Running Dry: Documentary or Corporate Propaganda?

Statement by Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Water for All Campaign

How would you characterize images of impoverished people in developing nations struggling with a lack of drinking water and sanitation services and suffering from life-threatening water-borne diseases?

"Gut-wrenching?"

"Tragic?"

Try "good marketing."

In “Running Dry,”   a newly released film by James Thebaut aimed at winning support from well-meaning politicians, a multinational company with no less a mission than privatizing the world's water for profit is masking its real agenda behind a blizzard of powerful footage of the world's least fortunate.

American Water Works, a subsidiary of the German conglomerate RWE, and other multi-national water interests funded nearly the entire film, ostensibly to bring attention to the world’s water crisis. Apparently, corporations are “for” clean water.

But even more enthusiastically, the private water corporations are “for” profit. And the most readily available profit stream flows from public funds given to private corporations for the alleged purpose of providing water for the poor.

The film does lay out compelling footage of how the water crisis is affecting people in South Africa, India, China and other countries.   What the picture fails to provide is any analysis of why people in the developing world do not have access to safe and affordable drinking water or why water should be considered a human right.

There is no mention that over the past two decades international finance institutions like the World Bank have used their powerful economic and political influence to pressure governments to restructure their economies, slashing programs that provide services for their citizens, so that their debts can be repaid. Countries where citizens live on a dollar a day are forced to privatize services like water as a condition of their desperately needed loan.

“Running Dry” does not discuss how privatization World Bank-style becomes a feeding frenzy for foreign multinational corporations, eager to scoop up struggling enterprises at bargain prices. 

While the movie does address the issues of water pollution and the growing specter of water scarcity, it does not address the debate about whether large transnational corporations should be empowered by governments to solve problems that are the responsibility of domestic governments.

The movie subtly promotes “public-private partnerships,” but shockingly does not explore the almost universal disasters that have occurred around the world from showcase privatizations. From Atlanta, Georgia, to Manila, The Philippines, and Nelspruit, South Africa, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, privatization has caused consumer water rates to increase dramatically, kept the poor from receiving piped water services, created public health crises, and created pollution and other environmental catastrophes.

Another test case of how privatization has failed is Bechtel’s contract in Iraq.  Bechtel was awarded a 12-month contract worth up to $1.03 billion, authorizing the company to oversee the rehabilitation, reconstruction and expansion of key elements of Iraq’s infrastructure, including municipal water delivery and wastewater systems.  Independent evaluation of Bechtel’s work was nearly impossible, in part due to security precautions and the lack of transparency in the contract process.  But the information detailing Bechtel’s contractual failures in Hilla, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Sadr City and smaller villages where families face crisis conditions due to the lack of access to clean water was abominable.  For example, one of Bechtel’s earliest priorities was to ensure the provision of potable water supplies to the population of southern Iraq in the first 60 days of the program.  However, one year later, there is little evidence that this mandate has been achieved; instead, rising epidemics of cholera, kidney stones and diarrhea – all water-borne illnesses – point to the failure of Bechtel’s mission. 

“Running Dry” capitalizes on the prestige of world leaders like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Israeli political leader Shimon Peres, while it fails to discuss the secret deals and social turmoil that are the result of privatization and the failure of governments to provide basic services for their people.

Rather than putting emphasis on the lack of cleanliness among the poor, the film should have laid out the lack of political will to provide safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation services that we enjoy in the developed world.

Paul Simon, the late Senator from Illinois, was deeply concerned about the global water crisis and, prior to his untimely death, was involved in the making of “Running Dry.” The corporations behind the film, arguably more skilled in public relations strategies of the greenwashing variety than providing water services, understandably hope to hide their own motives behind Simon’s genuine passion and sincerity.   But key among Simon’s principles for addressing the world’s water crisis were conservation and environmental protection, wise water management for the long-term public interest, robust financing for the public sector and an increased citizen activism and involvement in water policy and development decisions. In countries around the globe, Big Water has not only failed to achieve those laudable goals. It has actively trampled them.

Perhaps the most brilliant marketing move of all, however, was the not-so-coincidental introduction of a new water bill in the U.S. Senate, called “Safe Water: The Currency for Peace Act of 2005.”   (We’re not kidding.   C’mon, how could we even make that one up?)   The bill was timed to debut during the same week of the congressional showing of Running Dry.  What a clever behind-closed-doors move by Congress and their water buddies.