21 September 2010

Film: "One Water" by the University of Miami

A collaborative project at the University of Miami
Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Directed by Sanjeev Chatterjee
Narrated by Martin Sheen
Televised by Planet Green as part of Blue August (2010)
First aired 2 August 2010 at 9 PM EDT

Links: official website, film synopsis, film credits, press kit, educational resources

The film opens with a bullhorn announcement of its own screening, albeit to Indian citizens living on the Ganges delta near Bangladesh. Our narrator sums up the scene in a larger context: "Water is abundant here, but in the absence of purification plants and piped service to homes, poor communities like this one in the Sundarbans depend on natural sources of water for their survival."

One Water was produced by three filmmakers gathering footage and interviews in fourteen countries over five years. It is a simple film, filled with footage of normal people going about their lives in places around the world that experience either the abundance and the lack of water, or both at various times, and what each experience means for life. This film does not preach; Martin Sheen was a great choice for narrator, as his voice conveys well the gravity of the issue without the capability for overt coercive monologue. One Water exposes, in short interviews with experts and through well-crafted narrative prose, the present state of Earth's freshwater in the context of humanity. There is appropriate and welcome silence at times, while the pictures tell the story and the narrative refrains from voice-overs by Mr. Sheen or the interviewees, some of whom are well-known advocates in the ongoing negotiation over the privatization of water. The right to water as a fundamental for life, and the difficulty and cost of obtaining clean resources, are ultimately at the foundation of this story. One Water does not necessarily address the sciences of hydrology and climate change, but neither does it tackle directly the issues of basic human rights, corrupt politics and politicians, economic collusion, and the business practices of evil corporations; check out Blue Gold (another film that I may review soon) if those are what you're looking for. This film does not take a stance on the privatization of water resources in poor regions; in fact, it provides views on both sides of the issue, attempting to explain that the mere provision of water costs money, but even so that there are ways to get it to even the poorest individuals. Given both the straightforward message and the effort undertaken to produce this film, this is a great addition to the still small portfolio of works illustrating one of the central issues facing humanity in the 21st century.

What follows are my notes and impressions upon viewing One Water. I owe many thanks to MKG at Planet Green for access to the film through the Discovery Digital Media Center, with my apologies for taking such a long time in review.

Indian women carry pots and collect water from handpumps, in many areas leading to groundwater overpumping. With the groundwater deficit comes arsenic seepage into wells, resulting in severe and long-term sicknesses at home. It doesn't help that the women must walk many miles back to home, swimming across muddy and sewage-laden streams, the whole time protecting all that they can carry.

The narrator describes the global problem: "Access to safe water for drinking separates the 'haves' from the 'have-nots' like nothing else on Earth."

Commentary at various points in the film is provided by several interviewees:

An apparent pastoral farmer in Ecuador actually harvests ice from Mt. Chimborazo, carrying it to the valley below on pack animals and his own back. Volcanic minerals embedded in the ice are reported to have healing powers. A woman and child carry water pots across dry lakes in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India, to collect from a deep well. During drought, winds carry dry salt from the lake bed onto adjacent agricultural areas, diminishing farm productivity significantly; the story is reminiscent of the Aral Sea experience, with toxic dust on the winds. In India, the government pays people who live here to make bricks from the dry earth, but it doesn't make up for farming losses. In contrast, public thermal baths in Budapest and along the Danube seem an excessive indulgement but remain "an essential part of personal health care."

In Kenya, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, unsafe water brings disease (diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and malaria) that kill millions each year. Many of the afflicted are children under 5 years old. Vaccines, medicine for infections, and mosquito nets are all in short supply. Malaria seems particularly adaptible to new medicines, with new strains of the disease appearing as quickly as treatment for an existing variant is developed.

There is a coming crisis in the depth and quality of the Ganges River, as physical and cultural realities clash. The Ganges passes 1,500 miles from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal, through 29 major cities each with greater than 1M population, and estimates suggest that more than 400M in India depend on its waters. However, the waters of the Ganges remain sacred and indispensible to the devout Hindu. Our narrator explains: "The Lord Shani looks at the river, Mother Goddess Ganga. Shani, born from the union of Sun and Shadow, is both the inflicter of great pain and the giver of divine wishes. He is capable of great damage, but his wrath is caused by karma, or the deeds of people. If the river becomes a sewer, how long will it be before divine protection runs out? How much more can the Mother Goddess take in? How long before the great Ganges dies?"

The Yangtze River, a symbol of progress and a source of great controversy in China, carries more than half of China's industrial and sewage waste, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Both surface and groundwater sources are polluted, especially in urban areas, indicative of "progress." Many aquifers in northern China are drying out. The new measures of progress have become cleaning up its waters and getting it to people where they need it. The Three Gorges Dam, while providing much-needed power generation and flood control, also uprooted millions of people.

The Colorado River illustrates the power of money and politics to move water to desert cities, modifying the surrounding landscape and ecology. Las Vegas continues to seek new water sources in addition to its primary reservoir, Lake Mead. Massive pumps move water over mountains to far-away consumers in Los Angeles and central Arizona.

The narrator asks: "Who owns water?" The finite amount that moves through the water cycle is not manufactured, but recycled continuously. All creatures gather at the edge of a watering hole in southern Africa. The growth of civilization runs counter to the "natural order." The expansion of urban and peri-urban areas involves an evolution over time in water provision. Water has become a commodity, for sale only to those who can afford to pay. Government efforts to provide free access for the poor remain inadequate. Protesters declare that "Water is not for sale" and "Water is our right" while bottled water costs, in many countries, more than gasoline. In arid countries, bottled water sells for more than ten times the cost of an equivalent volume of tap water in the United States.

The narrator asks again: "How much should water cost? Who should pay for water? Is water a commodity, or is it a basic human right?" The Dalai Lama describes water as "something common, for everybody." However, as described by Mr. Kelly, "one half, now, of all the available water, to humans, is contaminated." He goes on to explained that "one half to 70% of [the cost of water] is energy costs, getting the water to you and into that glass and cleaning it up. And that process of cleaning is what costs money."

Expansion in government service of public water supply often cannot keep up with the growth in public need, sometimes because of corruption or bureaucratic inertia or simple capacity for growth. As Ms. Sadoff and Ms. Barlow suggest, one possible solution is placing water resources in the hands of a non-profit, semi-autonomous agency running on basic business principles. For the World Bank, privatization remains "one of the tools in the toolbox" to expand water services to the poorest communities. But privatization is a for-profit activity. Subsidies must fill the gaps between costs and the ability-to-pay, using funds from the "haves" to help the "have-nots." Water remains a catalyst for poverty eradication and for social and economic development, as Ms. Sonjica describes conditions in South Africa. As Mr. Kelly observes, "with clean water comes better health; with better health comes productivity; with productivity comes an economic, self-sustaining base."

It is described by Ms. Sadoff of the World Bank as a misconception that the "privatization of water" is the surrender of the resource itself. Mr. Kennedy responds: "If you allow private companies to get control of the waterway, and to start charging people for that, that is the privatization of the resource, no mater what you want to call it."

Our narrator concludes the film: "We have a choice: water can become more and more a point of contention, a precious resource over which wars will be fought, or it can be the bond that connects us all. We can fight over it, or share it as a basic human right. It all depends on the kind of world to which we want our children born."

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