Over a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Each year, millions of children die of diseases caused by unsafe water. The numbers are increasing.
These facts drive a debate in the opening scenes of “Thirst” at the 2003 Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan. Politicians, international bankers, and corporate executives gather to decide who will control global fresh water supplies. Their consensus for large dams and privatized, corporate water systems is challenged by experts and activists who assert that water is a human right, not a commodity to be traded on the open market.
Oscar Olivera, a community leader from Bolivia, startles a panel of CEOs with his words, “Many of the companies represented here have stained the water with the blood of our compatriots.” The film briefly shifts to Bolivia where Olivera leads a full-scale insurrection against a water privatization contract with the US-based Bechtel Corporation. Tens of thousands of people battle police and the army to protect their water rights. After a sharpshooter kills 17-year-old Victor Hugo Daza, the government is forced to expel one of the world’s most powerful corporations.
The central story in “Thirst” takes place in Stockton, California. Mayor Gary Podesto proposes to give control of the water system to a consortium of global water corporations. He is surprised by the reaction as Stockton residents create a new grassroots coalition to demand a say in the decision. They are worried about price hikes, water quality, and layoffs of public employees, who tend to be women or people of color. African American water plant supervisor Michael McDonald sees democracy itself at stake in this battle.
In India, a grassroots movement for water conservation has rejuvenated rivers, literally changing the desert landscape. Led by Rajendra Singh, who locals call “a modern day Gandhi”, the movement opposes government efforts to sell water sources to companies like Coke and Pepsi. Singh journeys across India to organize resistance, finding millions eager to join his crusade.
The water activists from Bolivia, Stockton and India all meet at the World Water Forum in Kyoto as part of a new movement against global water privatization. As the Forum reaches it final day, no one anticipates the explosive outcome.
The water conflicts portrayed in “Thirst” have continued and intensified since the end of filming in September, 2003.
In Stockton, the Citizens Coalition, Sierra Club, and League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit to stop the privatization of the city’s water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities, arguing that under California’s Environmental Quality Act the city should have completed an environmental impact statement before approving the contract. In an extraordinary ruling, Superior Court Judge Robert McNatt threw out the privatization, writing that approval of the contract was “an abuse of discretion by the City Council.” The City appealed the ruling. In late 2004, the California Attorney General’s office filed an amicus brief supporting the Citizens Coalition position on the environmental impact report. As of early 2006, the case was still in the courts.
In the meantime, water rates have increased and OMI/Thames continues to control the city’s water system.
Michael McDonald is now maintenance supervisor at Stockton’s Department of Public Works.
In November 2004, Mayor Gary Podesto ran for State Senate as a Republican in one of the most expensive state legislative campaigns in American history. He received strong support from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Podesto was defeated, failing even to win in his home town. Post-election analysis said voter backlash against his support for water privatization was a major reason for the defeat.
The Citizens Coalition is now working on a variety of other initiatives, including efforts to restrict Stockton’s sprawl.
In the United States, multinational water companies continue to campaign for new contracts, but they have been put on the defense by the collapse of contracts in Atlanta and the Island of Puerto Rico.
The decision by Germany energy conglomerate RWE to sell its water divisions Thames and American Water has not only shown the instability of the private water industry, but has also sparked calls for returning water to the public domain in cities throughout the U.S.
Corporate water industry publications have acknowledged that public opposition has discouraged some new contracts and reduced profitability.
In Bolivia, Oscar Olivera has been spearheading an effort to build a new community-based water utility along the lines of successful cooperatives and democratic utility structures used in other cities in South America. He is a leader of the new South and Central America anti-privatization coalition, Red Vida, and he has completed a book, “Cochabamba: Water Rebellion in Bolivia,” which is available from South End Press, www.southendpress.org.
Rebellions against privatization in Bolivia continued, toppling the government in 2003 and eventually bringing populist Evo Morales to power in 2006.
After the Cochabamba contract was cancelled, Bechtel filed a claim against the Bolivian government, demanding $25 million in lost profits. After years of negative publicity, Bechtel finally settled the suit in early 2006 for 2 pesos, a major victory for those opposed to privatization.
For up to date information on these developments, see reporting from Bolivia by Jim Shultz at www.democracyctr.org/blog.
Also, under restricted bidding procedures that The New York Times called “unacceptable,” Bechtel won the contract for water infrastructure in post-war Iraq. The newspaper editorialized, “The award of a contract worth up to $680 million to the Bechtel Group of San Francisco in a competition limited to a handful of American companies can only add to the impression that the United States seeks to profit from the war it waged…” (4/19/03)
In India, Rajendra Singh completed his year-and-a-half long yatra (national march) against privatization and for water conservation in the spring of 2004. Hundreds of thousands of people joined his marches and heard him speak across India. Shortly after the yatra ended, the right-wing government of India held new elections. To the surprise of pollsters and pundits, the incumbents were thrown out of office by a wide margin. Exit polls indicated that growing opposition to privatization was a major motivation for voters.
The new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, of the Congress Party, has promised to slow privatization of state-run companies and natural resources. However, anti-privatization activist Vandana Shiva writes that in late 2004, the Indian government announced a seven to tenfold increase in water tariffs as a way to facilitate privatization.
In late 2005, activists in New Delhi beat back a corrupt deal to privatize the water system in the nation’s capital. Similar movements are active in Bangalore and Chennai.
Rajendra Singh continues his work in Rajasthan, and he continues to travel in India and abroad urging support for rainwater harvesting, water conservation, and water as a human right. He has formed a new foundation, Jal Bhagirathi, to further the cause of rainwater harvesting – www.jalbhagirathi.org.
Indian activists have also been leading an international campaign against Coca-Cola for environmental abuses, and protests have disrupted Coke and Pepsi bottling plants across the country.
“Thirst” had its US premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, April 2004, and its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, April 2004. Since then, it has been shown in dozens of film festivals and won numerous prizes. In addition, “Thirst” was screened in Congress in the fall of 2004 and at the World Social Forum in January 2005.
“Thirst” had its national broadcast premiere on July 13, 2004 on the PBS series P.O.V. with an audience of two million viewers. For more information, including an excellent discussion guide, please see www.pbs.org/pov/thirst.
The Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch (formerly part of Public Citizen), and the Council of Canadians are using “Thirst” in their work to spark debate and discussion of water privatization. By early 2006, “Thirst” was translated into 10 languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, and was being shown around the world, including special screenings at the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City.
–Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman