Population growth, pollution, and scarcity are turning water into “blue gold,” the oil of the 21st century. Global corporations are rushing to gain control of this dwindling natural resource, producing intense conflict in the US and worldwide where people are dying in battles over control of water.
As revealed in Thirst, the world is poised on the brink of epochal changes in how water is stored, used, and valued. Will these changes provide clean water to the billions of people who need it? Or save the child who dies every eight seconds from contaminated water? Examining water conflicts on three continents, “Thirst” shows that popular opposition to the privatization of water sparks remarkable coalitions that cross partisan lines. When it comes to water, many people demand local control and fear the arrival of multinational corporations with large lobbying budgets and little local loyalty.
A young girl carrying a jug of water in Rajasthan, India.
In many ways, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, India’s Rajasthan state, and Stockton, California, occupy very different rungs of the global economic ladder. But in one respect at least, these communities are strikingly similar. They each found themselves threatened with losing public control of their water resources to multinational corporations. And they each fought long odds in resisting the juggernaut of globalization, which is driving the worldwide privatization of public resources, utilities, and services.
Without narration, Thirst dramatically reveals this growing storm through charismatic characters, tense confrontations, and cinema vérité footage. In Kyoto, Japan, corporate leaders and citizen activists assemble at the World Water Forum, the largest gathering of its kind, to discuss what Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, President of the World Water Council, describes as “one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.” In Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia, the World Bank presses the government to grant exclusive rights to the city’s water to an international consortium led by Bechtel Corporation. When rates jumped 30-300%, people of all economic classes poured into the streets, crying, “Basta! Enough!” The confrontation climaxed when a 17-year-old was killed by a government sharpshooter.
In Stockton, California, citizens campaign for a public vote when the city council moves to outsource the city’s water system, long considered one of the best-run utilities in the nation, to a German-led multi-national. In Rajasthan, India, a charismatic local “Gandhi” is leading a poor people’s movement for water conservation that has revived rural life. But it’s an achievement that would be swept away by government plans, again under pressure from international financial institutions, to build large hydroelectric dams and privatize communal water sources.
In Cochabamba and Rajasthan, people resist because privatization threatens to further impoverish some of the world’s poorest people. In Stockton, citizens fear rising rates, poor service, increased pollution, and the loss of control of their water. For the Californians, it is a bitter taste of disempowerment in the new world economy.
Across the United States, cities and towns must replace aging pipes and public water plants at an estimated cost of up to a trillion dollars. Potentially huge profits are attracting global water companies, but public opinion is divided over privatization. While municipal systems provide safe water at reasonable rates, corporate leaders and politicians assure the public that privatization is a natural development arising from new technologies and growing scarcity, and will benefit everyone in the long run.
Thirst shows that the individual struggles of these communities raise the same profound questions: Is water a human right for all people? Or is it a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded in a global marketplace?
Thirst is a front-line report from a developing social war that is pitting not only communities against corporations, but also one conception of basic human rights against another.
Co-directors Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman see water as the leading battleground in future conflicts over privatization. “Water is up for grabs in the United States for the first time in a century,” says Snitow. “Decisions are being made out of public sight by politicians and corporate lobbyists. It’s an issue of democracy. Who gets to decide?”
“Water is essential to life,” Kaufman says. “In many parts of the world, it’s a matter of life and death. We’re living at a time when everything is up for sale, where the market is God, but with water, people are saying enough is enough. This is where we draw the line.”
Featured on Thirst are Gary Podesto, Mayor of Stockton; Michael McDonald, Maintenance Supervisor of the Stockton water department; Rajendra Singh, Indian water conservation leader; John Briscoe, Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank; Oscar Olivera, Bolivian water activist; Bill Alexander, CEO of Thames Water; Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen; Gerard Payen, CEO, Ondeo/Suez Water Company; and Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians.
For more information about Thirst, visit thirstthemovie.org