Now I am being bugged to finish my review.
Well, almost a year later, I have finally seen the film. Based strictly on what I had read about the film here's what I said about it last January:
I have not seen this film, but from the story, it seems that this might be akin to a Michael Moore film - some valid points, but with a fair dose of hyperbole. Still, people like filmmaker Irena Salina and activist Maude Barlow are necessary elements of civil society. Like Moore, they serve to poke a sharp stick in our collective eye and keep us from getting too comfortable.
Turns out I was prescient.
But there's more: it's actually two films: one I liked and one I did not like.
What I Liked
The film graphically illustrates water pollution problems, in both the developed and developing world. Pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, atrazine (a herbicide) and similar agricultural chemicals are serious problems in certain areas, as is untreated waste being dumped into waterways. The atrazine segment relies heavily on the work of Dr. Tyrone Hayes. What he and the film say about this nasty chemical will make your skin crawl.
Before we blame big corporations for all the pollution, let's remind ourselves who uses pharmaceuticals and cosmetics - we do. When we dispose of them improperly, we can introduce them into our water supply. Yes, government and industry do pollute and must be stopped whenever they are found out. But you and I also shoulder a fair amount of responsibility by consuming far more than we need to and demanding things be produced as cheaply as possible.
The film also highlights some wonderful community-based approaches to water supply and management. In one case in India, villagers are supplying clean water with UV purification costing just $2/person/year. The locals manage the treatment system. Great - no big private firm, no bevy of bureaucrats.
Another segment discussesthe community-based approach to enhancing ground water recharge in India. I had heard of this project several years ago and met the Indian gentleman who was one of the "gurus" behind this. Pretty neat stuff - again, locals tackling the problem.
The problems with dams are also examined, and the film notes that in the 20th century, something like 40M-80M people have been displaced by dams. I have actually heard that the upper number is closer to the truth.
The ever-logical and intelligent Peter Gleick is very articulate.
The daily struggle of the disadvantaged to gain access to clean water is also featured. This problem can be solved, and it's not rocket science; it requires some money and political will.
So What Didn't I Like?
Now comes the "second film".
I didn't like the fact that it portrays corporations as evil, part of some worldwide conspiracy to "steal" our water, and responsible for many of our water woes. Maude Barlow makes her presence known with the usual diatribe against privatization.
A digression: water privatization can be good or bad. For it to be good, there must be: 1) clear ground rules for the private firm; 2) effective oversight; and 3) consideration of the poor.
It's painful to see Peter Gleick juxtaposed with Barlow.
Let me pick a particular nit: Barlow repeats the "fact" that New Mexico will run out of water in 10 years. I worked in New Mexico for 17 years and never heard any such claim. Thinking that I might have missed something in the 2.5 years since I left, I called colleague Bruce Thomson and asked him if he had heard that.
"What? Is it going to stop raining?" was his initial response. He then told me what I had already suspected: he'd never heard anything like that.
I then wracked my brain to try to understand where Barlow might have obtained that 10-year figure.
A light went off! A number of years ago, the City of Albuquerque (now the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority), which supplies over 500,000 customers, decided that it would alter its water supply strategy: instead of using 100% ground water, it would start to use surface water from the Rio Grande. By doing so, it would retire ground water pumping and keep its ground water in reserve so that if the Rio Grande went completely dry for 10 years, the ABCWUA would have enough water to supply all its customers for that duration.
Barlow probably heard "New Mexico", "10 years", and "went dry" in the same sentence and drew the wrong conclusion. So I suspect that is the origin of her 10-year claim. If so, then Barlow got it wrong and misunderstood the context. But either way, her claim is bogus. Are her other claims likewise flawed?
And remember, now that she is a UN Senior Water Adviser, she needs to get her facts straight. Why? Well, now she's more than just a Canadian activist, but someone with the UN imprimatur.
If you read this blog, then you know I am no fan of bottled water. But I don't believe it should be outlawed. There is a time and place for it. Is bottled water part of some grand conspiracy to control/own all our water? No. It's just some company trying to make a profit, which corporations are wont to do, by providing a product that people want to buy. In places like Michigan, no one forces people to buy bottled water.
If the people are upset because Nestlé got a lot of tax breaks to locate there, then they should complain to the local governments who gave the breaks. If they don't like the water laws/regulations that allow Nestlé to pump ground water and sell it, then lobby to change the laws.
I have been able to ascertain that Nestlé can pump 368 gpm (gallons per minute); that is about 600 acre-feet per year. What effects does that have on the water resources in the area? I don't know, but with enough information, those effects can be determined. If the pumping is adversely affecting water resources, then the cognizant government agencies need to clamp down. If they don't or won't clamp down, that is not Nestlé's fault.
Let me ask some questions of the Nestlé protesters: if another plant (let's assume it's a low environmental impact plant) had chosen to locate in Mecosta County and consumed 600 acre-feet of ground water per year, would you have been so upset? What if all that water had been exported out of the county/state as virtual water? Would you have been as upset? What I'm clumsily asking is this: it is only because it's a bottled water plant that upsets you?
Bottled water operations, or the threat of them, actually can have beneficial effects:
people start thinking about their water supply, which they likely took for granted;
people think about bottled water and whether it is such a "good" thing; and
laws/regulations governing water supply and contamination are introduced, revisited, or strengthened.
I've been told the last bullet is actually happening in Michigan.
Take a look at the video Nestlé produced as a rebuttal to FLOW. Just like the FLOW piece, the film takes an advocacy position. Noah Hall is featured in a pro bono role.
I am not in a position to accept or reject Nestlé's claim of "no effect"; my hydrogeologic intuition says the presence of an effect is more likely than not. If there is an effect, there is the question of the magnitude and extent. If there is no effect, there is the queston of "Will there be one eventually?" But I do not have access to the data/reports and my knowledge of the hydrogeology of Mecosta County and environs is woeful.
Let me close by quoting Noah Hall:
What disappointments me most about the movie FLOW is that it feeds the ideological opposition to water bottling and water privatization at the expense of focusing attention on the real threats to our water. For example, as just reported by John Flesher of the Associated Press (see Chicago Tribune story), some environmental activists in Michigan are considering a ballot initiative to affirm public ownership of water and restrict water bottling, using the release of the movie to build attention for the cause. But this response does nothing to solve the problems of unsafe drinking water and chemical pollution of our lakes and rivers highlighted in the movie.
I agree with Noah, and furthermore, I call the knee-jerk revulsion to water bottling and anything involving water privatization as the "Maude Barlow effect".
Bottom line: should you see the film? Yes - it does have some important messages for us all. But it insists upon conflating privatization with many of the world's water ills, so be sure to view it with a critical eye.
Next up: Maude Barlow's Blue Gold: World Water Wars.
But first I need to rest.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” – Paul Romer, Stanford economist