Thirst: a documentary on water privatization battles

The documentary Thirst, directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, is available though the Multnomah County Library.

It’s a fitting topic for a day devoted to remembering Martin Luther King, Jr, since King’s work recognized the power of grassroots political action and, in his later years, also acknowledged the need for economic restructuring.

Michael Eric Dyson notes that  In his 1967 presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), entitled "The President's Address to the Tenth Anniversary Convention"…. King implored his organization to develop a program that would compel the nation to have a guaranteed annual income and full employment, thus abolishing poverty, and he preached that "the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society." When such a question was raised, one was really "raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth," and thus, one was "question[ing] the capitalistic economy."

In the last forty years, of course, capitalism has expanded its reach and power, and Thirst takes up the question of the commodification of water.

The film opens with scenes of the 2003 World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

The core of the debate there is articulated by Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians:  “The political question really is who owns water  and who gets to control water.  Here you’re going to hear or you are hearing two very very different visions of a future for water. On one side are those who see water as an economic good, to put water on the open market for sale to the highest bidder.  On the other side you’re going to hear the voice of a growing civil society movement who has a vision of water as a part of the global commons and treat it as a public trust for all time by governments everywhere.”

The DVD includes as an extra the entire speech by Barlow, who lays out the issues quite clearly. 

The film looks at conflicts over the privatization of water in three places: Cochabamba Bolivia,  Rajasthan India, and Stockton California.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, the government responded to pressure from the World Bank by privatizing the city’s water.

A consortium led by the US based Bechtel corporation received exclusive rights to all city water sources—even including local wells that neighborhoods had dug because they were not part of the city’s main water distribution system.  Water prices rose up to 300 percent, which meant that for some families the water bill was over a third of their income.  Massive citizen protests brought the city to a halt, and the government responded with police and military action, including snipers who fired into crowds of unarmed protesters, and killed a 17 year old.

Ultimately, the contract was cancelled, and water returned to public control.

In Rajasthan, India, a grassroots movement has successfully used traditional methods of rainwater harvesting and water conservation, and the result has improved farming and general village welfare

They continue to fight attempts to privatize water, as well as the drain on groundwater sources by, for instance, Coca-Cola, whose bottling plant has been depleting groundwater sources.

But the bulk of the film is dedicated to the story of Stockton California, where the mayor moves to turn over management of the city’s water to a private, international corporation. 

A citizen’s coalition runs a petition campaign to bring the question to a public vote.  But the corporation is far better funded, of course, and the petition campaign fails. 

Since the end of filming, the Citizens Coalition and other groups filed a lawsuit to stop the privatization of the city’s water utilities, arguing that under California’s Environmental Quality Act the city should have completed an environmental impact statement before approving the contract. In response, Superior Court Judge Robert McNatt threw out the privatization, writing that approval of the contract was “an abuse of discretion by the City Council.” The City appealed the ruling. In late 2004, the California Attorney General’s office filed an amicus brief supporting the Citizens Coalition position on the environmental impact report. As of 2006, the case was still in the courts.

In the meantime, water rates have increased and the private corporation  continues to control the city’s water system.

Near the end of the film, one of the Stockton activists comments that “when you’re … fighting a fight like this, there hasn’t been one case that I’ve witnessed, and hearing all these other people’s stories from not only in North America but all around the world,  that people have won these battles without civil disobedience.”

One example, though, seems to have followed that statement.  In 2003, Atlanta Georgia terminated the contract under which it had privatized water services, after repeated cost overruns, repeated water alerts that required residents to boil their water before drinking it, numerous other problems.

A report from Public Citizen on attempts at water privatization around the world  concludes that   “The claim that the multinational water corporations will save government money by providing more efficient and cost-effective operation, maintenance and rehabilitation of water and sanitation services is also not borne out in practice. Instead, the cases [studied] show increases in consumer water rates, public health crises, weak regulation, lack of investment in water infrastructure, jobs and trade unions threatened, pollution and other environmental catastrophes, secret deals and social turmoil.”

The film Thirst ends with a scenes of activists disrupting the World Water Forum with chants of “Water for people, not for profit,” and with scenes of demonstrations in Stockton and in Cochabamba.   

In short, the film illustrates both the dangers of privatization and the value of taking action.