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Water policy in the can

Many people regard access to safe drinking water as a human right. Yet some fear that the switch from state-run utilities to private ownership will lead to a world where water flows towards the rich as surely as it flows downhill, and where the poor, especially in the developing world, will be left thirsty.

Siding firmly against privatization of water resources, director Irena Salina's documentary FLOW: For Love of Water argues that profit-making is intrinsically incompatible with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to “reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water”. Her film, which opens this week, uses case studies of privatization at its ugliest to excite moral outrage.

Some tales are developed more fully than others. Among the most effective is one that focuses on Ashok Gadgil, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who as a child watched five cousins die from waterborne diseases. He was moved to invent a cheap device that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect water. The gadget now filters the water of half a million people in India. Similarly coherent is the segment on Michigan citizens battling a water-bottling plant run by the multinational food and beverage producer Nestlé that they feared was turning their creeks into drained mud flats.

Other stories are too big for one film.The section on current scandals and social uprising against privatized water in Bolivia is confusing without more context and chronology. A look at the community effects of large dam projects seems hurried. An intriguing story of women plumbers in South Africa who secretly reactivate water supplies that have been shut off for non-payment gets short shrift.

Some fear that water privatization will limit access of the poor to safe drinking water. Credit: S. SPRAGUE/STILL PICTURES

One segment at first seems out of place among the tales of waterborne disease, future water wars and poor people deprived of water: the Western superstition that bottled water is safer and healthier than tap water. The revelation that it is not feels trivial until the film mentions an uncomfortable statistic. The United Nations estimates that the cost of providing safe, clean drinking water to the entire planet — US$30 billion a year — is less than one-third the amount that the world spends on bottled water annually.

FLOW is intentionally one-sided. Salina presents no cases in which privatization improved the situation, despite there being a few published examples of local successes among many documented failures, such as fewer children dying in Argentine municipalities that privatized their water.

The movie does find time for a long, rousing climax and a call to action. The audience is asked to sign a petition to establish a new article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reads: “Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.”

FLOW zealously marshals a powerful set of arguments against water privatization. But a few more dry facts and a bit less fluid storytelling would have better served this important topic.

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FLOW: For Love of Water is released on 21 March in Louisville, Kentucky, and across the United States later this year ( ). 

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Marris, E. Water policy in the can. Nature 452, 288 (2008).

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