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SEPTEMBER 19, 2008

Clear and Present Danger

Filmmaker IRENA SALINA discusses Flow, her documentary about global water issues — and the near-global industry involved in most of them.

By Mark Jenkins

Water, water everywhere, but fewer drops to drink. (Oscilliscope

Also opening this week, three films I reviewed for NPR: I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, A GIRL CUT IN TWO, and BATTLE IN SEATTLE. Clicking on the titles of those films will take you to

FRENCH-BORN, BROOKLYN-BASED FILMMAKER IRENA SALINA spent more than five years filming and editing Flow, a wide-ranging analysis of contemporary water issues that had its D.C. debut in April at the Environmental Film Festival. She traveled from Colombia and India, where clean water is rare, to Paris and Washington, where it's taken for granted except as a matter of profits and politics. Interviewed in mid-September at a hotel in D.C's West End, she was aware that she was near the headquarters of two of her nemeses, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Shall we go see them? [chuckles]

It's sometimes hard to get in. [Salina laughs] Obviously, I know what your film is about. But for the record, what is the essential message?

Flow tries to bring people into an exploration of what's going on politically. Globalization, the human right to water. It's saying, here's something that has been taken for granted. And I don't think we can take it for granted anymore.

There are only a few multinational companies running the global water business, including Vivendi, Nestle, Suez, and Thames Water, and they're all European. How did that happen?

Have you ever heard of colonialism? [laughs] This man from Vivendi gave us a huge explanation of how far ahead of the Americans they are in water management, privatization of water. It was quite interesting. It had to do with religion, beliefs, way of doing business.

A few early reviews of the film have referred to it as "one-sided"? What's the other side?

Yeah. Thanks for saying that. I didn't invent this issue. There are enough people who worked for the World Bank and left it and wrote books saying that it's not working. There are enough people who have much more experience than me, whether they're scientists or economists. I even have a guy in the film who used to work for Vivendi, doing their accounting. And he realized that the money was not going back to repair the pipes, but to some secret account in Ireland.

How did you come to start the film?

In 2001, I read an article in The Nation. It said that water could become the next oil. At the time, it was quite a new idea. Within the article was a small story about New Orleans, where a retired nurse was going door-to-door to stop what was going to be the biggest water privatization deal in the United States, involving the U.S. subsidiary of Vivendi. Also, I had heard Robert Kennedy Jr. talking on the radio about companies dumping waste in the Hudson.

I was a new mother, and I didn't like seeing that. It's the 21st Century, and we should going toward sustainable lifestyles, and a good future for our children. Yet 40 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are too polluted to fish, swim, or drink. Aquifers are at a record low. Male fishes are becoming female. There are hormones and Prozac in drinking water. And it's not just in the United States. It's in London, in Paris, in Mumbai.

One example in the United States is the use of an herbicide, Atrazine. That was banned, not in one little village, but all over the European Union. And for good reason. They banned it more than 10 years ago, and there are still traces of it.

The E.U. banned Atrazine, but it's still manufactured, and exported to countries like the U.S.

That's because it used on corn, and corn isn't just used for food. It's for ethanol. We're talking huge lobbies here. And Atrazine is just part of the cocktail that's going into our waterways.

There are huge interests behind it. There are huge lobbies. Chemicals, farming.

A lot of it is simply marketing. That explains the growth in bottled-water use in the U.S.

I heard the other day that if New Yorkers were to stop bottled water for one week, that would prevent 25 million bottles from ending up in landfills. One week! And most bottled water is filtered tap water. You can filter tap water at home.

For some companies, it's tap water. For others, it from watersheds. But it's watersheds from communities, and they are reacting to having their water pumped to bottling plants. And it takes millions of barrels to oil to make the plastic bottles. And there's a toxic sea of plastic floating between San Francisco and Hawaii — two times the size of Texas.

They try to sell bottled water as safer. But lately they've found traces of chemicals that leach into the water when the bottles are heated. It's very dangerous.

For much of the time, you worked on the film entirely by yourself.

For five years. Yvette Tomlinson was sort of my partner in crime; she is the co-producer. We had a crew for two trips. She came with me to Washington for those interviews, but after that I had to travel by myself. In Bolivia, and the second time in India. Because the producer said it was either me by myself or no film. So I went. You learn so much. I'm not a sound person! And we're talking La Paz, which is high altitude, or India, where's there's dust. I just did it.

What kept you going?

A combination of things. The subject matter. Meeting absolutely incredible people. Like Rajendra Singh, who's considered the water man of India. The president of India came to him to give him an award, because Singh said he didn't have time. He was busy fighting a mining company that was destroying a river.

Why do you think India is a center for innovative water solutions?

There are two people from India in the film. Rajendra Singh went to a small, very poor village in Rajasthan and said, "I want to build a school and a hospital." And the elder said, "No, we need water." What he did was revive an ancient knowledge of water conservation. It's not a new miracle green technology. All he did was organize the villagers to build reservoirs, because while the British were there, the people had lost that knowledge.

Dr. Ashok Gadgil is based in California, where he invented the ultraviolet-light water-purification system. He just happened to be Indian, but he lives in the United States.

But there are amazing things happening everywhere. In the film, I'm not so concerned about the big cities, where there's more money. I'm interested in how we get these tools to people who are so poor. In Bolivia, when a subsidiary of Suez privatized the water, it was asking people for $150 to hook up. But that's what someone there makes in two years. Are we just going to decide that all those people don't get water?

If the World Bank and the IMF were so great, the gap between the haves and have-notes would not have gotten bigger over the last 10 years. I think it's becoming more and more obvious that there's a system that is not working. If we let that continue, there will be a backlash. It's to our advantage to create a more stable world.

(2007, 84 min; at Landmark E Street.)