29 Apr 2009

Thirst -- The Review

I just saw Thirst (2004), a movie by local film-makers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman.

As a tale of capitalism versus social activists, it reminded me of FLOW, but it was better. (If I had seen Thirst in 2004, I would have questioned the relevance of FLOW as a me-too film...)

The plot concentrates mainly on privatization stories in Cochabamba, Stockton and Rajasthan. There are scenes of activists confronting befuddled executives from the World Bank and water corporations (Suez, Vivendi, et al.)

The Cochabamba scenes of tear gas and blood are disconcerting. It looks like a totalitarian horror story, but I wanted to hear more about WHY the government and Bank agreed to privatize. (Public water provision was broken. After privatization was reversed -- a great "victory" -- it returned to broken.)

The Stockton story was interesting as an example of an overbearing mayor against activist citizens. Although Mayor Podesto's arguments are valid (we need outside funding for infrastructure improvements; competition is good), his methods were not (ramming the privatization through the city council). I was interested to see the employees of the public water company opposing privatization even though their jobs were guaranteed as part of the contract.

I had lunch with Snitow and asked him about the mayor's motivation. He mentioned an interesting fact: After the water company was privatized, its reserves ($millions) were defaulted to the general fund and spent on revitalization projects (e.g., a stadium). Not cool.

Note: Podesto was term-limited out of office. When he ran in the most expensive state senate campaign in history, his "home" county voted against him. Bad move.

The privatization was reversed in 2007. I'd like to know how citizens in the area perceived service under each regime -- with the caveat that Thames/OMI may not have invested much if it feared getting kicked out -- as it was four years into a 20-year contract. Any data out there?

Next, the movie shifts to Rajasthan, where the ever-reasonable Rajindra Singh asserts the importance of local control of water. He reminded me of Charles Banda, the Malawian well-drilling hero.

Here are a few good quotations:
  • "Water as a human right means free to everyone. That's a fantasy" -- John Briscoe of the World Bank
  • "Who owns water rights? The government? No -- the community. The Bank and multinationals are a new form of colonialism" -- Singh of Rajasthan
  • "They say that everything should be commodified and put on an open market. It's human rights versus corporate rights." -- Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians.
  • "Activists are unhappy about the results, so they blame the procedures." -- Briscoe of the Bank
These last two statements deserve some comment. First, Barlow is spewing distorted hyperbole (again). Second, activists do not CARE if the result reflects politician's choice, corruption, or the will of the People. If the result is not THEIR result, then it's wrong. Such "holier-than-thou" rhetoric is annoying.

Bottom Line: See Thirst (not FLOW), vote in this week's poll, and then read Water for Sale (see next post).


DW said...

A little history. Back when the powers that were in LA wanted voters to pass a bond issue to build the first LA aquaduct from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley, they sponsored a short film titled "Thirst" which played on LA area movie theater screens right after the newsreels. It featured the mayor and LADWP manager Muhulland warning that without the additional water the aquaduct would import, LA would dry up and blow away.

Damian said...

I read the Cochabamba chapter and am very impressed with their detail and explanation of it. I had never invested the time to really understand what happened there.

The government (and Bechtel ) behaved idiotically.

But I am disappointed that the protagonist (Olivera?) blames free markets in the end. He can blame a lot of things, but a corrupt government letting a single bidder write up a guaranteed profit contract to which they agree to (using other people's money--the designers had no stake in it) is not a free market. It is not something that would naturally emerge without government intervention (including the World Bank).

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