CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 19 . . . . May 11, 2007
Water – a finite commodity for which humans have seemingly infinite need. Currently, nearly one in four people struggle to access this most basic of needs. And whenever there is need, there is someone looking to capitalize on it; whether in Soweto, South Africa, the slums of Buenos Aires, or pleasant retirement and recreation communities in California, supplying people with water has become a profitable business. Residents of Oakhurst, CA, may purchase their water in a clean, clear plastic jug from emporia such as “The Quality Water Store;” a slum-dweller in South Africa uses a discarded plastic pail to scoop water from standing pools, often disgustingly polluted.
Although many of us assume that water is a commodity which is supplied and distributed by public utilities, in fact, private companies are involved in its provision, most notably in France, a country with a long history of private water supply and distribution groups. In the 1990’s, Argentina became the focus of French business concerns who, with the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), made considerable efforts to privatize water supplies. In the United States, government support for privatization of utilities spurred a similar effort, particularly in the state of California where demand both for agricultural and domestic consumption far outstrips available supplies. And, in South Africa, poverty-stricken individuals find themselves forced to pay for a commodity which, however poor in quality, had always been free, even in the worst days of the apartheid regime.
Dead in the Water, a four-chaptered DVD co-produced by the NFB and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), looks at what happens when private companies become involved in the supply and distribution of water. Although both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have underwritten major initiatives in the developing world, their involvement with private enterprises in the provision of water leads to wondering whose interests are best served: those of domestic consumers, often desperately poor, or those whose fortunes continue to be augmented by the selling of water.
Canada, the source of nearly 7% of the world’s available fresh water, has also been faced with the dilemma of private vs. public supply systems. Appended to Dead in the Water is a 10-minute feature entitled Moncton: A Canadian Case Study. Moncton’s drinking water was filthy – it was charitably described as being “the colour of tea.” The city’s infrastructure was old and desperately in need of replacement. Enter a French water supply and distribution company, eager for investment opportunities and market penetration. What followed was a major civic controversy, with lessons to be learned by other municipalities considering the privatization of a public utility.
Dead in the Water raises more questions than it answers – Canadians have long seen the publicly-funded supply of high-quality fresh water as something of a sacred trust, but the experience of the town of Walkerton, ON, shows just how fragile that trust can be. The DVD’s global perspective is one that would be useful in Grade 11 and 12 Geography, Economics, and possibly, World Issues classes. However, because it assumes that the viewer has some familiarity with the economic policies of various international governments, its audience would be limited to classrooms in which students have that type of academic background.
Recommended with reservations.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.