Flow: For Love of Water [subtitled in part]


Flow: For Love of Water is a solid documentary on a very important subject.

One quick note before I go on: The version I saw was about an hour and 21 minutes long. On IMDB I see it as having a running time of 1:33, and I’ve seen elements of the film mentioned in reviews that I don’t remember seeing in what I watched. So it’s entirely possible I didn’t see quite the full version of this film.

Flow is about the worldwide water situation, which is a crisis that gets less attention than it should. Many people, maybe as many as a billion, already lack consistent, reasonable access to clean, safe water—in part due, as usual, to human greed and stupidity—and that number is far more likely to increase than decrease in the future.

We worry about a scarcity of oil, and of the wars this might lead to, but Flow argues that we should have as much or more concern about water.

Among the things I appreciated about Flow is the simple reminder of how important water is. You wouldn’t die quite as fast without it as without air, but you wouldn’t last a whole lot longer.

Yes, that’s obvious, but how often do we think about it? It’s easy to get complacent when you live your whole life with water as accessible as simply turning a tap. At some unconscious level you assume there will always be water the same way you assume the sun will always come up. But it could easily become a lot more precarious than that in the future (and is already a lot more precarious than that for many people in many countries today).

Speaking of tap water, Flow notes that while it’s a lot better than what folks in the Third World are typically dealing with, it’s far from totally safe and healthy. It makes a substantial number of people sick each year.

The imperfections of tap water are already reasonably well known, hence the popularity of bottled water. But bottled water is not in fact a solution to tap water’s problems; if anything it’s closer to a scam.

For one thing, bottled water is almost entirely unregulated. Certainly it’s much less regulated than tap water. One of the interviewees in Flow remarks that a grand total of less than one person in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for monitoring all the bottled water in the country (i.e., there’s only one person assigned to the task, and it’s only part of that person’s job).

Bottled water can come from pretty much anywhere and contain pretty much anything. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) ran a series of tests on numerous bottled waters and found that they scored about the same on average as tap water—some better, some worse.

Indeed, bottled water not uncommonly is tap water. It’s so unregulated an industry that it’s easy for an unscrupulous company to simply fill bottles with tap water and sell them.

That’s another problem: the price. Granted, you have to pay a utility bill for your tap water, but bottled water obviously is considerably more expensive. So even if you find a type that is of higher quality than tap water, for poorer people especially it can be a hardship to switch.

Furthermore, people assume that what we’re most concerned with is drinking water, but as another of the interviewees in Flow points out, in areas where the tap water is unhealthy, you are harmed as much or more by, say, showering with it as by drinking it. And I doubt many people are going to go to the trouble and expense of rigging some kind of contraption to enable them to shower with bottled water.

Bottled water companies can also do considerable damage to the environment. One of the more interesting segments of the film is about a Nestlé bottled water facility in Michigan.

Being the usual amoral multinational mega-corporation, Nestlé bought some cheap land upstate, spread enough spare change around to get the local officials on their side and secure themselves millions of dollars in tax breaks, and commenced pumping water out of the ground at such prodigious rates that the water level of all the surrounding bodies of water dropped to where, for instance, streams on neighbors’ lands became mudflats.

Eventually enough local people were sufficiently outraged to organize and protest. As of the time the movie was completed, they’d been fighting in the courts for years, with Nestlé winning more often than losing but the final outcome still uncertain.

So why is there a water crisis, and why does it have the potential to become far worse than it already is?

Part of the problem is just population growth. There are billions of people on the planet, and they all need water.

But Flow contends that exacerbating the problem is the fact that water is increasingly being treated as a commodity, to be owned by multinational corporations whose interests are served not by solving water scarcity problems but by profiting from them. In South American countries, in India, and around the world, the result is hundreds of millions of poor people lacking clean water because they can’t afford what the privatizers are charging.

My guess is that privatization of water does indeed do more harm than good overall, but I can’t say that Flow really makes that case beyond anecdotes and appeals to emotion.

I mean, the film is probably right, but why is privatization a bad thing? Flow notes that water is a substance essential to life, and that there is something morally or philosophically dubious about “owning” water in the first place, like owning the air or the sunlight.

True, but where do you draw the capitalist line? If water should not be a commodity to be bought and sold by private entities, then what about food? Health care?

Defenders of capitalism would say that treating something as a commodity and trading it on a free market is actually the most efficient way of dealing with it, and so if clean water under capitalism is imperfectly distributed to where vast numbers of people don’t have sufficient access to it, then under any other system there would be even more of a crisis, even more people lacking water.

Again, I doubt that, but what would be the case against that contention? Is there something special about water that makes it different from other things that can be beneficially commodified, or does the critique of privatization of water stem from a more thoroughgoing critique of capitalism across the board?

What about the option of privatizing water but then having assistance programs in place to ensure everyone can afford it? With food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, etc., food and health care remain all or mostly privatized. The government programs assist people to pay for them, but the government has not nationalized these industries and does not distribute these essentials to people directly itself.

But is that a mistake, a mistake we should not repeat with water?

Flow is mostly a depressing take on its subject. It attempts to rouse people to action, but it does so by painting an extremely bleak picture. The situation is very bad, and the entities that benefit from our not changing that situation for the better are extremely powerful.

The movie does provide some hope here and there. It highlights the people who are fighting the good fight against the forces of water privatization, suggesting that the efforts are not certain to be futile. It trumpets the potential of small scale, local solutions to clean water scarcity, such as ultraviolet water purifiers.

But on the whole it’s still quite a downer. Not that that makes it a bad documentary, in fact I’d say it’s a valuable and important documentary that more people should see and act on.


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