Thirst: When our water disappears (3): Who owns water?



"Soif, quand l'eau vient à manquer" est une série de trois documentaires réalisée par DW et SWR, comprenant : 'La lutte pour l'eau' (1), 'Que se passe-t-il lorsque l'eau est insuffisante ?' (2) et 'A qui appartient l'eau ?' (3).

Just like the first two episodes of the series this documentary adopts a dramatizing and agonizing tone to depict some of the consequences of the global water crisis. The introduction starts from the recognition that "in many regions of the world water has run out" and identifies an overarching conflict : "the economy vs humanity vs nature".

"Water will be the new gold" and the documentary sets out to examine who owns water, or is given the right to use it. It starts with the request of Tesla to use groundwater for it plant, near Berlin. We then hear of the abstraction of groundwater by Coca Cola in Lüneburg, and the resistance that is slowly building up against it; and then of San Cristobal in southern Mexico where Coca cola is also overexploiting local groundwater resources.

The film then moves to the US and questions the allocation of water rights to a micro-chip industry in Phoenix, and to the Irrigation Imperial District, which receives 75% of California's water right to Colorado's waters. Water rights in California are attached to land and allow some investors to speculate with water. At the Global Institute for Water Security, in Saskatoon, Jay Famiglietti comments on the situation of Saskatchewan before we are taken to Punjab in India, where massive depletion of groundwater is occurring. Enough for Jay Famiglietti to end up with a doomsday prediction about the future.

Critical analysis

Like the other two parts of these series, the scrip is loosely structured and one jump from one case to the other with limited transition or progress with regard to the core issue announced by the title: "who owns water". The groundwater and the US cases address the issue but the documentary then strays into commenting the situation in Saskatchewan and Punjab, with no clear link to the first half of the film.

The American water rights situation should have been more discussed. In particular it is not explicitly explained how/why the sacrosanctity of prior appropriation or land-based water rights impedes the government to curtail those rights in order to put them in line with the availability of the resource. As a result, this message is lost when we reach the end of the film, as we are told that "the only choice we have is to adapt to the amount of water that we have available", and the viewer might ask how what it would take to adapt.

Another weakness of the film is that the situation is largely blamed on climate change: "We've always known water to be plentiful but this is changing now because of the climate crisis". This serves to depoliticize a message which could have otherwise been much more straightforward: what exactly are those 'rights' or the modes of allocation that allow Coca Cola, Tesla, the Central Valley's farmers or the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to protect their 'right' in the middle of such crisis? And IID to irrigate alfalfa half of which is to be shipped to China?! We learn in passing that Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico but also former CEO of Coca Cola-Mexico, granted "exclusive rights" to his former company. By failing to comment on the politics of water allocation and overemphasizing the impact of climate change, the film misses the point which its title pointed to.

It remains that the film has good quality images and allows us to gather, however superficially, interesting information on the crisis in Punjab, the irrigation of alfalfa in IID or the speculation in water in California. This film is the last part of a series of three. There is some overlap in terms of places and commentator (the groundwater situation in Germany, The Salton Sea, the doomsday prophecies of Jay Famiglietti…) with the first two parts. This sometime creates a feeling of déjà vu which is also due to the fact that the focus points of the three parts are not readily distinguishable. The key message that traverses the three, however, is given by Jay: "If we don't adapt, you know, it's like the apocalypse"…


This is a three-part documentary series:

Part 1: The fight for water -

Spanish version:

Part 2: What happens when our water dries up? -

Part 3: Who owns water? - Series playlist:

Additional Info

  • Director: -
  • Producer: Diwafilm GMBH, for DW
  • Language: English, Spanish
  • Year: 2022
  • Duration (min): 42
  • Theme: Water scarcity, Environmental degradation, Irrigation & agricultural water management, Climate change, Drought, Water governance, Sustainability, Water allocation, Water politics
  • Access: Free
  • Country: USA, Mexico, Germany, India, Canada
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 4
  • Academic quality: 3.5
  • Social interest: 4