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Film Review: Public Television Film "Thirst" Fails to Cover Successful Public-Private Water Partnerships Around the Globe

By Conference of Mayors Environmental Staff
August 9, 2004

The film "Thirst" aired July 13 on WGBH public television, and is being distributed to major media markets throughout the country over the summer. "Thirst" is a documentary examining water privatization. The film is comprised of vignettes set in India, Bolivia and California involving private sector involvement with water service delivery. The film makes a valiant attempt to draw correlations between water privatization on three continents, but fails to do justice to each of the stories. The viewer is left to make sense out of a confusing assortment of half-facts and anecdotal information that appears to be more of an anti-globalization stab at water companies than a balanced treatment of what actually happened in each of these communities. The film also makes no effort to show how certain communities have successfully utilized public-private partnerships to meet the water needs of its citizens.

The segment set in India deals with how some local activists who oppose private use of public waters have created best practices to increase local water supplies. This is an admirable story of self-help. The "public" is provided with guidance from the activists on how to capture rainfall for local use. While this approach — digging small retention ponds — can augment local water supplies, one has to wonder to what use the water will be put. The retention ponds can certainly serve the purpose of irrigation or aquifer recharge, but there is the nagging fear that such supplies may be used for human consumption. One can only guess at the level of bacterial and viral contamination typical of such supplies, and the public health threat associated with human consumptive uses. Additionally, the film refers to local animosity to national rules and policies governing water use, but never provides a serious discussion of what the nature of the animosity is. Further, the film refers to local animosity over multi-national corporations such as Coca-Cola who are producing beverages and selling them in India. The film does not discuss any positive impact such production brought to the community's economy.

The segment involving Cochabamba, Bolivia focuses on a government attempt to construct a $214 million dollar project intended to provide electricity, irrigation and water services to the area. The film asserts that the international company involved, Bechtel, won the concession and soon after raised water rates an average of 35 percent. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK assert that it was a government agency, not Bechtel that raised the rates. Furthermore, the governmental entity also tried to institute charges for irrigation. This pitted the urban and rural populations against each other, and independent University researchers assert that this is the main reason for the resulting riots and unfortunate killings. The film depicts that the demonstrations and riots are the result of the private sector participation in this project. None of the independent researchers hold the private firms as the main cause for the failure of the project and the resulting social turmoil.

The segment addressing the U.S. centers on a recent public-private partnership between Stockton (CA) and a team of private water service providers to upgrade and operate the local water facility under a long-term service agreement. One of the residents interviewed in the film makes a bold, and false, statement that the city gave away their water rights to the private sector. The partnership agreement specifies that the city retain ownership of the water, the physical plant and setting water rates. The film fails to inform the viewer of these safeguards. Furthermore, the film fails to inform viewers that there are a number of public benefits made possible via the partnership. For example, over $170 million dollars in cost savings via the partnership project approach will blunt the need to raise rates to the consumer. The partnership agreement also protects the city employees by retaining their jobs. Instead, the film focuses on the public employee general manager who is opposed to the partnership and promises to resign if the partnership is struck. Unfortunately, the public manager makes good on his promise while the remaining employees keep their jobs.

This film represents another attempt in the documentary genre to cause overall concern among the general population over the issue of water and water ownership. It is intended to provoke ill feelings toward "big business" but falls far short because it is vague and doesn't provide facts. It never examines the difference between privatization where the ownership of water facilities is transferred to the private sector; and public-private partnerships, which are more commonly utilized in the United States. Public-private partnerships typically involve private parties operating water facilities at the pleasure of the city who maintains control via contractual arrangement. Secondly, the film calls upon the public to insist on referendums to decide the fate of water supply rather than rely on the elected representative form of government that dominates the American political landscape. As one of the Stockton council members pointed out in the film, the democratic process calls for the election of mayors and council to make these decisions precisely because they are complicated. The councilman also pointed out that there is a petition process that allows the public to override the mayor and council when enough residents object. The petition approach failed in Stockton because the electorate had faith in the elected officials.