It’s as precious as oil, and just as many wars have (and will) be fought over it. But unlike the battles braved by American soldiers to keep SUVs humming on US highways, these clashes come at the price of something far more precious - the basic necessities of life. According to one estimate, there are over 1.2 billion people on this planet without access to potable water. And of that number, the UN has targeted several million with direct emergency aid campaigns. So why is the situation only getting worse? Seems like the key word is ‘privatization’, and as Irene Salina shows in her fascinating documentary Flow, those contracted to solve the problem and financially benefiting from same have only added to the misery.
Focusing on a few foreign countries - Bolivia, South Africa, and India - and then moving to an unusual grass roots challenge in Michigan - Flow is your basic no-frills tell-all. It follows the premise that all humans have the “right” to water. Not to bottled water. Not to high priced, frequently unavailable water, but pure, clean, easy to obtain, and inexpensive drinking water. With the influx of foreign multinationals who have figured out a way to make massive profits out of empty infrastructure promises, Salina shows that it is typically the poorest people, without anyone to support their situation, that often find themselves paying exorbitant prices for dirty, unavailable resources.
There are many villains in this consistently one-sided commentary. Executives from major names like Suez and Vivendi defend their choices while we see how aimless and rather arrogant they are. A small village in South Africa must buy prepaid coupons to access their ration. But since many of them are uneducated, they must be taught the new system. The company’s answer? Appalling picture books with cartoons, all printed in English (not the native tongue, by the way). In India, a one man revolution has taken place, local farmers and villagers able to use ancient landscaping techniques to create their own renewable aquifers. Of course, once a contract is signed with a big name business, the ‘cease and desist’ threats begin.
The West is not left out of the blame game. We are ridiculed for our love of bottled beverages, taken to task for thinking what we are getting is somehow better than what comes out of the city tap. Of course, Flow fails to acknowledge that some states like Florida have such foul tasting and tainted municipal sources that a case of Zephryhills (now owned by Nestle) is better than relying on your local government. Still, it’s shocking to see people with perfectly viable reservoirs draining Dasani after Dasani thinking they are doing something wholesome and healthier. The situation escalates when a small town in Michigan battles a big name to save its own basin.
This one struggle goes to the heart of Flow‘s purpose. When Nestle loses its court case, told they cannot simply pump as much water out from under these citizens as they want, the lawyers wrangle a reprieve. Indeed, while the appeals process chugs along for the next few years, they still operate at near full capacity. It’s the same almost everywhere you go with the exception of Bolivia. There, riots and massive demonstrations force the leadership to kick out the private companies. If the people cared, says one frustrated organizer, there’d be many more victories like this.
In fact, one of the most startling aspects of Flow is its predictions about world water needs and shortages. We learn that there may be more oil in the ground than life giving liquid to go around, and at the rate we consume, the concept of privatization will be more or less a given. Salina suggests that the primary goal of these companies is control. Money may be an ancillary benefit, but if you have the power over basic necessities, you can certainly name your terms and demands. We can already see it happening in the India case. Instead of supporting people who’ve figure out a way around their drought plagued dilemma, (via rainwater runoff) the elected officials line their pockets and undermine their efforts.
All throughout Flow are talking heads supporting the policy positions offered and criticizing those who would argue free market and outright capitalism. Some make a lot of sense. Others have a tinge of post-‘60s psycho radicalism to them. This does not mean that their ideas are any less valid, but when dealing with something so large and so crucial to the survival of the planet, the more sensible usually supplant those driven to screeds. From an aesthetic standpoint, Salina also does a wonderful job of adding ambient elements to the scholarship. On the one hand, we see the standard images of free flowing rivers and streams. On the other, music modulates the foreboding, making the threat even more menacing.
Salina makes Flow function as a wake-up call to those who take such issues as an international given. After all, how many people who run the faucet as they brush their teeth, think that they are actually wasting the equivalent of a whole South African town’s weekly supply? When we pick up that bottle of Evian, do we really understand that in some South American countries people would kill for such a source? Indeed, one of the more moderate speakers believes that, just like during other times of crisis, an informed outside constituency will rise up to rectify what commerce and corruption has shattered. For that fact alone, Flow is an important film. That it states its many positions in a powerful and persuasive manner helps to limit some of the more tired rhetoric.
And still the war rages on, winner and losers racking up the casualties as a populace cries out for some manner of justice. While films such as this may not sway the conflict one way or the other, it will at least sum up the sides involved. More importantly, Flow feels like the truth. It doesn’t have the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock smugness or self satisfaction clouding its cause. Instead, it looks at a seismic situation and allows the facts to frighten everyone into attention. Here’s hoping that once the fear subsides, some substantive solutions can be discovered. If not, this is one mêlée where, if one side loses, everyone does.