Blue Gold: World Water Wars
Our Reel Earth film festival finished yesterday. We saved the best films for last, including Blue Gold: World Water Wars – inspired by the book Blue Gold by Canadian activists Maud Barlow and Tony Clarke. The film opened my eyes to the reality that water scarcity is a far more serious imminent problem than fossil fuel depletion and climate change. And the urgent need for citizens to organize and demand public policy changes around fresh water use. The film outlined three main areas in which public policy around water is urgently needed: run-off management, aquifer destruction and water privatization.
I previously believed that chemical and nutrient pollution was the greatest threat to our fresh water supply. However according to Blue Gold, run-off is actually the biggest problem – the loss of fresh water when rainwater winds up in the ocean instead of being trapped by the ecosystem as groundwater. Only 3% of global water is freshwater to begin with, and much of this had been so badly polluted it’s no longer useable.
The four main ways urbanization and development accelerate run-off include the construction of 50,000 dams worldwide, the paving over of soil with cement and asphalt, deforestation (destroying tree roots that normally trap water), and the destruction of wetlands (the destruction of mangroves and other plants that naturally purify water.
Aquifer depletion (via the extraction of groundwater reserves) has also reached crisis proportions – largely due to industrial agriculture, the massive unregulated use of water in all manufacturing, and the large scale water extraction by powerful multinational corporations, such as Coke and Nestle, for their bottled water and soft drink plants. Once the water from the aquifer is gone, it can rarely be replaced, as many of these companies claim. The film gave several examples of local communities where citizens, across the political spectrum, banded together to block these companies from taking their water. Some cases have involved long expensive court battles, with several corporations threatening individual activists with SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suits.
The last half of the film focused on water privatization, water desalination, and water wars. It showed how water privatization is already a life and death issue in many developing countries, where governments have ceased to definite access to clean water as a human right – but as an economic commodity that can be bought and sold. There were several very poignant vignettes from Africa where private companies have taken over the public water supply and set the price of fresh water so high that people were forced to drink polluted water and died. It showed how the exorbitant cost of fresh water, after Bolivia sold its water supply to Bechtel, sparked a mass rebellion and ultimately the collapse of the Bolivian government. In Africa people have been opting for a more immediate and direct solution – they simply rip out the water meters after the private company installs them.
The film also showed the alarming number of US public water systems that have been privatized.
The worldwide move to construct water desalination plants to reclaim water from sea water is closely linked to the issue of privatization – mainly due to the expense of producing fresh water this way. In addition to being extremely expensive, water desalination greatly increases climate emissions owing to the massive amount of fossil fuel it requires. Because of the high cost of production, communities and companies that use it are forced to set the price of water way too high for low income people to afford it.
Blue Gold gives several examples of historic water wars (in the US) and predicts where the next water wars are most likely to take place. They point to strategic US military bases around the Great Lakes and in Paraguay (across the border from a Brazilian aquifer that is one of the largest in the world). They also offer a possible explanation why the Bush family (George W, Bush senior and now Gemma) have acquired massive amounts of property Paraguay.
At the end the film also offers a number of solutions:
- Learn where your water comes from – the name of the watershed and (if privatized) the name of the multinational corporation that controls it. Local communities need to actively fight attempts by local government to allow water extraction or the takeover of local water supplies by multinational corporations.
- Kick the bottled water habit. This is a trick advertisers play on you. It is no healthier for you than tap water (and may be less healthy owing to phthalates and bisphenol A from the plastic that may be linked with breast cancer and low sperm counts). People who dislike the taste of tap water can easily remedy this with a little lemon juice.
- Lobby your local and state leaders to
- Remove hydroelectric dams and replace with newer, more eco-friendly microturbine technology.
- Adopt an active run-off management plan in which lost groundwater is measured and minimized in development planning – and replaced, for example via the Blue Alternative (in which groundwater is replaced by digging small catchment pools in open spaces).
Blue Alternative Project in Slovakia
- Pass local and state resolutions and constitutional amendments recognizing access to fresh water as a basic human right. Uruguay has adopted the right to water in the national Constitution.