Water wars

By Anuradha Sengupta

Shaken by the magnitude of water stress, and the conflicts surrounding it, award-winning filmmaker Urmi Chakraborty has made a hard-hitting new documentary on water

Water, a documentary made by award-winning filmmaker Urmi Chakraborty, is an unsettling film on the looming water crisis facing the world. The film illustrates how water is what our lives flow through. And how water is also what inspires multi-billion-dollar enterprise and investment. Nations sign treaties around water. And businessmen dream of cutting up the polar ice cap and carting it around the world for a handsome profit.

 Making films about social issues has been 37-year-old Chakraborty's passion. Chakraborty opted to stand behind the camera after acting in several films. Since her directorial debut in 1994, she has made a number of documentaries. Infiltrators, highlighting the problem of infiltration along the Indo-Bangladesh border, won her a best documentary award in 2000. Two years later, her first feature film, Hemanter Pakhi, which centred around a woman's quest for her identity, won the national award in 2002.

The idea for Water was triggered off three years ago when Chakraborty read a stray report in a newspaper on the looming freshwater crisis facing the world. "I did some more research on the Net and was alarmed by the magnitude of the problem. And by the ignorance and indifference of our leaders…The freshwater crisis is already evident in many parts of India, varying in scale and intensity at different times of the year. Many freshwater ecosystems are being degraded," she says.

The reports all claimed that the next great wars would be fought over water. The Middle East, parts of Africa, China, Russia, parts of the United States and several other areas are already struggling to share water resources. "Many conflicts over water are not even recognised as such. Some environmental activists even attribute the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in part to the severe scarcity of water in settlement areas. Now how many people are aware of that? So I decided to make people sit up and take notice of the crisis the only way I knew - through a hard-hitting documentary."

Water took four years to make, and Chakraborty travelled all over the country from the Himalayas to Rajasthan to south India. During the course of her journeys, she encountered some heartening developments. "There's this multi-storey complex in Chennai that has a rainwater harvesting system on the rooftop. In fact, in Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai, it is compulsory for multi-storeyed buildings to have a system of rainwater harvesting." And some disquieting incidents: She was gheraoed by the sand-mining mafia in Chennai. "They take all the sand from the riverside and that makes it impossible for water to be stored. When we wanted to film what they were doing, they refused to let us shoot and threatened us with dire consequences."

The research for the film alone took three years. Chakraborty spoke to leading water management experts and activists like Calcutta-based river scientist Kalyan Rudra, Magsaysay award-winner Rajendra Singh and activist Medha Patkar. She also spoke to Vandana Shiva, author of Water Wars, a chilling book that explores the legal and theoretical issues surrounding the rapid depletion of this most precious resource. "Previous ideas that we could just take water out and it would somehow magically be replenished have changed."

Water traces how freshwater is increasingly taking centrestage on the economic and political agenda, as more and more disputes between and within states, districts, regions, and even at the community level arise. "I found that political inertia at almost every level is contributing to one of the gravest threats to the survival of the human race. And yet no one's really bothered." Chakraborty's documentary slams the government for turning a blind eye to the threat to the earth's freshwater, despite all the scientific evidence.

The documentary also explores how major corporations are eagerly eyeing what water has become: a booming, virtually untapped market worth $1 trillion per year. If the world has a water problem, privatisation proponents say let us solve it. Many claim the water cartel is today as powerful as the arms lobby.

(Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2003