Regardless of your leanings regarding politics or economic theory, if you do not drink water, you will be dead within a few days. Unlike supercars or single malt scotch, water is essential for life and is a resource that is as much a part of our environment as the sun and the soil. It is a resource very much taken for granted, even as it becomes relatively scarcer as the population expands, and most scholars agree that large scale wars will be fought over it. In the meantime, corporations are working feverishly to redefine water as a commodity, and wrest control from what has been seen as a public trust. FLOW (For Love Of Water) is a solid, well-researched, and well-crafted documentary that will enrage you as few are capable, and leave you with a well-deserved pallor of gloom.

Industrialized agriculture has made a large global population possible, which has a great demand for more food, which requires large amounts of water (to grow the food and dilute pesticides) to grow that food, which feeds and allows the population to expand, and the cycle continues. Arid land is now irrigated, and growing cash crops (like lumber trees) that require ten times more water than simple plants (like beans and so forth) magnifies the problem. Today, 70% of the global water supply is used for agriculture, while another 20% is used for other industries. Pesticide with a long half life is necessary to maximize agricultural production with limited land. Unsurprisingly, these chemicals have been shown to have adverse effects (atrazine is linked to various cancers and birth defects), yet are still widely used after public declarations of safety. So there is only so much water, and the demand will only grow. The documentary builds this case well, and covers in detail the means by which we will compromise over not only the safety of water quality, but control of the water supply itself.

Fortunately, multinational corporations have volunteered to step in and manage the water supply on a for-profit basis. In developing nations, Vivendi, Suez, and Thames are helpfully pumping the water out of the ground, damming rivers and draining streams to sell the water back to the peasants at ten times the original cost. One village in India that hosted a Coca-Cola plant had this deal sweetened with ‘free fertilizer’ that was dumped on their fields each night – hundreds of thousands of gallons daily of industrial sludge with plenty of lead and cadmium. The World Bank and IMF are also working on the problem, which is good because the big water companies’ CEOs are on the advisory boards to both bodies. These groups fund the building of projects like the Three Gorges Dam of China that displaced 1.3 million people from a productive floodplain to an arid dustbowl in order to provide a massive reservoir privately controlled to distribute water to the masses. The people were promised land and homes, and received meager portions of each, but wouldn’t you know, they still need to pay for water. And Big Water is hard at work in the United States, where 3 out of 4 people drink bottled water. Nestle has pumping plants all over the Midwest, draining aquifers everywhere, leaving mud flats where lakes once were, bottling the water and selling it back to farmers who wonder where the fucking water went. One plant in Michigan was leased by the DNR to Nestle for $65,000 and $10 million in tax abatements to sell a public resource for private gain. Legal efforts to stop the pumping have failed, the Supreme Court ruling that citizens cannot sue Nestle. For any reason.

Water shortages or fear of shortages are used by these companies to sell the idea of privatized water – give a public resource to a private company, and all will be well. In developing nations, this decision is forced by the IMF or World Bank who require privatization in exchange for more loans. After this occurs, prices invariably go up, rivers are dammed, pipes are built, and people in urban, politically strong areas receive their water, while the impoverished are fucked. They generally resort to drinking dirty water and dying of diarrheal illnesses. Some enterprising individuals have fallen back on techniques used by people living in arid regions for centuries to irrigate their crops. One gentleman in Uttar Pradesh set up rainwater schemes for over seven thousand villages, and was informed that the rainwater did not belong to the villages, and the schemes were to be dismantled immediately. Bolivia exploded in riots after Suez Corporation privatized the water of La Paz and secured the supply for the wealthy, excluding over 200,000 people, and dumped sewage into the rivers used by the poor. And then convinced the government to impose a tax on anyone who owned a rain barrel.

The cost of ten liters daily of clean drinking water is $2 per person per year, and this includes those living in remote rural areas of marginal use for farming. It can be done cheaply, and on a small and local level, but then there would be little profit for Big Water. Time and again private companies have stepped in and fucked up the water supply, proving that essential items are best left to public management. I was on the receiving end of this once while working in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, in the most impoverished district with an utterly corrupt representative. All utilities were privatized, and in the winter months the people depended absolutely upon water piped from a reservoir (the local river had dwindled to a trickle after that dam was installed). During the time I was there, the water was shut off for weeks while the sugar plantations in the neighboring district remained green and drenched. You see, the district did not have the money to pay its electric bill, and so the pumps were shut off. This is for-profit service at its finest, all in the midst of a typhoid epidemic. Meanwhile, we do not worry about this problem, or the approaching storm, as we have come to accept privatization as the most efficient way to provide services, and water flows from our tap anyway. If not, there is always bottled water from an industry that gets most of its water from the local tap and contains an acceptable level of fecal contamination. This industry rakes in over $10 billion per year in the United States, and is regulated by less than one person.

The age of the corporation has changed a commodity from a good or service that can be bought or sold into a resource that can be denied. Multinational control of water is the rule over most of the globe, and the movement is well underway to privatize water in all of its forms over the rest. Always this is done by a company that promises to be a good corporate citizen that will not leave a toxic mess to be cleaned up with taxpayer funds. Remember that a business incorporates in order to shield the owners and investors from responsibility; essentially turn the company into a monster without a head. If the legal issues lead to a court case or, most severely, to a Senate hearing, then the usual scapegoats and empty suits can confirm, deny, and dance about because in the corporate world, nobody is to blame for anything.

The documentary ends on an upbeat note, that in order to fend off the privatization movement one must educate the people, march in protest, and sign the petition to add Right to Water to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (flowthefilm.com, if you are interested). This is where the gloom set in for me. Consumer forces cannot fight this, since corporations act in union and there is no good guy to buy from (except maybe not buying bottled water, which is for morons anyway). Legal routes are a joke, the appeals process will hit an economically conservative judge eventually, and Nestle or Coca-Cola hire the best lawyers on the planet to argue the issue. Protests are easy to ignore, or if large enough, can be repelled with military force. No, my friends, we are all fucked in this death march, as it will always proceed forward. The only Achilles heel that a corporation has is that its board of directors and investors (follow the money trail) are flesh and blood that yields all too easily to steel. No legal obfuscation or gated community will protect these people when a mob of water-deprived citizens is out for blood. The only hope lies in educating people about these and related issues, and the parallel hope that such education is stronger than the power of corporate marketing. In FLOW, the war of ideas continues.

About Alex K.

Alex is an actual medical doctor. Really. At a hospital and everything. We don’t know what he’s doing here, but he writes good reviews.