We had heard some crazy stories about water: Corporations wanted to drag polar ice caps to the Middle East for profit. An entrepreneur wanted to suck water from two wild California rivers and ship it down the Pacific coast to Southern California in bags the size of football fields that he called “giant condoms.” These are the stories you hear at parties and as jokes on late-night TV. But when we learned that scandal-plagued and bankrupt Enron was the third-largest corporation involved in the global water business, we knew something really big was happening.
And then it got personal. How come a bottle of water costs more than a gallon of gasoline? Why doesn’t anybody fix the broken water fountains at our public high schools? Why does the Bechtel Corporation-so busy in Saudi Arabia and postwar Iraq-want to run our local water supply, which until now has been under public control?
There are connections between conflicts for control of water here at home and far from our borders. Private-water lobbyists have declared the 85% of American water systems that are public as a tremendous market opportunity in the next few years. The World Bank is helping to make water privatization a fact in most of the developing world by requiring countries to sell public water supplies as a precondition to get loans. Water is the oil of the 21st century.
Human-rights activists and environmentalists have been the first to express concern about the future of water. But what’s at stake with the privatization of this scarce natural resource goes beyond the work of advocacy groups. It’s the notion of democracy itself: Who will actually make the decisions that affect everyone’s future, and who will be excluded?
It’s striking that in every water story we researched for this film, corporations with household names like Coca-Cola and Nestlè were hard at work trying to prevent citizens from voting on or even knowing about decisions that would affect their lives. That convinced us to tell the water story from the point of view of the “water warriors,” those opposing corporate attempts to take over global water resources.
One of the most compelling aspects of water is not just its universality, but also the intensity of our involvement with it, and the elegant simplicity of the questions that the new battles over water raise: Is water a human right or just another commodity to be bought and sold in the market? Is it society’s role to protect our natural environment or to exploit it? Who gets to decide?
In a revealing moment in our production of Thirst, the pro-privatization mayor of Stockton, California, says that it’s time to “think of our citizens as customers.” When did this notion take hold? We were taught that government has another purpose beyond supplication to “the market,” that endangered natural resources aren’t consumer goods, and that people aren’t simply profit-producing consumers, but citizens who rely on one another in caring communities.
“Thirst” is designed to begin a conversation about these questions, and to show the human dimensions-what is at stake for everyday people-of this little-known global struggle for the future of humanity’s most essential natural resource. Thanks for joining in and extending the dialogue.
— Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman