"Thirst" Chronicles the Fight Against Water Enclosures

In 2004, filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman produced a landmark documentary, Thirst, which describes the attempted privatization of water systems in Bolivia, India and California. Now the producers and a third collaborator, Michael Fox, have produced a book that focuses on nine citizen campaigns in the United States to prevent corporate enclosures of water.

Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water (Jossey-Bass) shows what happens when water is turned into a market commodity and is no longer regarded as a basic human right. It also shows how multinational water companies do not deliver on the ideological promises of the “free market.” They invariably end up raising prices for water, reducing infrastructure investment and providing poorer quality water and worse service while striving to limit organizational transparency and accountability.

The film Thirst, first seen on the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S., introduced the international dimensions of this problem. It tells the infamous story of Bechtel’s privatization of the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which provoked a mass uprising of citizens that ultimately reclaimed public control. The film also tells the story of rural women in Rajasthan, India, who fought to stop Coca-Cola and the World Bank from seizing control of their limited water supplies, and the story of citizens in Stockton, California, who fought the mayor’s proposal to give the municipal water system to a multinational coalition led by the German company RWE.

Thirst the book takes the themes of the film and explores how they play out in such diverse communities as Atlanta Georgia; Holyoke, Massachusetts; Felton, California; and Mecosta County, Michigan. The book identifies these campaigns as part of a larger movement that is still barely recognized, at least in the United States. What’s interesting is how local “water wars” quickly introduce citizens to a complex array of global political issues. As the authors write:

These activists often have no idea what they are getting into. Ready or not, they are thrust into a battle that takes them far from their initial concerns about their personal water supply or local government. They must confront an elaborate array of ideas that seductively meld America’s traditional utopian impulse of Manifest Destiny with a corporate project of global economic integration. They must grapple, first, with an almost religious belief in the marketplace as a route to a more perfect society and, second, with the unmatched financial and political power of multinational corporations.

The citizen water wars are important not just for their own sake, but because they are in the vanguard of the larger political struggle to protect the commons against enclosure. Water enclosures illustrate the perils of commodifying a basic element of nature and human need. They offer a vivid political lesson, too, in the harms that result when a vital public resource are blindly ceded to corporate autocracies and market metrics of valuation.