Thirsty & Drowning in America


Synopsis/contenu du film

This film, narrated by producer Adrian Parr, describes the reality of North American indigenous people and their difficult living conditions in the face of climate change and the current political context, through three case studies. The film focuses on the indigenous tribes' perspective on water and the environment and the threats they face. To begin, the cultural, historical, and subsistence importance of water to indigenous people is illustrated through testimonies of native american individuals and other sources of information. The film first introduces to the situation of the 567 indigenous tribes that are losing their land and access to clean water due to climate change (sea level rise) and policy choices related to resource development, before describing three specific cases. The first case describes the situation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the construction of the oil pipeline that threatens the safety of their only source of drinking water. This pipeline project is considered a violation of historic treaties, human rights and a breach of trust in government. The project endangers traditional sacred sites and burial grounds that will be affected by the construction of the pipeline. This case illustrates a common situation across the United States where many tribes have water sources contaminated with chemical pollutants, uranium and other elements, due to resource exploitation. The second case describes the situation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe living on Isle Jean Charles in the southeastern United States (Louisiana). Due to rising sea levels and more frequent hurricanes, the traditional lands of this tribe are disappearing. For safety reasons, the government approved funding to relocate all the inhabitants, making these people the first climate refugees. However, three years after this decision, the tribe is still waiting for the funding and their new homes. The last case is about the Inupiat tribe in Alaska in the village Shishmaref. Climate change is causing ocean ice to melt, making it difficult for them to hunt traditionally and depriving them of the snow needed to preserve their traditional foods. Their traditional knowledge and skills are greatly affected. In addition, rising sea levels threaten their town and it has become necessary to move the population. The high cost -about $180M- is beyond the local means.

Critical analysis

The film is undertaken by the UNESCO Chair for Water and Human Settlements, which supports a company called Intimate Realities of Water Project. The documentary is made by this company, which is managed by the producer, who is also the UNESCO Chair, Adrian Parr. Another major partner is the University of Cincinnati, because the director of the film is a professor at that institution. There is also a partnership with Honour The Earth, an indigenous support group, and Earth Justice. It is not clear how much of the funding comes from each of these entities. The statement that the opinions in this film do not represent the opinions of UNESCO suggests that Adrian Parr’s company provided the bulk of the financial support.

The only point of view presented in the film is that of Native American tribes in North America. It is the story of the climatic and political challenges they face that impact their well-being and their lives. The film highlights a difficult standard of living among Native Americans by showing statistics of high cancer rates in tribes located near uranium mines, and youth suicide rates in Lakota tribes that are 150% higher compared to the rest of the United States. All the testimonies come from individuals who are members of these tribes or who support them as attorneys or activists. The film presents the American government and society in a negative way, and also uses strong phrases such as "the most silent genocide" and "new weapons are infecting the bodies of Native Americans", to amplify the point. A less biased approach would have added more voices from the government side or even from the private mining companies related to these conflicts of water and environmental contamination of indigenous territories. Only one side of the story is presented, and the sources of information cited in the documentary come mainly from indigenous institutions. For example: "Indian Country Today", "National Congress of American Indians", "Indian Health Services", "Honour the Earth".

Most of the arguments that are related to climate change are easily verifiable in the IPCC reports. Sea level rise is a big problem for all coastal cities and the small villages presented in the film are also at great risk. The International Organization of Migration and the IPCC  (IPCC 2022, Pörtner et al.,) confirms this information. In addition, the case of drinking water contamination by natural resource exploitation activities is widespread. Sources such as the  US Geological Survey, 2021;  Morales, 2019; US EPA, 2014 et Bandala et al., 2022 agree with the difficult situation of access to drinking water for indigenous populations, and especially describe a major common problem of contamination of indigenous water sources by uranium mines and other pollutants. The fact that indigenous people are experiencing contamination problems seems to be accepted throughout the United States, as even the most conservative and skeptical news sources like NewsMax are talking about this contamination problem  (Newmax, 2022). Laboratory tests confirmed that 40% of the domestic wells of the Crow tribe in Montana are polluted and undrinkable due to contamination from uranium and other chemicals (Martin et al., 2021). In Nevada it has been observed that from 1990 to 2019 there has been an increase in the indigenous population without adequate sanitation as well as an increase in drinking water quality violations  (Bandala et al., 2022). In addition to the three cases in the film, it is clear that the situation is serious across North America. In the media, there are examples of pipeline breaks and oil spills on Aboriginal lands. In Canada, in 2017 and 2020, pipeline breaks have damaged the native lands of the Ocean Man tribe in Saskatchewan and the Sumas tribe in British Columbia  (Blog, 2020 ; Ethan Lou, 2017). In the United States, a break in 2021 severely impacted the Crow lands in Montana   (Associated Press, 2021).

The aesthetics of the film are well thought out. The director gives a lot of space to traditional indigenous music and nature sounds, which adds a sentimental and emotional element. The narration is clear, and information appears on the screen to give more context and information about the subject matter. The images are well chosen, to illustrate the events, the beautiful nature and environment, and the consequences on water, environment and people from climate change and exploitation of natural resources.

(with contributions from Jakub Tropor)



Associated Press. 2021. Pipeline breach spills crude oil on Crow Reservation. AP NEWS. 26/05/2021. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 26 mars 2023).

Bandala E.R., McCarthy M.I., et Brune N. 2022. Water security in native American communities of Nevada. Environmental Science & Policy, 136, p. 520‑529. DOI : 10.1016/j.envsci.2022.07.009

Blog O.B.E.N. 2020. How A Crude Oil Spill is Damaging Vulnerable Indigenous Land. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 26 mars 2023).

Ethan Lou. 2017. Canada oil pipeline spills 200,000 liters on aboriginal land. Reuters. 2017. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 26 mars 2023).

Martin C., Simonds V.W., Young S.L., Doyle J., Lefthand M., et Eggers M.J. 2021. Our Relationship to Water and Experience of Water Insecurity among Apsáalooke (Crow Indian) People, Montana. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(2), p. 582. DOI : 10.3390/ijerph18020582

Morales L. 2019. Many Native Americans Can’t Get Clean Water, Report Finds. NPR. 18/11/2019. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 5 mars 2023).

Newmax. 2022. Study Finds Uranium Contamination in Drinking Water Supplies Around the US. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 5 mars 2023).

Pörtner H.-O., Roberts D.C., Tignor M., Poloczanska E.S., Mintenbeck K., Alegría A., Craig M., Langsdorf S., Löschke S., Möller V., Okem A., et Rama B. 2022. IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR 6). Cambridge University Press, 3056 p.

US EPA O. 2014. Safe Drinking Water on Tribal Lands. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 5 mars 2023).

US Geological Survey. 2021. Investigations of Sources of Contaminants of Concern in the San Juan River | U.S. Geological Survey. Disponible sur : (Consulté le 5 mars 2023).



Additional Info

  • Director: Sean Hughes
  • Producer: Adrian Parr
  • Language: English
  • Year: 2020
  • Duration (min): 49
  • Theme: Water supply, Domestic water, Environmental degradation, Climate change, Water quality, pollution, Coastal areas, Water and health, Water and community
  • Access: Free
  • Country: USA
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 3.5
  • Academic quality: 3
  • Social interest: 4