While preparing to write this review, I stumbled across a commercial for sweetened vitamin water, which seems like an unnecessary product. Why are we spending large sums of money for something that's available, in a healthier form (for those lucky enough to have clean water that, is), for almost nothing? Filmmaker Sam Bozzo goes well beyond this obvious point in Blue Gold: World Water Wars, which tackles the global ramifications of increasing water shortages.
Painting a frightening picture of violence, greed and desperation, Bozzo reveals another growing crack in our fragile environment. Experts from across the globe make the convincing point that water may eclipse oil as the fuel for international conflict.
My goal was to avoid mentioning An Inconvenient Truth, as it's an easy comparison when discussing this picture. But there are too many connections between the two films to ignore them. Al Gore aimed to scare audiences into acting on global warming before it was too late. Bozzo (Holiday on the Moon) uses a similar approach but doesn't take a breath for personal filler. Instead, he builds the message to a feverish pitch and delivers a haunting presentation.
Malcolm McDowell narrates the 90-minute documentary and conveys the proper sense of urgency. Increased urbanization and a growing population have changed the landscape and raised the danger exponentially. When combined with privatization and profit motives, this is the prime environment for a world water crisis.
Based on the 2003 book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, this film offers plenty of credible evidence. The authors appear frequently to complement the startling footage and worldwide examples. One stunning image presents the river near the US/Mexican border, which carries polio and other serious diseases. This waterway has been decimated by pollution and is now a possibly deadly route for people trying to cross the border.
There are many examples of water becoming toxic through human actions and decimating an ecosystem. Bozzo shows the disastrous effects of privatization, which has shifted water into a profitable enterprise.
“Since Coca-Cola has purchased much of Africa’s supply, water prices have risen sharply and delivered large profits.” It's surprising to see the company's representatives appearing to give reasons for their troubling approach. They're far from the only culprit, however, as governments also struggle when taking charge of the water supply.
Employing a fast-pace approach, Bozzo avoids the pratfalls of the “talking head” documentary style, which can feel too much like a college lecture. However, the information comes so quickly that it can be difficult to comprehend it all. The final section gives a quick look at the actions we can take to lessen our water use, but they're covered briefly and offer little depth.
This is not just an instructional film, as it pushes us seek out more information. The images of violent riots in Bolivia present a possible future for many countries if serious changes aren't made. Uruguay was forced to overturn the privatization of water after prices skyrocketed and pollution grew exponentially, even in water going to schools. Bozzo makes the case that we're all heading for doom if profits from water continue to outweigh the public good.
The extras include an interview with Bozzo and Executive Producer Mark Achbar (The Corporation) on the Vancouver morning show Urban Rush. While this goofy setting feels like an odd place for a serious conversation, the hosts actually ask some good questions.
The nine-minute discussion covers the film's key themes and provides some interesting background. The other primary bonus feature is a collection of seven deleted scenes running about 15 minutes. This footage broadens the scope and depicts huge problems in Australia and Mexico City. We also learn about a stunning trial that reveals a callous response from the Nestle Corporation towards Michigan families. After polluting the environment, Nestle fought vehemently against the local plaintiffs and won the case by appeal. The final scene presents a series of quotes from CEOs, activists and others showing the various sides of the controversial issue.
When this type of politically charged film appears, a certain audience segment will dismiss it outright as biased propaganda.This charge has plagued Michael Moore, Gore and other filmmakers when they tackle controversial subjects. I agree that we should always question the information, but that doesn't mean the medium is flawed.
The mainstream media rarely questions our culture's approach to water use, so it takes passionate figures like Bozzo to explore them. This is not a ground-breaking documentary, but it builds an effective case that a serious new direction is needed.
It's nearly impossible to refute the idea that we're doomed without a safe, reasonably priced water supply. Blue Gold does not paint an optimistic picture of our future.
Blue Gold: World Water WarsDirector: Sam Bozzo
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Maude Barlow
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2009-04-07
Attention foreign-desk editors and those in charge of the environmental beat: Before assigning any pieces about impending wars between countries battling over this essential, scarce resource, read Wendy Barnaby's essay in Nature, "Do Nations Go to War Over Water?" (paid). She writes:
Countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.
Barnaby discovered this enduring truth after being approached by a publisher to write a book about water wars. It seemed logical enough. If countries were prepared to fight over oil, which makes modern life possible, why not water, without which there would be no life? And it's not a fringe idea, she notes. NGO leaders, academics, and journalists have all predicted that water struggles will inevitably turn into shooting wars when countries can no longer cover the demands of agriculture, industry, and citizens for the resource.
In this scenario, Canada is the Saudi Arabia of the water world, drawing immense power from its surplus—and in the process becoming the target of a military strike by less-liquid nations.
Barnaby, the editor of the British Science Association magazine People & Science, started lining up sources for the book, but her thinking shifted after being introduced to the concept of "embedded" or "virtual" water. It takes an average of about 1,000 cubic meters of water to grow enough food to feed one person for one year. Arid nations that can't muster that amount for each person can navigate around water scarcity by importing food, which contains "virtual" water from the land where it was grown. Barnaby writes:
Ten million people now live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If they were to be self-sufficient in food, they would need ten billion cubic metres of water per year. As it is, they have only about one-third of that: enough to grow 15-20% of their food. They import the rest in the form of food.
Water scarcity in the region results in "conflict and tension," Barnaby adds, but the Israeli and the Palestinian officials have successfully used a committee (controlled by the Israelis) to peacefully resolve problems. In other places where competition for water should theoretically escalate into violence, Barnaby finds similar resolution. Egypt has become more fluid in its relations with its water neighbors because it wants to improve the climate for trade. Similarly, India and Pakistan, which war with each other with the same frequency that other nations exchange sister cities, have so far used a World Bank-arbitrated treaty to make water peace.
Barnaby wanted to revise the thesis for her water book, but her publisher pointed out that "predicting an absence of war over water would not sell" many copies. So she bagged the idea.
Despite Barnaby's findings, other writers sense water wars in the making. The March 31 issue of The Nationincludes a feature titled "Blue Gold: Have the Next Resource Wars Begun?" that cites a report (PDF) by the British nonprofit International Alert that names 46 countries "where water and climate stress could ignite violent conflict by 2025" and quotes U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying, "The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict." Last month, a new U.N. water study about water scarcity warning of "a global water crisis … leading to political insecurity at various levels" prompted ominous coverage around the world (the Independent, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bangkok Post, Bloomberg News, AFP, and elsewhere).
None of my skepticism should imply that I think everybody everywhere has all the clean, cheap water they need. Water, like all resources, is scarce, and I accept that scarcity can cause conflict. But before anyone starts frightening themselves about impending water wars, they might want to consider Barnaby's observation that in the last five decades there have been no "formal declarations of war over water."
Although Israel has fought wars with Egypt and Jordan, Barnaby notes, it has never fought one over water, and "more 'virtual' water flows into the Middle East each year embedded in grain than flows down the Nile to Egyptian farmers."
That drip, drip, drip you hear is my Twitter account. Send your liquefied e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word water in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.