2004 Thirst
2004 November

“Thirst”: Water and the Human Rights Movement

Chikako Nagayama

Planet in Focus: 5th Annual Environmental Film and Video Festival was held in Toronto from September 28th to October 3rd. This year’s line-up includes 81 films and videos – feature-lengths and shorts, documentaries, dramas, animations and experimental works – from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Spain, South Africa, the USA, and the UK. The works deal with environment-related issues but encompass a broad range of themes, including water, air, energy, work, leisure, home, community, relationships, health, creativity, security, and peace.

In this article, I would like to introduce the 60 minutes’ documentary, “Thirst” (directors: Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, US, 2004) shown in the Festival as the Canadian Premiere.

“Is water part of a shared ‘commons,’ a human right for all people? Or is it a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded in a global marketplace?” “Thirst” explores the social, economic and political contexts of water privatization in different locations. Kyoto in Japan, Cochabanba in Bolivia, Stockton in the US, and Rajasthan in India – these four places are chosen to illustrate the heated debates, proposed solutions and actions mobilized for and against the privatization of water.

What is the ‘privatization of water’? It is a funny concept, indeed. Don’t we use water at home, in our private space? Doesn’t that mean that water is privately owned? The ‘privatization of water’ actually refers to, in current debates, the shift of control over the water supply from the government (public) to corporations (private). At stake here is a service that has been provided by government – with the mandate to serve equally to all citizens – which is now beginning to be priced, packaged and distributed according to the rules of the market economy. I suppose that an historical survey would show that the establishment of a municipal water supply system indeed was a precursor to the privatization of water. Municipal governments took initiatives when water management systems were organized for the improvement of public hygiene and construction of industrial complex. The distant circulation and collective consumption of water became critical part of our modern life. We now don’t pull buckets from neighbourhood wells to obtain drinking water. We just turn on a tap and water runs out. Our urban life-style, such as bathrooms, kitchens, medical clinics and hospitals, simply assumes a constant and abundant water supply through water pipes. Our lives are so dependent on water, but we don’t individually take the management of water in hand. Both the founding of collective water management system and people’s dependence on water are convenient for companies to make profits by running the water system.

One of the featured contexts in “Thirst”, a grassroots movement for water conservation in India lead by Rajendra Singh, allows us to reflect on our taken-for-granted accessibility to water. In the desert of Rajasthan, people began to collect rainwater in pond and rejuvenated rivers. ‘Water harvesting’ actually reduces the burden for women, who used to be assigned to the task of carrying heavy water pots from wells and walking for miles, according to Singh. This movement literally aims at ‘taking back’ water in to the hands of the people, i.e., the local control of water. It simultaneously opposes government efforts to sell water sources to companies like Coke and Pepsi. Singh is called “a modern day Gandhi” by locals, as if multinational corporations are new colonizers to India.

The film reports a more acute conflict between local protesters and a multinational corporation in Cochabana, Bolivia in 1999-2000. Tens of thousands of people were mobilized in the insurrection against the government’s water privatization contract with the US-based Bechtel Corporation. After the contract was signed, even raindrops became the company’s property – people were prohibited to collect and use them at all. The price of water tripled after privatization was introduced, and people took to the streets in resistance. Police and the army forcefully intervened during the mass rallies of protesters, and 17-year-old Victor Hugo Daza was killed by a gunman hired by the government. The persistent collective movement successfully expelled one of the world’s most powerful corporations. But Bechtel is now suing the government of Bolivia in lost future profits for millions of dollars under a bilateral investment treaty. After its failure in Bolivia, Bechtel entered into a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the repair and reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure (but who destroyed them anyway?).

The World Bank is encouraging governments of the South, who have accumulated debts to the Bank, to privatize water. “Thirst” shows the water activists from Bolivia, Stockton and India all meeting at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, March 2003, as part of a new movement against global water privatization. The 24,000 attendees of the Forum included UN, government, industry, banking and global finance leaders. A group of protesters expressed straightforwardly their distrust and anger towards the sympathetic gestures of the World Bank and private corporations who assume they can stand for the benefit and interest of the people who are in need of water.
The economy is, however, not only a problem for the South, but also for municipalities in the North. Why do governments become so vulnerable to offers by corporations in spite of large-scale oppositions by citizens? In “Thirst”, Mayor Gary Podesto of Stockton, California, blames the cost of maintain waterworks. He insists that privatization would save huge amounts of money, 120 million US dollars, for the municipal government. Podesto’s proposal of a 20-year, $600 million operations contract with OMI-Thames to manage Stockton’s drinking water, storm water and wastewater system caused the residents’ coalition to demand a say in the decision. They organized town meetings, exchanged opinions and visited door-to-door to collect signatures to place an initiative on the ballot that would have given voters final approval over the contract. But the Stockton city council approved the contract before the coalition’s initiative was adopted by voters.

Thanks to the intensifying pressure of privatization, water is now conceptualized by some as a human right as well as a human need. “Thirst” pays quite keen attention to local contexts of the water rights movement. To some extent, the benefits of privatization are explained from the point of view of water-related corporations and governments, but the focused is the voices of activists who are concerned about the privatization of water. Audiences can gain intimate views of meetings, protest marches, collections of signatures, casual talks and formal discussions by people against the privatization of water. The casual openness and passion of activists in Bolivia, India and the US allow us to feel the urgency of the issues and the connection of our local action to the global movement for water-rights.

For further information about the film “Thirst”, please see:

Chikako Nagayama is a Ph.D. candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

2004 “Thirst”: Water and the Human Rights Movement

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