The documentary movie FLOW (“For Love of Water”) has finally come to Michigan after showing in some other select locations around the country for the past few months. I was very excited to see the film, not just because of its subject matter, but also because of the numerous awards and prizes it has received. While the film presents some important issues, I found that it contains several factual errors and is generally off-target in placing the blame for national and global water quality problems on water bottlers and private water distribution systems.
First the good – the film should bring much needed attention to the terrible fact that over one billion people worldwide lack access to clean, safe drinking water. My favorite parts of the movie are its stories of socially conscious scientists and engineers that are developing small-scale solutions to water treatment to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. These new small-scale technologies will do far more to bring clean, safe drinking water to the developing world at far less cost (environmentally and economically) than big projects such as dams and new reservoirs.
The film also does a great job of bringing attention to the problem of Atrazine in our groundwater. Atrazine is an herbicide used widely in agriculture in the United States, especially for corn production in the Midwest. It’s also horribly dangerous and has been banned in Europe. FLOW highlights the work of Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a University of California, Berkeley professor, who has shown how dangerous Atrazine can be to sexual development and reproductive health in animals. Scary stuff, and even scarier that 7.2 million Americans in 21 states drank tap water contaminated with Atrazine at levels above health-based limits between 1998 and 2003.
However, the film’s brief focus on Atrazine and other agricultural pesticides in our drinking water highlights its major shortcoming. For reasons that seem to come more from an ideological agenda than from facts or logic, FLOW explicitly and implicitly tries to blame water quality problems on water bottlers and the companies that operate water distribution systems. In this way, the film does a disservice to solving the pollution problems facing our water. The film goes from highlighting the real problem of unsafe drinking water (from pesticides in the U.S. and untreated sewage in developing countries), to portraying Nestlé and other water companies as somehow to blame because they profit from supplying clean drinking water. It’s a classic misdirection technique, and I would expect it to come from pesticide manufacturers or the industrial farm lobby, who must be thrilled that the movie implies that bottled water (and water privatization) is the big threat, not their chemicals in our tap water.
Water privatization certainly can be a problem, especially if it prevents citizens and governments from protecting the health and quality of their water. But water bottling and water privatization do not pollute our water with herbicides that turn boy frogs into girl frogs. Chemical agriculture does. Water bottling and water privatization do not contaminate our water with mercury that shows up in the blood of mothers and their unborn babies. Burning coal does. We can continue to have ideological debates over “who owns the water,” but there is no debate over who is polluting the water and making it dangerous to drink.
What disappointments me most about the movie FLOW is that it feeds the ideological opposition to water bottling and water privatization at the expense of focusing attention on the real threats to our water. For example, as just reported by John Flesher of the Associated Press (see Chicago Tribune story), some environmental activists in Michigan are considering a ballot initiative to affirm public ownership of water and restrict water bottling, using the release of the movie to build attention for the cause. But this response does nothing to solve the problems of unsafe drinking water and chemical pollution of our lakes and rivers highlighted in the movie.
All that said, I still suggest going to see FLOW when it comes to your local theater. It’s better than most commercial movies playing this time of year, and we need to support independent film making. Nestlé has also produced and made available online a brief video response to the movie. I’m no fan of Nestlé’s bottled water, but agreed to be interviewed for the video (and made my personal dislike of bottled water clear right at the beginning). It’s a fair piece and worth viewing.