that occurs when water seeps through the ground can often be enough to purify drinking water on its own.

But even when that isn’t enough to purify water, communities have local, low-cost alternatives to privatization. In India, for example, one man set up an ultraviolet light purification system that pays for itself.

Such collectives seem all but doomed to fail because governments, hamstrung by international corporations, will most likely declare them illegal and either privatize them or shut them down. According to the film, the World Water Council is controlled and financed by heads of the largest water supply companies in the world. As was the case in Bolivia before the Water Wars, World Bank loans are often conditional upon privatization of dam building and water purification and distribution systems.

The filmmakers want to present a new article to be added to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that all human beings have the right of access to potable water regardless of their economic status.

This is a lofty goal that may help bring more attention to the entire panoply of issues surrounding clean water access. However, perhaps the most important piece of this complex puzzle is resistance to global corporatization. As Oscar Olivera, a leader in the Bolivian Water Wars, said, “The fight against privatization is a fight against death.”

Though many wealthy people believe they are skirting the problem of potable water by buying bottled, the industry is often less regulated than tap water sources. Furthermore, these bottled water devotees are putting more money in the pockets of those who steal water from communities that want to share and use it responsibly.

The United Nations estimates that an annual $30 billion would be enough to supply safe drinking water to the entire world. And every year, we spend three times that amount on bottled water.

Just a little H2O for thought.


These’s a lot more to FLOW than discussed in this article. Learn more about the documentary here.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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