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Green Room: Feel Me, Flow?

April 20th, 2011 by Ben Collins Editor

Maude Barlow has been around the world trying to solve the water crisis. She’s seen the millions needlessly afflicted by disease in Africa by contaminated water.

She’s trying to make sure that doesn’t become a reality when she comes back home.

So she thinks one documentary might do a better job at curtailing a global water shortage than countless hours of canvassing ever could. And she thinks you’ll be gripped by it, too.

That film is “FLOW: For Love of Water,” and it launched on Hulu today. The award-winning feature explains that the world is running out of water—and the supplies we already have are being contaminated to help turn a profit.

Director Irena Salina followed Barlow and some other activists around on their journey to help the crisis before it becomes a worldwide disaster. It’s remarkably informative and, in the end, surprisingly hopeful.

Barlow, who took the time to talk to Hulu about the project, just wants you to watch so that you’ll be moved to help.

Hulu: Can you update us on your efforts in the two years since the film has made the festival circuit?

Maude Barlow: The biggest breakthrough we have had since the film was first circulated is the recognition by the United Nations General Assembly of the human right to drinking water and sanitation. This may sound strange given the obvious fact that one should have enough water for life regardless of ability to pay but it has been a long hard struggle to have this right formally recognized. I had the honor to serve as the first Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the UN General Assembly (Miguel d’Escoto Brockman) in 2008 and 2009 and worked with a team of dedicated people who fought to overcome the opposition to this development. The task now is to make this new right real to people and communities fighting for their basic water rights around the world.

There’s already been some political progress in some cities since the documentary was released. How do you feel about towns like Concord, Mass., which recently banned the sale of bottled water in their town? Is this a stopgap, symbolic measure, or a step in the right direction?

I think it is wonderful that towns like Concord, Mass. have taken a stand on bottled water. Concord is not alone. Many municipalities, universities and schools across North America are banning bottled water and these bans have clearly affected the bottom line of the big bottled water companies. For instance, sales of the bottled water conglomerate Nestle have declined 17% in North America and Europe in the last three years. Clearly, this is just a step toward a bottled water-free world, as sales in other parts of the world, including many places where there is no clean public water available, continue to grow. But the word is spreading that bottled water is a major environmental problem, creating massive amounts of plastic garbage, using energy badly needed for other things and pumping out greenhouse gases around the world. One day, having a commercial plastic bottle of water on you will be as uncool as drinking and driving or blowing smoke in someone’s face.

I think one of the most fascinating parts of the film is the focus on sexual side effects of growth hormones. Should the same amount of ire directed at the dairy industry (by activists, mostly) be directed at chemical manufacturers and the EPA?

This is a huge and growing problem and we need to tackle it at all levels: with the EPA, the drug manufacturers, the advertising industry that pushes these drugs, with food and milk producers, and with governments, who need to be regulating these hormones and other chemicals to protect our water. We are a chemical-dependent society and this habit is entering our water systems everywhere. (And that is no excuse to drink bottled water, which is no safer and often less safe that tap water that is regularly tested.)

This film primarily presents two major tenets: 1) We’re running out of water, and that’s killing people. 2) We’re commoditizing water, and that’s killing people. But something crossed my mind while watching this film: If there’s a water shortage, doesn’t charging first world countries—whose residents are more likely to afford it—actually help the problem by limiting consumption?

I am not opposed to charging a service charge for the cost of bringing clean water and wastewater services to those who can afford it. The issue is privatization. If a public utility charges a service fee, that money will be used to protect source water, improve infrastructure, and ensure equitable access. Private water operators, on the other hand, charge steep prices for these services in order to pay high salaries to their executives and dividends to their shareholders. And the public sector can encourage conservation, a desperately needed long-term goal. No for-profit water corporation can operate for long trying to sell less water! They have to encourage more water consumption to stay in business.

Since the film was made, has the commodification in South Africa been slowed or accelerated?

Commodification in Africa is still hotly contested and the jury is out on which model of water delivery—for profit or not-for-profit—will prevail. However, a new development greatly concerns me, and that is the practice where larger countries and global hedge funds are buying up holdings of land and water in Africa to hold for a future time when food and water are at a premium. Already an area twice the size of Great Britain has been bought up by foreign interests in Africa alone. As well, African lakes, such as Lake Naivasha in Kenya, are being used to grow thirsty crops such as flowers for export to Europe, drying up water sources millions depend on. Poor countries in Africa and other places are selling access to their water sources and exporting them in the form of “virtual water exports” to rich countries protecting their own water sources.

The film presents a scenario in which the world could eventually be centered around a water-based economy within the next few generations. Do you believe this could might actually take place?

Since FLOW was made, the threat to global water supplies has become even clearer. A recent study reports on massive over-pumping of groundwater all over the world, leading to complete depletion in some parts of the world. Another study (this one coordinated by the World Bank) predicts that, at current rate of extraction, our global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% in just 20 years. Clearly, it cannot be business as usual. The world knows we re running out of conventional energy. But we can move to alternative, safer energy sources. However, there is no substitute for water and the crisis is getting worse by the day. Simply. put, if we do not start listening to nature and start respecting and restoring watersheds, we have a terrible surprise coming at all humans and all other species who depend on these dwindling water sources for life.

Even if the doomsday scenarios don’t occur, aren’t there sufficient health and economic benefits to streamlining these processes that would make it worthwhile to do so anyway?

Yes, even if all these studies on future water shortages by the United Nations and many scientists are wrong (and I don’t think they are!), we still have a desperate problem to address right now. A new study by the World Health Organization tells us that every three and a half seconds, a child dies somewhere in the global South. Dirty water is a greatest cause of childhood deaths, more than HIV/AIDS, war and all accidents put together. In every case, if their parents could afford the price of water, these children would not be dying. These are preventable deaths and we need to wake the world up to this suffering.

There’s a lot of intimidation in this film by corporations trying to squelch grassroots movements to stop the unlawful diversion of water. Have you experienced any of that since the movie came out?

Yes companies featured in this film have tried to stop its circulation in France, followed me around in audiences as I speak and have written challenging my assertions. Doesn’t bother me at all. As my mother once told me: “Serious people have serious enemies.”

The very end is very hopeful, and shows civilians and governments waking up to the water shortage and its roots. Do you think this can be curtailed with an active and informed populace?

I am enormously hopeful about our movement. I remember when no one believed in the reality of climate change and now it is understood to be a major issue for the planet. In my opinion, we are about five years behind the climate issue in terms of getting the word out on the global water crisis. In communities all over the U.S. and around the world, people are becoming “water warriors” and working to protect their local water sources and the equitable access to them. We are working to have water declared a commons, a public trust and a human right everywhere and even working to promote laws that protect water and nature itself. My latest project is the promotion of a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Nature to become the companion to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the end, there are no human rights if there is no earth to sustain us.

Last comment: Apr 24th 2011 1 Comment
  • Peter says:

    Brilliant documentary from Maude Barlow. Who would have though bottled water would have such side effects. We supposedly live in a democratic western world but is it not worrying that these large companies could possibly by putting pressure on films makers or marketing companies, pull the plug on these types of documentaries?