Flow: for love of water



 a word without water

Version with Greek subtitles: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkdIIfArWqo

[French version below]

Synopsis/content of the film

The film opens with a quotation from W.H Auden saying "Thousands of people have lived without love, not one has lived without water" in order to immediately immerse the viewer in the topic. Water is indeed a global issue too often considered as a problem reserved for developing countries. Flow shatters this idea by exposing the problems encountered in the United States because of rocket fuel, pesticides or certain pharmaceutical products found in drinking water. This is followed immediately by India, where a physicist explains that the "green revolution" and the use of chemicals has led to the need to use 5-10 times more water than before (to produce the chemicals used in the process). We then fly over the Earth, scrolling over different countries: increase in cancer, decrease in fertility, high concentrations of prozac in fish... The picture is set: the problem is global.

We then navigate between different continents, alternating between America, Asia and Africa, following various causes of the water crisis: from cultural differences to the impact of dams, from privatisation to sanitation problems, or even the simple fact of not having access to clean water due to economic or political factors. "Flow: for love of water" sets the pace through testimonies and interviews with actors in the race for water, be they big business owners, activists or villagers.

In the face of these challenges, some of the speakers explain the challenges faced by their populations, the diseases, how certain companies have taken control of water through its management and exploitation; others present us with existing yet under-exploited solutions. We have the impression of an infernal spiral, of a rigged game where the powerful rule. The only solution is to enshrine the right to water in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Critical analysis

Flow: for love of water was born out of Irena Salina's desire to make the global water crisis visible to the general public. To do this, she draws on the testimony of various actors who are fighting and sounding the alarm on the major global issues related to water. Without making an exhaustive list of the different actors speaking out and taking a position in the documentary, it is however useful to present three personalities who bring expertise to these issues. Maud Barlow, a well-known activist and author, member of the Council of Canada, nicknamed the "Water Warrior", speaks many times throughout the documentary in order to share her experience in the field. Jean-Luc Touly, a former accountant at Veolia, now an association activist and a labour court judge specialising in corruption and lobbies, brings us an expert's viewpoint, particularly on the subjects of governance and the commodification of water. Finally, Eric D. Olson, a qualified lawyer specialising in environmental issues, working for the Natural Resources Defense Council since 2013, enriches the documentary with facts drawn from his professional experience.

The documentary also refers a lot to the citizen experience and gives voice to the people of the world about their experiences and the difficulties encountered in acquiring water of sufficient quality and quantity for human health.

"Flow: for the love of water" has two ambitions: to alert and to attack. It alerts on the global, complex and plural problem of water resources in order to make it visible and known to the general public. The documentary stresses the geographical and multifactorial scope of these problems. Similarly, it points out and criticizes certain disputed actors. Inevitably, the documentary cites the major private water companies, such as Suez, Vivendi (Veolia) or Thames, which are involved in the privatisation of services, posing problems of access to the resource. We also find the big multinational bottling companies or polluting industries such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola or Pepsi. The documentary goes further by denouncing the global governance of water and the international organisations associated with it. The World Water Council, created in 1997, brings together the world's major water players. It includes the major companies mentioned above, but also the IMF, the World Bank and several development actors. A simple internet search confirms that the president of the World Water Council, Mr. Loïc Fauchon, is also CEO of the Société des Eaux de Marseille, half owned respectively by Suez and Veolia. Maud Barlow adds that the World Water Council "is a club that has understood before everyone else that water is the most precious resource in the world: blue gold [...] But it is above all a question of power, like oil; which sector of society, which country, which government, which corporation are going to control the blue gold".

The facts mentioned are shocking and questionable since the actors testifying are not scientists. However, documentary research on the various subjects and problems dealt with in the film largely confirms the statements made and the problems raised.

Although this documentary is relatively old (12 years), given the speed at which things are changing, it is by no means obsolete. The issues are still topical and the film is still worth seeing today. Nevertheless, two changes can be highlighted. In recent years, a movement to remunicipalize water and sanitation services has been spreading around the world, showing the inadequacy of a profitable private system with the social rights of access to water. In addition, the general public is becoming more aware of major environmental issues, particularly those related to water, thanks to a growing awareness of these challenges.

Some debatable aspects must nevertheless be mentioned. Firstly, the documentary sweeps over very broad problems over a period of time that is not particularly precise, and on a very global scale. This very ambitious choice requires a clear organization of the discourse in order to be relevant. Here, the organisation of the different themes and aspects addressed is lacking. The lack of structure gives the spectators the impression of a constant flow of negative information which is more difficult to manage and retain.

Secondly, the assumed advocacy dimension of the documentary can lead viewers to question the point of view and the statements of the participating actors. Giving the floor to scientists on the issue (hydrologist, hydrogeologist, chemist, microbiologist, geopolitician...) would have perhaps given the documentary more credibility, although, as mentioned above, the statements made in the documentary are objectively verifiable.

Finally, the documentary remains relatively negative and provides very few solutions, which can be quite discouraging. The solutions envisaged are described succinctly in the closing credits, which is surprising and disturbing. However, it proposes a citizens' initiative as a conclusion to the evils of humanity linked to water: to enshrine in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the right to water, a fundamental right for respect and human dignity. This battle bore fruit in 2010, since on 28 July, the United Nations General Assembly effectively enshrined the right to water and sanitation as fundamental rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite this, the latest WHO report for 2017 indicates that 2 billion people on Earth still do not have access to a source of drinking water, a quarter of humanity does not have access to basic sanitation, and 673 million people still practise open defecation.

This documentary has received several awards (Grand Jury Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the United Nations Film Festival) as well as several nominations, praising its outreach and seriousness. It remains, however, a mainstream film, whose scientific contribution is not convincing, and which aims at sensitizing the public through emotions and, at times, dramatisation.



Synopsis/contenu du film

Le film s’ouvre sur une citation de W.H Auden disant “Des milliers de gens ont vécu sans amour, pas un n’a vécu sans eau” afin de mettre le spectateur d’emblée en immersion. L’eau est en effet un enjeu mondial trop souvent considéré comme étant un problème réservé aux pays en développement. Flow vient casser cette idée en nous exposant brièvement les problèmes rencontrés aux États-Unis à cause des combustibles pour fusées, des pesticides ou de certains produits pharmaceutiques, retrouvés dans l’eau potable. Enchaînant tout de suite avec l’Inde, où une physicienne nous explique que la “révolution verte” et l’usage de produits chimiques ont conduit à devoir utiliser 5 à 10 fois plus d’eau qu’auparavant (pour produire les produits chimiques utilisés dans le processus). On survole ensuite la Terre où les annotations défilent au-dessus de différents pays: augmentation des cancers, baisse de fertilité, concentrations de prozac élevées dans les poissons… Le tableau est posé : le problème est mondial.

On navigue ensuite entre différents continents, alternant entre l'Amérique, l’Asie et l'Afrique le tout en suivant diverses causes de la crise de l’eau : des différences culturelles à l’impact des barrages, de la privatisation aux problèmes d’assainissement, ou encore du simple fait de ne pas avoir accès à de l’eau propre en raison de facteurs économiques ou politiques. “Flow : for the love of water” donne le rythme grâce à des témoignages et interviews d’acteurs dans cette course pour l’eau, que ce soit des patrons de grandes entreprises, des militants ou encore des villageois.

Face à ces défis, certains intervenants nous expliquent les défis auxquels font face leurs populations, les maladies, comment certaines entreprises ont pris le contrôle de l’eau à travers sa gestion et son exploitation; d’autres nous présentent des solutions existantes pourtant sous-exploitées. On a alors l’impression d’une spirale infernale, d’un jeu truqué où les grands font la loi entre pairs. La seule solution : inscrire le droit à l’eau dans la déclaration universelle des droits de l’Homme.

Analyse critique

Flow : for love of water est né de la volonté d’Irena Salina de rendre visible auprès du grand public la crise mondiale de l’eau. Pour cela, elle s'appuie sur le témoignage de divers acteurs qui luttent et lancent l’alerte sur les grandes problématiques mondiales liées à l’eau. Sans faire une liste exhaustive des différents acteurs prenant la parole et prenant position dans le documentaire, il est cependant utile de présenter trois personnalités qui apportent une expertise à ces questions. Maud Barlow, activiste et auteure reconnue, membre du Conseil du Canada, surnommée la « Guerrière de l’eau », prend de nombreuses fois la parole tout au long du documentaire afin de partager son expérience de terrain. Jean-Luc Touly, ancien comptable chez Veolia, reconverti en militant associatif et juge prud’homal spécialisé dans la corruption et les lobbys, nous apporte un regard d’expert, notamment sur les sujets de gouvernance et de marchandisation de l’eau. Enfin, Eric D. Olson, avocat diplômé, spécialisé dans les problèmes environnementaux, travaillant pour le Natural Resources Defense Council depuis 2013, enrichit le documentaire par des faits tirés de son expérience professionnelle.

Le documentaire se réfère également beaucoup à l’expérience citoyenne et donne la parole à la population du monde sur leurs expériences et les difficultés rencontrées dans l’acquisition d’une eau de qualité et en quantité suffisante pour la santé humaine.

Flow: for love of water” a deux ambitions : alerter et attaquer. Il alerte sur le problème global, complexe, et pluriel, des ressource en eau, afin de le rendre visible et connu du grand public. Le documentaire insiste sur l’étendue géographique et multifactorielle de ces problèmes. De même, il pointe du doigt et critique certains acteurs contestés. Inévitablement, le documentaire cite les grandes compagnies d’eau privées, telles que Suez, Vivendi (Veolia) ou encore Thames qui participent à la privatisation des services, posant des problèmes d’accès à la ressource. Nous retrouvons également les grandes multinationales d’embouteillage ou industries polluantes comme Nestlé, Coca-Cola ou encore Pepsi. Le documentaire va plus loin en dénonçant la gouvernance mondiale de l’eau et les organisations internationales qui y sont associées. Le Conseil mondial de l’eau, créé en 1997, réunit les grands acteurs de l’eau dans le monde. On y retrouve les grandes compagnies citées plus haut, mais aussi le FMI, la Banque Mondiale et plusieurs acteurs du développement. Une simple recherche internet confirme que le président du Conseil mondial de l’Eau, Monsieur Loïc Fauchon, est également PDG de la société des Eaux de Marseille, détenue de moitié respectivement par Suez et Veolia. Maud Barlow, ajoute que le Conseil Mondiale de l’Eau  « est un club qui a compris avant tout le monde que l’eau est la ressource la plus précieuse au monde : l’or bleu […] Mais c’est surtout une question de pouvoir, comme le pétrole; quel secteur de la société, quel pays, quel gouvernement, quelle corporation vont contrôler l’or bleu ? ».

Les faits évoqués sont choquants et questionnables puisque les acteurs témoignant ne sont pas des scientifiques. Cependant, des recherches documentaires sur les différents sujets et problèmes traités dans le film confirment les propos avancés et les problèmes énoncés.

Bien que ce documentaire soit relativement ancien (12 ans), au vu de la vitesse à laquelle les choses évoluent, il n’est en rien obsolète. Les problématiques sont toujours d’actualité et le film gagne à être vu aujourd’hui encore. Néanmoins deux changements peuvent être soulignées. Depuis quelques années, un mouvement de renationalisation des services d’eau et d’assainissement s'étend un peu partout dans le monde, montrant l’inadéquation d’un système privé rentable avec les droits sociaux d’accès à l’eau exigible par l’humanité. Par ailleurs, le grand public a davantage conscience des grandes problématiques environnementales, notamment liées à l’eau, grâce à une sensibilisation de plus en plus forte sur ces enjeux.

Quelques aspects discutables doivent malgré tout être mentionnés. Premièrement, le documentaire balaie de très larges problèmes sur une période de temps qui n’est pas particulièrement précisée, et à une échelle très globale. Ce choix très ambitieux demande une organisation des propos clairs afin d’être pertinent. Ici, l’organisation des différents thèmes et aspects abordés n’est pas très visible. Le manque de structure donne aux spectateurs l’impression d’un flux constant d’informations négatives qui est plus difficile à gérer et retenir.

Deuxièmement, le militantisme assumé de ce documentaire peut amener les spectateurs à remettre en question le point de vue et les propos des acteurs participants. Donner la parole à des scientifiques sur la question (hydrologue, hydrogéologue, chimiste, microbiologiste, géopoliticien…) apporterait peut-être davantage de crédibilité au documentaire bien que, comme précisés plus haut, les propos tenus dans le documentaire sont vérifiables objectivement.

Enfin, le documentaire reste relativement négatif et n’apporte que très peu de solutions techniques, ce qui peut être assez décourageant. Les solutions envisagées sont décrites succinctement lors du générique de fin, ce qui est surprenant et troublant. Il propose cependant une initiative citoyenne comme conclusion aux maux de l’humanité liés à l’eau : inscrire dans la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’Homme le droit à l’eau, droit fondamental pour le respect et la dignité humaine. Cette bataille a porté ses fruits en 2010, puisque le 28 juillet, l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies a effectivement inscrit le droit à l’eau et à l’assainissement dans les droits fondamentaux de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’Homme. Malgré cela, le dernier rapport de l’OMS de 2017 indique que 2 milliards de personnes sur Terre n’ont toujours pas accès à une source d’eau potable, un quart de l’humanité n’a pas accès à un service d’assainissement de base, et c’est encore 673 millions de personnes qui pratiquent la défécation à l’air libre.

Ce documentaire a été honoré en recevant plusieurs prix (prix du grand jury au festival international de film de Mumbai, prix du grand jury pour le meilleur documentaire au festival du film des Nations unies) ainsi que plusieurs nominations, saluant son impact et son sérieux. Il reste cependant un film grand public, dont les apports scientifiques ne sont pas dominants, et qui vise à toucher le public par l’émotion et, parfois, la dramatisation.

(Contributions by Julien Elouard et Lucie Nogueira)


Références biblio pour aller plus loin sur le sujet

Spronk, S.J., Sing, E., The struggle for public water in Marseille, France. Water Alternatives 12(2): 380-393, 2019, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol12/v12issue3/532-a12-2-15/file

Emanuele Lobina, David Hall, Water privatisation and remunicipalisation : International Lessons for Jakarta, Public Services International Research unit (PSIRU), 2013, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur http://pop-umbrella.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/9966f971-e248-4d49-ae4f-23eadeab1bc5_2014-W-03-JAKARTA-NOVEMBER2013FINAL.pdf

Susan T. Glassmeyer, Edward T. Furlong, Dana W. Kolpin, Angela L. Batt, Robert Benson, J. Scott Boone, Octavia Conerly, Maura J. Donohue, Dawn N. King, Mitchell S. Kostich, Heath E. Mash, Stacy L. Pfaller, Kathleen M. Schenck, Jane Ellen Simmons, Eunice A. Varughese, Stephen J. Vesper, Eric N. Villegas, Vickie S. Wilson, Nationwide reconnaissance of contaminants of emerging concern in source and treated drinking waters of the United States, Science of The Total Environment, Volumes 581–582, 2017, Pages 909-922, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969716326894

Anonyme, Loïc Fauchon, Président of the World Water Council, sur World Water Council consulté le 17/11/2020 sur https://www.worldwatercouncil.org/en/president

Catarina de Albuquerque, L’accès à l’eau potable et à l’assainissement sont des droits humains fondamentaux, sur iD4D, animé par l’Agence Française de Développement, 2018, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur https://ideas4development.org/droit-eau-droit-humain-fondamental/

Anonyme, Biographie, Loïc Fauchon, sur iD4D, animé par l’Agence Française de Développement, 2018, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur https://ideas4development.org/auteur/loic-fauchon/

Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG baselines, © World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 2017, consulté le 17/11/2020 sur https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/258617/9789241512893-eng.pdf;jsessionid=DC264499953854133E85FC01860A37CF?sequence=1


Other review by

Cécile Reinkingh, Shineni de Haan, Hannah Koperdraat (Amsterdam Free University)

Scientific analysis

This review will analyze the 2008 documentary ​Flow–for the love of water ​directed by Irena Salina. Flow provides several examples of global water challenges. Unclear ownership appears to be the red thread in these, and this documentary therefore serves as a depiction of the Tragedy of the Commons debate in which the importance of water for human mankind is stressed and the unfairness of privatization of an essential common good.

While one might be under the impression that water related problems are strictly occurring in development countries, Flow starts off by falsifying this idea as it confronts the viewer with revealing numbers on the effects of chemicals in drinking water. The documentary particularly looks at man made chemicals, with special focus on the herbicide Atrazine. With this, Flow introduces the complexity of water management by addressing the question of ownership and who can be held responsible for the quality of water. In addition, the documentary emphasizes how contaminated water is easily transported worldwide through the hydrological system. Consequences thereof are confirmed by a ​recent study which states that water borne and water related diseases account for more than 3.4 million deaths each year (Boelee, Geerling, van der Zaan, Blauw & Vethaak, 2019).

After the urgence of water-borne diseases is established, the documentary moves on to the main topic: the privatization of water infrastructures. The movie explains how water infrastructures, especially in developing countries, were privatized and deregulated from the 1990’s onwards. The rationale behind privatization was based on two hypotheses: the fiscal hypothesis and the efficiency hypothesis. The fiscal hypothesis assumed that governments are not able to deliver services cost efficiently or that they are able to raise the financial means for investments. The efficiency hypothesis assumes that performance will improve under private ownership because it’s perceived to be more efficient that the public sector (Araral, 2009) Therefore, international water companies were welcomed because they could improve cost-efficiency and guarantee long term financial investments.

While promising expanded accessibility to water, a commonly observed problem in South America with water privatization is the connection fee, excluding the poor from the water grids (Hailu et al., 2012). So is shown in the case of Bolivia, where the World Bank has pushed for privatization of the water system: this leads to a more general critique on the World Bank and IMF who have more often forced contracting with multinational companies upon development countries, despite the negative social and environmental effects, ​resulting in social protest and even withdrawals of one of the multinational companies in Bolivia (Robbins, 2003; McDonald & Ruiters, 2005).

Afterwards, the documentary returns to the problem of ownership being addressed through the case of Nestlé, which has turned a common pool resource into a profitable commodity, neglecting environmental damage and economic consequences affecting the other users and dependants. This again emphasizes the complexity of shared resources and creates a rather ideological standpoint of the defenseless individual versus the big corporate.

Flow provides a rather one-sided image of the addressed problems due to their predominantly tragic case selection, a view that is often confirmed in literature. For example, in a recent study by Greiner (2020), he emphasizes the inadequacy of privatization especially in water resources and the adverse effect on equal access, corruption and accountability. More importantly, Greiner points out the projected growth in privatization of utility systems – up to 20% by 2025 – revealing Flow’s continuing external relevance (Greiner, 2020).

On a critical note, Flow creates a predominantly negative view of privatization as it links the assessed problems almost directly to corporatization and privatization of water resources. However, there do exist studies highlighting cases in which privatization has actually led to positive effects on water quality, service and health outcomes (Barrera-Osorio, 2009). Additionally, the documentary fails to fully explain neither the motivations of the World Bank behind privatization, nor the historical and social context in ‘victimized’ countries. As a result, a rather negative and unilateral portrayal of the World Bank and IMF is provided.


Intense music and dramatic close-up pictures of contaminated water sources contribute to the mission the director takes on in this documentary: addressing the urgency of water crises in the 21st century. Irena Salina frequently uses fragments of local communities rioting, protesting and face-en-face confrontations between citizens and corporate figures, establishing an image of the individual versus corporate greed, invigorating her expectations of future wars over water. Salina further frames this by choosing to interview several environmental activists such as Maude Barlow (Canadian author), Peter Gleick (American scientist), Ashok Gadgil (Indian professor environmental engineering), Rajendra Singh (Indian water conservatist) and Vandana Shiva (Indian scholar and anti-globalization author), who are all in agreement with her point of view. With the content of these interviews , combined with interviews of individuals and poor rural communities, Salina seems to directly incriminate global corporates.

Considering the Zeitgeist, this documentary has high relevance and tries to serve an earnest cause: creating more awareness of one of the biggest global problems we are dealing with today. While Salina does provide some solutions to the water problem in the final scenes of the documentary, these do not seem to directly address the case studies. Therefore, as a whole, this documentary triggered emotions of anger, disappointment and a sense of injustice. The life of the local people in the case studies, whose water access has been negatively affected due to privatization, is what one will remember after watching the documentary. Additionally, the documentary covers too many topics and the abundance of addressed problems is confusing, instills fear rather than and leaves the viewer with a new image of water as an incomprehensible and ubiquitous problem. By addressing fewer water related problems Saline could have gone into more depth and established a more thorough analysis.



Araral, E. (2009). The failure of water utilities privatization: Synthesis of evidence, analysis and implications. ​Policy And Society,​​27(​3), 221-228.

Bakker, K. (2013). Constructing ‘Public’ Water: The World Bank, Urban Water Supply, and the Biopolitics of Development. ​Environment And Planning D: Society And Space​, ​31​(2), 280-300.

Barrera-Osorio. (2009). Does Society Win or Lose as a Result of Privatization? The Case of Water Sector Privatization in Colombia. ​Economica​, 649-674.

Boelee, E., Geerling, G., van der Zaan, B., Blauw, A., & Vethaak, A. (2019). Water and health: From environmental pressures to integrated responses.​Acta Tropica​, ​193,​ 217-226.

Greiner, P. T. (2020). Community Water System Privatization and the Water Access Crisis . ​Sociology Compass,​ 1-13.

Hailu, D., & al., e. (2012). Privatization and Renationalization: What Went Wrong in Bolivia’s Water Sector? . ​World Development ,​ 2564-2577.

McDonald, D., & Ruiters, D. (2005). ​The Age of Commodity: Water Privatization in Southern Africa.​London: Earthscan Press.

Robbins, P. (2003). Transnational corporations and the discourse of water privatization. ​Journal Of International Development,​​15(​8), 1073-1082.

Additional Info

  • Director: Irena Salina
  • Producer: Steven Starr, Gill Holland
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: Portuguese, Greek
  • Year: 2008
  • Duration (min): 93
  • Theme: Domestic water, Water quality, pollution, Privatisation, Water governance, Water and health, Water and community
  • Access: Free
  • Country: Global, USA, Bolivia
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 4
  • Academic quality: 4
  • Social interest: 4.5