1 Oct 2008

FLOW -- The Review

Many of you have asked my opinion on FLOW the Movie. (In a prior post, I said that the trailer indicated the movie appeared to have an anti-market, anti-privatization perspective. Ironically, the quotation that I liked best in the trailer was from T. Boone Pickens, a man who's business savvy is surpassed only by his political savvy.)

I just saw it, and here are my impressions:

Plot Summary: Water is essential for life, but corporate and multi-lateral banking institutions are taking control of water from people. The ones who suffer the most are the poor, but valiant leaders are fighting back.

Major Truth: There have been many disastrous privatizations and World Bank projects. Local solutions to water problems can work much better than expensive, centralized, over-engineered, foreign-sourced projects. The environment suffers as well as the poor when stupid projects are implemented. Companies have taken advantage of laws and institutions designed for one purpose to act differently, e.g., Nestle exporting bottled water under guidelines designed for local river diversions. (Nestle does come out looking the villain.)

Major Falsehood: Businesses and/or banks are trying to kill people to make profits. (There is a clip from The Third Man in which Orson Wells says "Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?" Poor taste.) Someone claims that Bolivia was "forced" to privatize its water system (Cochabamba, La Paz and El Alto) by the World Bank. No, that's not true. Bolivia agreed to privatize in exchange for money, which leads us to...

The Missed Point: Governments that privatize water systems, approve dams, etc. often claim to act in the name of their citizens, but they pocket the money while selling the property of those citizens. (Some contracts prohibit citizens from running their own water projects.) Yes, corporations are greedy, but they cannot make deals without corrupt governments. Since governments have the monopoly power, I blame them.

Best Hero: Ashok Gadgil, a UC Berkeley professor who designed a UV water purification system that yields 10 liters/capita/day for an annual cost of $2. 300,000 people in India use it.

Runners Up: Rajendra Singh, who worked to restore local rainwater harvesting traditions in Rajasthan, and Hayes (below).

Worst "Hero": Maude Barlow,* author of Blue Gold, who says numerous incorrect and hysterical things, e.g., "California will run out of water in 20 years;" or "private companies cannot beat public companies in water service because they have to make a profit." Ms. Barlow doesn't understand either business or natural resources.

Runner Up: Vandana Shiva, who says "all chemicals were designed for war, and now they are in our water;" and "if we price water like oil, we will have wars over water like we have wars over oil." Ms. Shiva needs to take a course in political economy. She will learn that wars over oil take place because the winners get to control the governments that control the oil.** Want wars over water? Give governments control over water. Shiva also says (or is edited to say) that Suez wants to dam the Ganges ("Source of Life"!) to bring water to Delhi at 10x the price. Hmmmm...

Scary Fact: Atrazine, a herbicide manufactured by a Swiss company, is banned in the EU but very common in the US (76 million pounds applied/year). It's an endocrine disruptor (you have fewer male children), and it's everywhere. Tyrone Hayes (another UC Berkeley scientist) explains why we should be afraid.

More Scary Facts: The FDA has only one person assigned to bottled water quality. NRDC tested 1,000 bottles of water from 100 brands. Many were not better than tap water, and one-third of the brands had "problems". World expenditures on bottled water? $100 billion. Total needed to bring "safe tap water to all"? $30 billion.***

Memorable Quote(s): Peter Gleick hits the mark twice: "The solutions to water problems will be local;" and "we don't need one $1 billion answer in one place; we need one million $1,000 answers in a million places." Spot on.

Bottom Line: This movie is unbalanced propaganda. Light on on analytics and heavy on emotion, it misses major causes of our current problems with water and omits viable, equitable solutions -- like mine :) Some people say we need "An Inconvenient Truth for Water," but this film may not suit. It's inspiring, but distorted, and I worry that inspired people will attack the wrong targets.

* and Canadian. Someone pointed out that Canadians against water privatization should shut their mouths. They have so much water that waste by their public companies is hard to notice.

** Yes, the US is guilty of this. Big Time.

*** Assuming they get institutions right (BIG assumption).

Addendum: A good interview with the filmmaker. If you read the interview, you can probably skip the film.


  1. Not really surprised that the FDA only has one bottled water person. Why expect more? Or even one? A lot of the water is purified tap water, so no need to worry about that, and peopl edrink spring water precisely because it has minerals in it. Of course, they do not want the other stuff there, but presumably the bottling plants would invest enough in their studies to know if there were harmful chemicals in the aquifer before starting...
    The FDA does a lot of harm, and so I'd rather keep it at one person.

  2. All good points. I hope to see it soon, but perhaps I could just take a look at that interview with the filmmaker?

    Just finished off a bottle of Aquafina...am I an evil person ?

  3. David, this is a great post. I saw a related "news" article, and was about to write something similar, but you've already done a great job. And you said something kind about Peter Gleick!

    Scot, yes, there is something not so good in there if you're still drinking bottled water. Please stop!


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