Altiplano, Bolivia: a story of hardship lived by poor families which have been cut off from water access (right in front of their house) after the privatisation of local water resources by a big multinational water corporation. Rajasthan, India: the fate of local subsistence farmers who are witnessing the drying up of their wells after the Coca Cola corporation set up their industry in the vicinity and are extracting water relentlessly from local aquifers. Detroit, US: families fighting for their right for water after failure to pay manifests itself in a complete denial of access.
What these stories have in common is that they zoom in on how privatisation and water pricing has influenced water governance around the world and who the winners and losers are from this development. 'A world without water' gives a voice to those who are often overlooked and documents the deprivation of the economically weak from their fundamental human right to water. It successfully links private fates with broader trends in water governance, neoliberalisation pressures and rising water conflicts. Different commentaries by water experts, environmental activists, politicians, as well as by the multinational corporations in question are skillfully blended to provide a more comprehensive picture of the issue at stake. The key narrative of this documentary is clear: it is a warning against the risks of the well-propagated commodification of water approach that plays into the hands of multinational corporations. Water access is an increasingly pressing issue, with climate change and population growth putting further pressures on freshwater resources, but is pricing water the right solution to this growing problem?
The main issue addressed in this documentary is the commodification of water and how privatisation and water pricing has influenced water governance around the world, creating winners and losers. The alleged reasons for commodifying water are plenty: greater investment, more efficiency and better management (Bonnardeaux, 2009). Yet, a key statement made in the documentary is that privatisation will ultimately not work for people because of its profit-making dynamics: when profit-making is regarded as the most important, people who can’t pay for water will not get water and this, in turn, can lead to social unrest. Indeed, according to Nickson and Vargas (2001), the poorest sectors of the population are in general the most deprived of water services. This is also backed by Checchi et al. (2009) who agree that "disagreement with privatisation is most likely when the respondent is on a low-to-middle income and when it involves a high proportion of public services, such as water".
Worldwide, the greatest water problems occur in places where the government is too weak to either provide adequate services or to regulate private companies (Wolff, 2014). The Bolivian case addressed in the documentary highlighted what can go wrong in badly implemented privatisation. It is shown that local authorities encourage citizens in need to connect illegally to the (privatised) piped network. A resolution on civil disobedience helped those who were unconnected to piped water getting connected, as social discontent was so great that it was virtually certain that the multinational (Aguas Illimani) would leave. After the multinational left, the connections would be legalised. It is an example of how local authorities or civil society increasingly organise to help people in need and their interests. "These are important lessons for organisations seeking to increase their involvement in integrated water resources management across the world, and agencies seeking to improve participation and representation" (Bustamante, 2004). Moreover, Bustamante points out that "conflict could have potentially been avoided if the privatisation process had involved strong participation, dialogue and agreement between all the parties involved". She notes that social participation, public access to information, and transparency are fundamental and that the exclusion of the population from the decision-making process creates a basis for the emergence of problems and conflicts.
The documentary contributes to spreading a misconception related to 'water wars'. The probabilities for tensions increase when more actors are involved, when there are conflicting interests or when the rate of change within the basin exceeds the institutional capacity to absorb that change (Wolf, 2007). The documentary claims that there are wars already taking place over water. It is true that a wide range of conflict appear throughout history, however, according to the definitions of war, traditional wars waged over water resources alone are extremely rare (Gleick, 1993).
What makes the documentary stand out is its masterful narrative that links all pressing global water trends together: through the careful selection of a wide array of interviewees, the painful struggle of marginalised communities is vibrantly documented and gives a more humane face to the rather elusive concept of commodification and privatisation. Its interlude to link to neoliberalism is artfully positioned, using a more comic-style approach, to explain the historical underpinnings of current events. It challenges the validity of neoliberalism as "an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs" (Harvey, 2007).
An overall impressive documentary that makes the viewer question what the real price of water is.
Nickson and Vargas (2001). The Limitations of Water Regulation: The Failure of the Cochabamba Concession in Bolivia.
Bonnardeaux (2009). The Cochabamba “Water War”: An Anti-Privatisation Poster Child? Retrieved from: https://www.fcpp.org/pdf/09-03-23-Cochabamba.pdf
Daniele Checchi, Massimo Florio, Jorge Carrera (2009). Privatisation Discontent and Utility Reform in Latin America. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220380802264937
Bustamante, R. (2004). The water war: resistance against privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rocio_Bustamante2/publication/285719280_The_water_war_resistance_against_privatiza tion_of_water_in_Cochabamba_Bolivia/links/5acf7dc6a6fdcc87841032df/The-water-war-resistance-against-privatization-of- water-in-Cochabamba-Bolivia.pdf
Wolff (2004). Public or Private Water Management? Cutting the Gordian Knot. Retrieved from:
Harvey (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism.
Gleick (1993). Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security. Retrieved from: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/447074/pdf
Wolf (2007). Shared Waters: Conflict and Cooperation. Retrieved from: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.32.041006.101434?casa_token=elJQpOM0HBgAAAAA:SAa kU8yTqqLwpYBJhAsRF1huBCcnsoAV9Y8cQpM1MRbvuVl2DznKr_fgSqAiExTGqHzw4lY3rLoi
Contributions from Anna Saito and Wessel van Oyen