Monday, September 7, 2009

Review: Flow: For Love of Water (2007)

An astonishingly wide-ranging film. An informed and heartfelt examination of the tug of war between public health and private interests. The story is about water supply, and it covers the global scale of this problem. A little-covered problem all around the world is the delivery of fresh clean water to everybody, the overtaxing of existing water systems, etc. Water is a core human need e.g. we die within two days if we do not have water, and there are many diseases that can be carried in water.

The movie builds a case against the growing privatization of the world's dwindling fresh water supply with an unflinching focus on politics, pollution, human rights, and the emergence of a domineering world water cartel. Interviews with scientists and activists intelligently reveal the rapidly building crisis, at both the global and human scale, and the film introduces many of the governmental and corporate culprits behind the water grab, while begging the question 'CAN ANYONE REALLY OWN WATER?'

One of the transformations covered in this movie is the privatization and commercialism of the water system. All around the world local water systems are being bought up by transnational corporations like Vivendi and Nestle, who then find ways to do corporate profiteering on the back of the core human need for water. For example they're demanding the poorest of the poor pay a few cents for each jug of water, money they can't afford to spend. And in many cases as they cannot afford the commercial water they go down to the local river to get water, but the local river is polluted, full of sewage or industrial waste, they get sick and die.

Around the world there are protests against this system and the protesters are portrayed as believing themselves to be in a life or death struggle. For example a village in India is shown where a Coca-Cola plant was in operation across the street, they described their water as "tasting bad" ever since the plant opened, and they conducted a daily protest for two years against the plant. Eventually the plant was forced to be shut down.

Those are the kinds of things the movie shows. On the flip side from those problems a value is repeated over and over - our cultural tradition is that water, like air, cannot be owned.

For example a case in Michigan has Nestle operating a bottling plant where they are pumping ground water from dozens of wells in the area. Over 400,000 gallons per day of water pumped and bottled for sale. As a land owner they have a right, so the movie says, to use the water from their land. But clearly the "right of use" doctrine wasn't conceived to be conducted at such a large scale. The protesters in that case explain "right of use" as not conveying ownership.

The movie has a huge flaw in the form of an unstated corollary problem. Population growth.

Population growth is a large factor in driving the increase in water use. In 1900 the world human population was around 1 billion people, today it's around 6-7 billion people and rapidly growing.

Obviously whatever water purification and delivery system existed in 1900 has to have become overtaxed by the population growth. Of course more water systems have been built in the intervening years. My point is that to accommodate population growth the water purification and delivery systems have to increase in scale to match.

Most of the movie is living with rural farming communities. People who have mechanical pumps and are accustomed to carrying a jug to a river or well to fetch water. With 6.5x the number of people plus all the industrial increases since 1900 obviously the amount of toxics in the water will have increased since 1900. A local community who could adequately get water from their local well in 1900 needs something else today to accommodate increased population and increased need to purify the toxic stuff out of the water.

The movie says nothing about these problems. This makes the movie very interesting, and full of stunning visuals, but very deeply flawed.