Episode 158: Documenting the Global Water Crisis with FLOW director Irena Salina

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Host Sean Daily talks subject with filmmaker Irena Salina, director of the documentary "FLOW: How Did a Handful of Corporations Steal Our Water?" about the global water crisis and her experience making the film.

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Sean Daily:   Hi and welcome to Green Talk, a podcast series from greenlivingideas.com.  Green Talk helps listeners in their efforts to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors and experts from around the world.  We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today, as well as the technologies, products and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.

Hey everybody, this is Sean Daily with Green Talk Radio. Most people don’t think about where their water comes from. They simply take it for granted that it will be available on demand coming out of the tap in plentiful supply. However, recent books, films and international media coverage on water availability crises around the globe are bringing a greater awareness that perhaps we shouldn’t be taking water for granted. And in fact, that water, sometimes referred to as “blue gold” is a precious resource on par with gold and oil, of which future military and economic crises are inevitable. In addition, some water experts have pointed to the fact that large corporations, and in some cases, governments, are making backroom deals that may affect the cost and availability of water in the not so distant future. Because of the essential nature of water to all life on the planet, this has brought water to the forefront of both the environmental and human rights movements. One of the first feature length films to tackle this subject head on is a documentary called Flow: How did a Handful of Corporations Steal our Water? The film asks a basic but very important question: can anyone really own water? The film, the brainchild of director Irena Salina opened in September 2008 and has helped to bring a greater awareness to many about the seriousness of these issues and the risks to mankind and the environment if we don’t take action now to curtail present-day activities by corporations and governments that may threaten basic water rights for a large percentage of the world’s population in the future. Wired magazine referred to the documentary as “the scariest movie at the Sundance Film Festival” after its screening there in 2008.  My guest on today’s show is Flow’s director Irena Salina. Irena started her career at the age of 15 as a radio journalist in Paris. And I’ve gotten a chance to speak a little French with her before the interview. I’ve been enjoying. Her first feature length film, Ghost Bird: The Life and Art of Judith Dean, in 2000 won best documentary at the 15th Fort Lauderdale Film Festival.  And the President’s Award at Mexico’s prestigious...I’ll try this pronunciation...Ajijiac Film Festival. So Irena, thank you so much for joining us today.

Irena Salina: You’re welcome. I just want to add one thing. The original title was Flow for Love of Water.

Sean Daily:   What happened to the original title?

Irena Salina:   Well for the markets you have to...the distributor sort of changed it. But we always liked the idea of including the word “love.”

Sean Daily:   It’s funny. Fear does sell better than love, unfortunately.

Irena Salina:   I know. I know.       

Sean Daily:   Well, first of all congratulations to you on the success of the film. And I am curious to know why did water become a cause for you in your own life and career as a filmmaker? And what originally inspired you to make this documentary?

Irena Salina:  That’s a good question. I have to rewind the film way back because as you know the film came out in festival, the first time in Sundance almost three years ago.  Then you have to rewind almost five years ago, which is almost seven years ago, when I wanted to do a documentary but documentaries are hard to make. So I wanted to do something that really took my passion on. At the time, I was a new mother and I had sort of from one ear to the other, heard a couple of stories.  One from Robert Jr. Kennedy, with River Keepers, famous environmental lawyer. I had heard him on the radio talking about stories of company would come at night and dump on the Hudson River some heavy chemical water and get away with it. And they were trying to clean the Hudson at the time. And then I heard about how some chemicals in water would actually come back in our system, one way or another. As minor doses but if you accumulate them. And as a new mother, I was like, “Whoa! What’s that?” And slowly but surely I made more research and a friend of mine handed me a copy of The Nation, I think it was 2002, if I recall.  And it said, “Who owns water? Is water going to be the oil of the 21st century?” That sort of blew my mind.  I never really thought about it like that, you know? I live in New York, where you just open my tap; you sort of take it for granted. So from there I really went into a journey. I went to a lot of countries I had never been before. I went to India. I went to South Africa.  I looked at the situation here. And what I really wanted to do is sort of say to people, “Look. Whether we’re in Africa, whether we’re in America, we’re all in the same boat in some ways. We’re all related to water. We all need water to survive. Water has no passport.” And then global warming started to come.  More and more awareness of it and it’s very related to water as well. Because when you look at example of water conversation in remote place, in Rajasthan for example, and they do an amazing work of water conservation.  But if the rain that is supposed to come on time, don’t, then you can do all the conservation of water you can or want, if there is no water, there is no water. So I started seeing how connected, in a way, we were whether we were far away or here. Does that make sense?

Sean Daily:   Yes it does. Irena, I’m curious...No. It absolutely does. And I’m curious, based on that research and the travel that you did for the film and in general, what countries do you see being the flashpoints and frontlines in the future?  Or even possibly now for issues around water availability?

Irena Salina:  I think all of us. Have you looked at the paper recently? California going into a drought. It’s no longer some place in Africa where they have no water and we don’t really get a sense of it. I think we’re going to get more and more of a sense of it, unfortunately.  But I think we really...and I think when you go to place like Africa or India, I actually made another film for an NGO in India which I had to leave in those xxxx-torn areas in Rajasthan. I actually had to every day to fetch my water and think of, “Well, I need to boil this, I will need to clean myself.”  I was given an understanding and it was heavy and you have to bring it from the wells.  And that was such an opening to me because never did I have to think about that here. I mean people would laugh if you had to tell them that they have to walk half a mile to get water. But I think we’ve seen it, it’s been some heavy... if you look at the US  drought monitor map of the drought that’s in the United States, you will see that more and more there are places people will be told please don’t water your garden at just any time of the day. Please conserve water.  I think we are going to become more and more aware of it. Are we ready for that? I don’t know because here we are used to have things served to us.  We’re not used to go and get them. So there’s going to be an adjustment I think in general with our consciousness. But I think this adjustment is not just water. I’m totally amazed right now; people are trying to reduce plastic. And I’m totally amazed, when you go to the store, I live in Brooklyn but when I go to a local store you’ll often hear people now say, “No, I don’t need a bag”.  Like they’re really making a point they don’t want a plastic bag. They carry a bag with them where they put their food.  And you're thinking to yourself, “Wow!” That’s a minor little thing but people are actually making a natural, individual effort into that so there’s less plastics.

Sean Daily:   I see parallels here between AL Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the strengthening of the environmental movement that sort of followed that around global warming.  And your film as well as the new film, Blue Gold World Water Wars.  Do you see an activism movement around water happening in the coming years, similar to what was inspired by An Inconvenient Truth?

Irena Salina:  I realized the power of An Inconvenient Truth when I was on a plane, I think either going to France or coming back from France. And you know, those are long flights so you walk around and sometime you talk to people. And there was this old couple; they must have been in their seventies. And I don’t know how we started talking, it was years ago, about the Al Gore film. And they were talking how they didn’t know anything about that. And they just really they understood so much and it scared them but at the same time, they were happy to know about it.  And I was like, “Wow!” Because my daughter had told me about it. They have shown it in her school.  So here goes a seventy-year old couple.  Here goes my daughter at the time was like seven.  And I’m like...it actually was a great tool to bring the awareness. You know, I always say, first, because people say, “So. What are you expecting? People to take action immediately?”  You know what? First, you plant the seed of awareness, you let it grow, then you let people pick at it. You know? Things cannot change overnight. And I think the Al Gore film was a great awakening and I think other film, like I often say, sometime people are like, “You didn’t talk about the population.” This is only one film. If you knew I wanted a three-hour film but my distributor and my producer were not going to agree with that. And my film and then you know, it’s like a marathon.  Al Gore did the thing and he ran and he passed the wood on to someone.  And I did a film with as much money and time I had and then I passed on the wood. And then the director Sam Bozzo of Blue Gold, did a film later and then he’ll pass on the wood to someone. You know what I mean?  It’s like it’s escalates. It escalates. And we need those films and we need those books and we need those television series to bring awareness.

Sean Daily:   Well, your film is certainly seminal in that regard. Your film discusses Irena, among other things, the agendas and responsibilities with large corporations with regard to water rights and availability and this issue of how the privatization of water is a threat both to humans and the environment. My question is, is this true? The sound bite? Are big corporations stealing our water from us while we sleep?

Irena Salina:  Well, you know it’s never as simple as that. There was some case in the last six, seven years of privatization of water, mostly in third-world countries, where what happened is that the hook up to the water was maybe sometime a year of someone working of their salary.  So they couldn’t hook up.  So what was the xxxx is saying, “Privatization is there and it’s going to help us.”  At the same time, a big company in France lost their contract because the water quality was not good. The money you had to pay every month raised.  I mean, there are cases over and over. And the idea is to be realistic.  You cannot say, “Oh. There will be no company.” Because it takes a lot of money to clean water. But you don’t want to go into a situation where there is no ownership of water, no community-based water projects.  You don’t want to come in a place where the distribution of water is all private, because it’s usually not very transparent and you don’t know...you want to be sort of in touch of what’s going on. And there have been cases that has been documented where there was a lot of problems. Now to say that there will be absolutely no private company handling the mass, the huge cities in the future, I think it will be unrealistic for me to say that won’t happen. But at the same time, there is a message, for example, that’s given by Peter Gleick in the film when he says, “the World Bank knows how to give a billion dollars in one place and what we need is a thousand dollars in a billion places.” And that to me is a really true message because from the places I’ve travelled, I have seen remote communities where they were examples of little solutions that work, coming to a be a solution that made much more sense than the idea that one day a buyer from a long distance was going to come and provide them water that they would pay for.

Sean Daily:   Okay, well Irena, we’re going to take a break right here. And we’ll be right back.  I’m talking with Irena Salina. She is the director of Flow, a new film that discusses issues around water availability and crises around the world.  And asks a basic, but a very important question, can anyone really own water?  We’ll be right back on Green Talk Radio.

Sean Daily:   Hey everyone. We’re back on Green Talk Radio. This is Sean Daily. I’m talking with Irena Salina. She’s a director of a movie called Flow: How Did a Handful of Corporations Steal our Water?  We were talking before the break, Irena, about the film and some of the issues around the world that deal with the water crisis and the privatization of water. And I had some specific questions I wanted to ask you. One of them is about something that’s become quite famous, or infamous depending on your perspective in the US, that relates to the T. Boone’s Picken’s plan. T. Boone Pickens’ plan, I should say. Pickens, of course, being the highly controversial Texas oilman who’s spending $12 billion on the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle. A lot of people have seen this as a big cover-up.  Critics of the plan basically are saying that the plan itself is essentially a ruse and is, in effect, a massive land and water grab.  Which a lot of people were puzzled by in the beginning, that was really seeking to put him in a position of controlling water and being in a position to profit from selling water at higher prices in the future. Did you come across anything in your film research to qualify any of those assertions either way?

Irena Salina:   I want to be careful about what I say because that T. Boone Pickens piece we have in our film came actually from a news feed. So I am reluctant to talk about someone whom I have not spent an hour speaking with personally, where I can feel their intention. And I know now he’s into wind power. I think that’s what he’s in right now.  But I don’t...I mean, there are a lot of ...him, I don’t know but there are a lot of speculation right now with water. Because, but think about it. Think about big agro-business farms; they need a lot of water.  Think of industry.  Think of the pig industry; they need a lot of water. I mean, almost everything. Computers need water, tires need water, to make oil you need water. So obviously there is, I am sure, out there a lot of big interests in making sure that their company or their big industry have enough water to provide, to produce those products that they want to put out there. I also think that we’re going to, because unfortunately of drought and other things, we’re really going to have to re-think our ways.  We’re going to have to re-think of, for example, just to give you an example, if you are going to spend a certain huge amount of water to provide to food that will actually never make it here, it’s just for export, if we are going in a situation where we’re running out of water there’s definitely going to be some struggle there of, “Well, I’m American. I want my water for the food that I’m going to buy here and to drink, so why is all this water being somehow used for something that is going to be exported?”  I’m just blabbering about but I really feel like there’s going to be a re-think of the usage of water. And therefore, any big company that might want to use too much water for something...I know that some of those big farms, not only the amount of water that they use but the chemicals that is then going back in the land and then going in our rivers and streams is really not good. And I just think there is a cycle. Again, we could talk about big companies and this and that but I think it’s really...the general thing, I think is there is a cycle and we’ve sort of, because we’ve said there’s a hard path and then there’s a soft path. The hard path is the 21st century where we [xxx just realized dams, big] projects and I think somehow we’re going to have to balance that because we’re going to deal with...and also, you have to remember that, I don’t know the exact number, but 40% of rivers and streams, like in the United States, are too polluted to fish, swim or drink.  So you also have the pollution problem.  It’s like how are you going to xxxxx all that pollution. And then like we talk about in the film, you have both pesticide and herbicide that are very strong and they’re coming back in the system. Like atrazine for example.  Atrazine is an herbicide that is banned for, I don’t know, 15 years in Europe because they found out that normally it takes forever...even though they ban it, there’s still traces of it.  And there are biologists that saw that it was...I don’t know the word in English, but changing the course of reproduction in frogs and things like that.

Sean Daily:   Because of genetic mutations?

Irena Salina:  Yes exactly.  So we look at frogs but then maybe, sure we can prove it now but what about humans?  But in any case, it’s been banned in Europe. It’s not banned here.

Sean Daily:   It takes us some time to catch up here sometimes in the United States with these things where we can be a little slow.

Irena Salina:  It’s a product made in Switzerland, sold in the United States but banned in Europe.  I think in the world we live in now, where we are now, how come a product like that could be sold when it’s banned in all of Europe. That’s like the fundamental thing that I think a few years ago drove me crazy.  As a mother and as a human being. Wait a minute. If we know something is not good, why are we putting it somewhere, you know? And there’s this very strange connection, I would say, with farms around the world that have used heavy pesticide and herbicide and decline of sperm count. Of people being able to have children. So yes, yes.  We cannot prove it but we want to get to the place where...I think it’s a fundamental question that talking about regulation usage of water, it’s I think, a fundamental question we need to ask ourselves.

Sean Daily:   And it’s interesting too because I think some free market economists would argue that privatization is better because that’s the solution to everything.  That private is always better –

Irena Salina:   But there’s never one solution for everything.

Sean Daily:   I agree. I was going to point out the conundrum that the other faction of folks are those that only trust the government to handle things properly.

Irena Salina:  Well, but that’s a huge problem. Is everybody relying on someone else.  And that’s why I’m saying that somehow, everybody is going to have to get involved. Why did arsenic, for example, in the United States was at too high of a level and it could have gone like that for a while. Why did it get stopped? Why? Because citizens and pregnant mothers and people fought and went door-to-door and started bringing awareness. And they had to regulate it. But that’s the problem. I hope the new government that we’ve not going to be in a situation where that...but it’s still, we are part of the change. We can’t just sit home and expect always someone to make the change.

Sean Daily:   Well, that begs the question and, at the risk of sounding somewhat cynical here to follow up on what you just said, one of the things that I’ve found about these types of global situations in the past, is that by the time you’re hearing about them in the mainstream media, a large portion of the damage tends to be already done. So my question is, in your estimation are we already in deep trouble with regards to water rights? And have governments and corporations already been acting behind our backs to determine –

Irena Salina:   It’s not just water rights. It’s a lot of other things. Again, I’m not an expert but I will again mention Peter Gleick who says the situation now with water is not so good. But in xxxx. I’m talking just in general, is not so good. But there’s still hope that, if in the next five years we change our ways of handling with water, if we work with our watershed, if we work with our environment, you know, there’s a balance.  Then there is hope, you know.  It’s not just about corporations. That’s the thing. It’s not just...it’s a whole thing. And I think there are good people out there. I don’t think it’s all dark. I mean, obviously in the film, there is a definite pointing at things because you need to wake up people. But I think, in general, there is hope but it really depends how we go from now. How we get water. How we regulate it. How we not build something when we know that this is a recharged area. We have to think of these things. We just can’t go on if we know it’s a recharge area for watershed or rivers. We cannot go on polluting. And just like now there’s a big thing with bottled water. A couple of years ago, no one even paid attention. They just kept on buying bottled water, plastic, boom. Some gets recycled, most of them don’t, we’re creating huge plastic in the sea, the fish are eating it. And now all of a sudden there’s a huge awareness around. You have the Minister of the Environment in London wants to ban bottled water. You have a lot of places here, that in public place, they want to reintroduce fountain. We’re re-learning.  We got caught up in this sort of non-stop buying, this, that and I think we’re re-learning.

Sean Daily:   These are definitely important issues. And what do you think are the most important steps that peoples of various countries around the world need to be doing now to, both in terms of , you mentioned the environmental impact of things like bottled water, but what just in terms of securing basic water rights for the future? What do we need to be doing as a world population to ensure a better future?

Irena Salina:  That’s a question for an expert on water. I can only tell you as a person –

Sean Daily:   Well, people need to watch the film –

Irena Salina:  Think about one issue that applies to China does not obligatory apply to India. One issue that applies to India doesn’t obligatory apply to the United States and might not apply to South Africa. You know what I mean? It’s all different, it’s different terrain. The one thing that connects us all is global warming. That’s for sure. That has no passport. That is everywhere. If we don’t make effort right away, that’s a huge issue. But in terms of how do we ensure that such and such country? That all depends. I just came back from India and there’s a man in our film called Rajan xxxxx who’s kind of the water Gandhi of India. And basically, what he did is he restored the spirit of water conservation and rainwater harvesting in xxxx area of India. Regions where people have totally left. The young men left, only the old men and the women live there. Girls were not going to school due to that. And then slowly with the community effort, they either built or rebuilt some rainwater water harvesting. And all of sudden, the monsoons came, the big rain, and the wells were being refilled and the fields, and the mustard fields were growing, and the whole life there was working again and the young men came back.  Okay?  So right now, for example against all odds, is trying to bring the awareness how important the Yamuna River and the Ganga River are. They feed a lot of the water in some states. But it’s highly political. It’s so pure from its source in the Malaya but by the time it gets to Delhi and other places it’s been so polluted and raped. I remember a year ago, I helped him a little bit and I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God. Where is he going with that?” There were a few politicians, a few activists in Delhi but he didn’t get the voice. But now, two years later, the ministers are listening to him. They stopped dams in the Malaya that is injuring the rivers. So there is hope. That’s one case I’m giving you. There is complete hope. And yes, myself, I was looking at Rajan xxxx and going “Where is he going with this one? He should stay in Rajasthan and concentrate on the rain harvesting.” You know? But I just learned a few weeks ago that he was sitting with some minister to stop some big project that they felt would injure the river and the environment, which was unheard of. There’s huge money involved in those projects. But how I can talk because I’m not particularly educated more than some other experts. I can only talk on a personal matter. And I think awareness on a personal matter is very important. At home, I don’t clean my dishes with the same that I used ten years ago. I don’t buy bottled water anymore. I try to be aware of those things.  But if you want to make it global I can talk about in terms of certainly have to change our ways but in terms of globalism, I think one of the steps is really pay attention to global warming. Every effort that we’re going to make, every effort will be stopped, if we don’t handle that.  Because where does the water come from? Because we need rain.
 
Sean Daily:   Irena, there’s another film that is coming out soon, or actually has been released, and that is making its way across the country sort of on the heels of your film. And that’s called Blue Gold: World Water Wars, basically a –

Irena Salina:   Yes. I’m aware of it because of the book.

Sean Daily:   And I was curious, if perhaps, it addresses many of the same issues and goes into some different areas. And in fact, Sam Bozzo, the director of that film, is scheduled to appear on this program in the next few weeks. I’m just curious, have you met Sam or had the chance to discuss your respective film making experiences on covering water?

Irena Salina:   I have not met Sam. I have through emails, spoken to him. At one point, he was wondering if we could distribute our films at the same time. But my distributor kind of said...You know how distributors...you can’t distribute two films on water at the same time. But I heard about his project because I remember he started five, four years after ours or something. I knew it from Maud. Maud would tell me a little bit about it. But I heard it’s great though.

Sean Daily:   Well we will certainly find out. I have our reviewer copy is coming and we’re certainly going to put it...There’s actually a post up on our website there has a trailer both for your film as well as for the Blue Gold film. So we encourage people to go to Bluethethingideas.com to check that out. The film is Flow. The director is Irena Salina who’s been my guest today. The website is flowthefilm.com. Irena, thank you so much for being with us today on the program.

Irena Salina:   You’re more than welcome. Thank you Sean.

Sean Daily:   Thanks as always to everyone listening in today. Remember for more free on-demand podcasts, articles, videos and other information related to living a greener lifestyle, visit our website at www.greenlivingideas.com. We’d also love to hear your comments, feedback and questions. Send us an email at [email protected].

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