Water Wars: Too Little Water, Except When There's Too Much
October 31, 2010
In "Water Wars – When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide" documentary writer/director Jim Burroughs takes us to the small country of Bangladesh to witness how flood/drought cycles, together with geopolitical and economic strife, have brought calamity to some of earth's poorest inhabitants.
He also takes us to Holland, New Orleans and California to illustrate what he sees as a global crisis fast approaching as a result of politics, money, and--perhaps worst of all--a lack of vision about just how big and important this issue has become.
Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film opens with Bangladesh's water woes, and after brief excursions to a few other locations, it returns to this main focus. India surrounds the country on three sides, and their dams control the rivers that flow into Bangladesh, releasing too little water when it's dry and too much when they flood. From the south, the Indian Ocean steadily encroaches on the land. Deadly tsunamis and typhoons inflict unpredictable flooding, erosion and death.
According to the CIA's World Factbook, about a third of this extremely poor country floods annually during the monsoon rainy season, hampering economic development. Many people live on and cultivate this flood-prone land, which as with most river deltas has some of the richest soil. These deltas are formed by large rivers flowing from the Himalayas and through India. The Ganges unites with the Jamuna, the main channel of the Brahmaputra, and then joins the Meghna and empties into the Bay of Bengal.
An entry in on Bangladesh in Wikipedia reports "The alluvial soil deposited by these rivers has created some of the most fertile plains in the world. Bangladesh has 57 trans-boundary rivers, making water issues politically complicated to resolve."
The documentary predicts that as Asia's thirst for electric power grows, the number of dams in India will grow. Forty new dams are already planned according to "Water Wars." Thus Bangladesh may suffer even more in the future by the diversion of water for hydroelectric production, to the point where little water reaches them.
Already, during the dry season, rivers run dry before reaching Bangladesh. Then when monsoon rains arrive, India opens its floodgates to prevent flooding upriver in India. Downriver Bangladeshi residents lie unprepared, and homes, farm animals and people are the casualties. Still more casualties arise from pollution from arsenic- contaminated well water. This is the deadly landscape in the "water wars" title, along with warnings that the war seems destined to become global.
Could the Dutch Save Us from a Water War?
In Holland, the Dutch have long lived quite well on coastal lands below sea level, but not always perfectly. We're shown old news footage of a 1953 flood that killed 1800 people when the sea broke through Holland's famous dykes. Since then, they've gotten even better at the technologies and techniques of flood protection.
The film shows Dutch experts with high-volume Dutch pumps lowering the flood waters in a devastated post-Katrina New Orleans. We see Dutch experts visiting vulnerable California areas where they offer advice to avoid flooding and drought cycles. Yet, oddly the time-tested and successful methods the Dutch have to offer receive little attention in the film. There is surprisingly little discussion of exactly how Holland employs technology and organization to protect its seawalls and dikes, of how a small nation can muster the resources and will to do whatever it takes to sustain life, commerce, safety and prosperity in a very vulnerable land.
As the film returns again to the plight of poor Bangladesh, it seems the moral they're driving at here isn't to apply knowledge and engineering and competent management to solve the world's water issues. It's that somehow the "global community" must rise up and outlaw greed.
What If They Declared War and Nobody Came?
But while positioning serious water issues as a war and fingering "greed," meaning economic growth, the villain, the film fails to recognize that Bangladesh is emerging as a country on the way up the economic ladder. In September of this year Bangladesh received a U.N. award for its progress toward achieving its Millennium Development Goals, which seek to eradicate the country's extreme poverty, boost health, promote education and the improve the status of women by 2015. According to the World Bank the country has achieved an average annual growth rate of 5% since 1990. Goldman Sachs included Bangladesh as one of its "Next Eleven," which are the economies most likely to grow in the footsteps of the five fast-developing BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Experience shows that when countries become less poor, their people are far better able to muster the resources needed to solve their problems.
Is water a contentious issue around the globe? You bet. Just ask those in New Jersey and Pennsylvania about how New York City is hoarding water in three gigantic water reservoirs in the upper Delaware watershed. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer this has been a point of contention between the city and four states for more than half a century, but a new software program, not a war, may finally bring more harmony.
It isn't that New Yorkers got less greedy about their hold on the water that lies upstream. It's that technology, along with continuing pressure from those affected downstream, now offer a solution far short of war. The Dutch didn't conquer the sea with a war: they used the innovation and technology that strong economies with well-functioning governance are able to employ.
This film does a good job of pointing out the harm that can be done when rivers are dammed, or floods aren't prepared for, or clean water isn't cared for. It's too bad the producers felt compelled to use the metaphor of war. Maybe that's what it takes to sell a movie in Hollywood. But that isn't what's going to fix our myriad water problems.
- "Water Wars – When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide" DVD released August 31, 2010; Cinema Libre Studios; writer/director Jim Burroughs. Narrated by Martin Sheen. Price: $19.95