I was warned by a colleague that "my head would explode" if I watched the film, Blue Gold: World Water Wars, that is based on the similarly-titled book by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. I viewed the film three times, and all is still intact. I have not read the book.
I could spend far more time reviewing some of the claims the film makes but cannot afford the time, so I will stick to brief mention of the good points and the most blatant examples of misinformation.
Some background is in order. Maude Barlow is National Chair of the Council of Canadians and Tony Clarke is Executive Director of the Polaris Institute, another Canadian organization. Barlow was also recently appointed as UN Senior Water Adviser. Both Clarke and Barlow are featured prominently in the film, which is directed by Sam Bozzo, who provided me with a signed DVD of the film.
Before continuing, let me say that several previous posts have questioned Barlow's grasp of certain water facts: in an interview with Amy Goodman and an interview in The Progressive. I made some comments about the film a few months ago. I took issue with some statements Barlow made in the film FLOW: For Love Of Water.
What I Liked
- Visually impressive
- Discussion about sea water desalination and its high current energy costs
- Emphasis on community-based actions and solutions
- No great affinity for bottled water
- Prior appropriation water law and its seeming discouragement of conservation (from Robert Glennon of Water Follies fame)
- Pollution problems
- Owens Lake - Los Angeles' "'water grab" in the early 20th century
- Ryan's Well Foundation, founded by Canadian Ryan Hreljac
- Discussion of the Atlanta-Suez and Cochabamba-Bechtel fiascos
- No fondness for the World Bank
- Deleterious effects of dams (but neglected decommissioning issues)
- Urban vs. rural water issue - retiring ag land for urban water
- Support for a human right to water
- Effects of excessive ground water pumping: sinkholes, land subsidence
So What Didn't I Like?
Provocative, undocumented statements such as: 'Much of the world's fresh water is polluted beyond human use'; 'Every single drop of fresh water will be privately owned and controlled'.
- Then there is Dr. Michal Kravcik, a Slovak hydrologist who runs an NGO, People and Water, that has done some good work in watershed restoration. But what he talks about is a link between ground water pumping and earthquakes, and thence to tsunamis. This is unbelievable, as it is presented as fact with no documentation. Kravcik claims that more runoff from the land and pumped ground water have increased the ocean's water level, producing more weight on the ocean floor (and less weight on the land), which can cause faulting, and tsunamis. In 1994 Frank Schwartz and colleagues published a paper in Nature (Sahagian, D., F. Schwartz, and D. Jacobs, 1994, "Direct anthropogenic contributions to sea level rise in the twentieth century", Nature, 367: 54-57) in which they calculated the additional sea level rise from ground water pumping and other anthropogenic sources to be 57 mm, or a little over 2 inches. Given the great ocean depths, this additional water is insignificant and I doubt it can produce earthquakes, then tsunamis. I was unable to find any reference to this mechanism in the scientific literature. This kind of blather has already been reported as 'fact' in some film reviews I have read. As an aside, Kravcik might be interested in knowing that ground water pumping can actually limit earthquakes and that injecting fluid can cause earthquakes. This pumping-injection scenario has been proposed to control terrestrial earthquakes [but that's fodder for another post].
- Kravcik also discusses soil loss due to urbanization, then states that we are about at the half- way point [to what?], and "in fifty years there will likely be a collapse of the planet's water sources." Come again? I must've missed the logic and the documentation.
- Misinformation about water privatization in USA cities. Across the screen is flashed a sequence of cities' names (e.g., New York, Chicago, Riverside, Houston, Tampa, Pittsburgh (misspelled) , Las Vegas, Seattle, et al.) followed by "Buyer: XYZ Company". The implication is that the water supply of these cities is now owned/controlled by some multinational corporation. I checked four of the cities: Las Vegas (Suez), Seattle (RWE/Thames), Chicago (Veolia) and New York (Suez). The water supply of each is not controlled, in whole or in part, by the private firms mentioned - Suez, Veolia, RWE/Thames. I checked the WWW sites of each city and called Seattle, New York, and the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
- A similar visual trick is used for the Great Lakes, although it says Potential Buyer: Nestlé. I am sure the governors of the eight states and premiers of Ontario and Quebec would be interested in this statement. Nestlé is not going to buy the Great Lakes, folks.
- Innuendo is made that the USA's military operations in the Great Lakes region are somehow related to the USA's interest in claiming/stealing the Lakes' water. Yes, Virginia, the USA does have military bases in the Great Lakes region, just like they have them in the Pacific Northwest. Does the latter fact that mean that the USA is planning a BC invasion? Barlow and Clarke seem to forget that some of their countrymen have suggested that Canada supply some of its water to the USA.
- Implication that because companies like GE supply pollution control/water cleansing equipment they will then "own" the water they clean. Why is that a logical conclusion?
- Tenuous (really!) connection between possible Bush family land purchases in Paraguay and the taking of ground water from the Guaraní aquifer, the largest fresh ground water source in the world, and arguably the largest fresh unfrozen water body in the world. So how would the Bushes and/or the USA get the water from the aquifer to the USA? I addressed this issue in a previous post.
Any Other Thoughts?
There is very little mention of climate change and its effects on water resources. I view that as far more of a threat than privatization.
Some of the people discussing ground water did not display a very good understanding of it. I also think a lesson in the finer points of the hydrologic cycle might be warranted.
I am unsure that Barlow, Clarke and their compatriots understand the difference between owning water and owning a right to use water. In the Western USA, you own a right to use water. I am sure in some places you can actually own water, but in the Western USA and other places you own the right. There is a huge difference.
Robert Glennon says that "We now pump 30 billion gallons of ground water" each day, but doesn't say who "we" is. This has been (mis?)interpreted as meaning the world pumps 30 billion gallons per day, but that is actually too small for a global figure. Thirty billion gallons is about 92,000 acre-feet, about the annual pumpage by the City of Albuquerque when I lived there a few years ago. The daily global pumpage is about 600 billion gallons. According to Kevin McCray of the National Ground Water Association, the daily pumpage in the USA is about 80 billion gallons per day and in the world, about 408 billion gallons per day (see his presentation).
A few people discuss living within your watershed and not transporting water long distances to fuel growth. Okay, that's fine, but how do you control growth? By law? The case of Bolinas, CA, was mentioned, but there was no mention of some of the negative effects, such as potentially unaffordable housing.
Profligate water use is decried, but I detected no mention of pricing as a means to reduce demand and extend supply [David Zetland's smiling now!]. In fact, supply, demand, and economics in general seem to be absent from the discourse.
No mention is made of privatization that appears to be working, e.g., Veolia's management of Oklahoma City's wastewater treatment facility (contract just renewed) and Indianapolis' drinking water system. I suspect there are other examples. Let's have some balance.
Barlow, Clarke and others appear to want free water for those in developing countries. That is a recipe for disaster, regardless of whether the system is privatized or not. Why is that bad? Because when people get water for free, they will waste it because there is no need for conservation(see"'profligate use" above). Sorry folks, that is human nature. This does not preclude supplying a limited amount ['lifeline'] for free, then charging for an amount greater than that.
The theme "private is bad" permeates the film, and I really get tired of that mantra. The protagonists don't realize that privatization can work if it is done right [clear ground rules; oversight; and consideration for the poor]. It is possible to have privatization without surrendering one's right to use water. And sometimes governments are too incompetent or corrupt to run water supply systems. Who is going to build the systems, especially the large ones, to supply water to the over 1 billion people who lack access to it and the 2.5 billion who do not have access to sanitation?
When you set yourself up as being morally/ethically (choose a similar adverb) superior, then try to strengthen your case with some serious distortions of facts, you are no better than the "bad guys" you disdain. You've ceded the high ground, and that's what I think Barlow, Clarke, et al., have done. The film makes many good points, then blows it with some egregious distortions.
And let me say again, since Barlow is now a UN Senior Water Adviser, she should endeavor to get her facts straight.
Is the film worth seeing? Yes, but wear your crap detectors.
And no, your head won't explode.
Now I must rest.
Note added on 3 May 2009: Here's a review from mcjoan at The Daily Kos.
"The purpose of education is to teach children to be crap detectors." -- Unknown (John Holt?)