Monday, May 11, 2009

Flow: Oversimplified Solutions to the World Water Crisis

I've not been feeling to well lately (which explains the week of silence on this blog) and while lying on the couch, hacking out a lung, I came across a documentary on TV called "Flow" a film which according to its website is a "...documentary investigation into what experts label the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century - The World Water Crisis.
Salina [the director] 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."

Featuring "heavyweights" like Maude Barlow, the first ever UN Senior Advisor on Water Issues the documentary skips from the US, to Bolivia, to Africa, to India and again to another part of the US in a rather disjointed effort at explaining the world water crisis.

It begins in the US explaining how all sorts of horrible chemicals find their way into tap-water, leaves this line of inquiry and goes to Bolivia where Ms. Barlow is expressing her outrage that a water management company has neglected its obligations to treat sewage flowing into lake Titicaca, looks at how the South African government has hired private companies to provide clean water to some of its poorest and most remote regions, examines how a Coca-Cola factory in India seems to have damaged a villages water supply and finally, looks at a law suit against a Nestle bottled water facility in Michigan which was pumping more than it ought to have been.

If the above summary is confusing or seems non-linear, it's because the movie itself is too. It's a film about outrage, but it's as though the director has no idea what she is most angry about, or at. There is outrage over pollution of water, over lack of regulation of bottled water (complete with a Michael Moore-esque, Penn and Teller interlude) over corporations having anything to do with water and over the poor that suffer from lack of clean water.

None of these issues is treated fully by Flow. Each one is touched on, then left, to move on to the next issue without a strong common thread or real solution presented, only pointed fingers. The first finger is pointed at the U.S. government for not doing enough to regulate tap water and certain pollutants. The next is pointed at water "companies" which are private entities established to provide clean drinking water and hired, often by governments to provide this service at cost, to some of the poorest people in the world. These people, despite having the clean water, will often choose to save their money and drink potentially dangerous river water rather than pay for the clean water provided.

Here the movie misses a key point. These corporations are not evil as the film implies (though you would never know this because the only time in the movie that these companies are actually asked about what they do in these poorest regions is when Maude Barlow meets them as they're boarding a bus and basically screams at them.) These corporations are hired by governments to provide clean water. They do not own the water and they charge the locals for the service. The film, however, does not question why the governments of these countries don't pay for the water. It does not question why the water is often so polluted, it does not ask why there is not more investment in a very interesting bit of technology invented in India to purify water (illustrated in the movie) it simply says, 'these companies are bad, they make poor people pay for clean water.' In other words, Flow is far too simplistic and is so quick to point fingers at the US government and at large corporations, but balks at blaming developing countries for not providing the water for its own citizens.

As for solutions, the film comes up short there too, should these companies provide the clean water for nothing? Should they be charities? Nothing is free, even if NGOs were to do the work, someone would have to pay for it. Shouldn't governments be responsible for the welfare of their citizens? Shouldn't they pay the costs charged by these private companies and not pass them on to their citizens who can't afford the costs of water? Why are the companies to blame?

Without delving too deeply into some of the other arguments of the film I will skip to the conclusion, where the audience is asked to sign a petition asking that a new article be added to the UN Human Rights Convention which reads:

"Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance."

Nice sentiment indeed, and noble. What exactly does it mean? Let's break it down:

"Everyone..." The Convention applies to people, not corporations, so this is pretty clear. Everyone means each and every human being. What about each and every human being?

"...has the right..." Here the language already begins to be unclear. First, if there is a right, who owes this right? Creating a right, is creating an obligation, and in law, every obligation must involve at least one party who is obliged to fulfil this obligation. In this case, who is that person? Is it national governments, is it local governments? Is it the UN?

" clean and accessible water..." Again, this language which seems as though it ought to be straightforward, is fraught with more questions. Clean is probably pretty straightforward. It likely means safe to drink without fear of becoming ill. On the other hand, even in developed countries like Canada, there are occasional water boiling advisories. This water is still clean, only, it should be treated once more by boiling before being consumed. So, what standard of clean is required? And as for accessible, again, what does this mean, does this mean a tap in my home, or a well in the centre of town? Most North Americans would consider an absence of indoor plumbing to be inaccessible water. In other parts of the world, a well within 2 kilometers is an improvement, so...what's accessible?

"...adequate for the health and well-being of the individual..." Health is not such a difficult concept to imagine. Taken in the spirit of the rest of this proposed article, one would imagine that it means the water must be of a quality and a quantity (though this is not explicit) so that a person does not become ill from want of water or from want of safe water. How far does this extend though? Is this only water for drinking? What about for cooking, or bathing, or cleaning? Perhaps this is what is meant by "well-being", however, "well-being" is a difficult term to define. Does this mean economic and psychological well being as well? Does it mean that there should also be enough water to engage in agriculture or to operate an industry dependant on water to preserve a persons financial well being? Does it mean, in the extreme, that their should be enough water to tend to a golf course so that someone can have the psychological well being of playing a game of golf?

"...and family..." Here the proposed language contradicts itself. If the right to water will be an individual right, why does the family unit need to be mentioned here? All members of the family should have access to the same right to water because they are all individuals. Unless the article is trying to expand the definition of the right to water. For example, when we talk about the well being of a family, this is not merely a question of health, but of economics, of sociology, of the rights of women, of children and so on. So by extending the right of water to ensure the well-being of the family, something more than merely having enough water to drink and sustain oneself is meant.

"...and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance." The drafters of this article probably intended for this last portion to mean that access to clean drinking water in sufficient amounts ought to be free. What it actually has the effect of saying is that one can be charged for water, unless one cannot afford it. Those that are wealthy, are in an economic circumstances where placing a cost on water would not deprive their access to water.

The purpose of the dissection of this article is not to be negative or to tear down the initiative, but merely to show that this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Declaring water a human right raises more questions about what the limitations of this right are, who has to provide the water to satisfy this right, and what should be done if there is not enough water in a given region to satisfy the broader scope of this right.

As much as there should be concern about pollution in water and the failure of governments to provide water to the poorest in their countries, questions also need to be asked about how water is being consumed. What is it being consumed for. Should growth be encouraged in the driest regions of the world, or should life in arid places be tailored to suit the environment. It is a loft goal to want to make deserts bloom, but should they bloom by flooding them with water from diverted rivers, or with efficient irrigation systems, like drip irrigation? Should water be free for all? Probably, but to a limit. One needs water to live, but nobody needs to be watering vast lawns of non-native plant species in desert regions for purely aesthetic purposes. The problem is not the big bad corporations, it has at least as much to do with the way ordinary people behave and how they use the water resources they have.

1 comment:

csm said...

noticed your comments on my post and then came over here and read your post.
assigning blame never works and never will.
all this hollering is wasteful and just as polluting as who they holler against.
in today's world, the people will need to be more demanding and vociferous over many things that were originally safe under the sole control of the government.
governments have been compromised as we ourselves have been compromised.
the 'rot' in governments and corporations is a reflection in the rot in communities.
thats were each of us need to work on first.