(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)
My passion for water rights did not begin with an intellectual study but rather—as all great adventures do—with the heart. The journey to make my film A Drop Of Life began in January 2001. I was in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, making a documentary on political street theater. On a whim, I took a break to help a friend document the Maha Kumbha Mela, a Hindu festival centered on bathing in the holy confluence of three rivers, which was probably the largest gathering of people in history. During this auspicious time, Hindus believe they can wash away their sins and bring their souls closer to liberation. I found myself living in a tent at the bank of the Ganges with my crew for the duration of the 40-day festival. In the process, I immersed myself in the Maha Kumbha Mela, talking with pilgrims, watching prayer rituals, and soaking myself, day after day, in the sacred water. In the course of many cold baths and warm conversations, I fell wildly in love with this sacred—but polluted—river.
All ancient civilizations flourished at the banks of life-giving rivers, and India was no exception—even the word India derives from the name of the Indus River. Water was traditionally revered as a life-giving mother goddess, infused with the power to sustain life and purify the soul, and the practice of jal jaap, laying out clay cups of water for the thirsty, was widespread. Many indigenous cultures believe that water can’t be owned and is instead the common property of all people. In India, before British colonization led to water being administered by the state, communities were responsible for being caretakers of their own talab, the collective source of water.
My love for the river inspired me to question the cultural practices of offerings made with paper and plastic. I thought to myself, “We call this river mother and then dump junk into it in the name of reverence.” I was moved by the faith in water as sacred and as a common responsibility for the preservation of all life. Today’s societies can learn from traditional Indian cultures, but unfortunately, the contemporary world doesn’t have time to spare. A global water crisis is already upon us.
I read fervently on river systems and the global story of water, and I attended the Peoples’ World Water Forum in New Delhi, the World Social Forum in Mumbai, and the World Water Forum in Mexico City. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke’s riveting 2002 book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water shook me out of my seat. I found the statistics alarming; between one-half and two-thirds of the world’s population, over 4 billion people, will not have adequate access to clean drinking water by the year 2027.
The more I researched, the more I became convinced of the veracity of World Bank Vice President, Ismail Serageldin’s, prediction that “If the wars of the twentieth century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” Water scarcity is already a reality for 1 billion world citizens. Less than one percent of the world’s water is fresh and drinkable, and individuals and corporations are over-consuming. As demand rapidly exceeds supply, corporations are vying to buy water resources and sell them, like any other commodity, to the highest bidder.
We can no longer relegate the problem to sub-Saharan Africa or the interior villages of India. In the United States, we have seen the dramatic effects of the water crisis throughout the South and the Midwest and in California, accompanied by a nationwide decrease in the water levels of many rivers and lakes. As of 2006, Arizona was suffering an ongoing drought that hit its agricultural industry with an estimated 2.8 billion dollars in overall economic losses.
As I became aware of the mounting global water crisis, I realized that it represented a clash of cultures—between a culture that values water as a shared sacred resource and a corporate culture that regards water as a commodity to be bought and sold. According to the World Bank and the United Nations, water is a human need and not a human right. This distinction clarifies that water can be sold for money, unlike rights, which no one can sell.
I created A Drop Of Life to convey the widening, life-threatening divide between people who can afford this vital resource and those who cannot. As an artist, I want to harness the viral energy of youth culture and the popular form of dramatic fiction to inspire new audiences to awareness about water. I wanted to make a film that would reach beyond the traditional environmental movement and social issue documentary audiences. I wanted to create a tool to engage my peers, mostly urban kids of color, to transform water culture. I wanted to make people think of water as a shared human right, not just another commodity.
The water meter in A Drop Of Life was originally conceived to depict a frightening future we are headed towards unless we change our ways. But then I learned, in an interview with Maude Barlow, that this dystopian future, a world in which water is reserved for only those who can afford it, exists today. In the case of the Orange Farm township in South Africa, a development scheme was implemented in the early 2000s that offered each family 6,000 liters per month of free water, after which point they would have to pre-pay for water. Six thousand liters a month for an average 10-person family amounts to a mere 20 liters per person per day. The World Health Organization claims that an individual human being needs 25 liters of water per day to meet basic human needs and another 100 liters per day to be healthy. As a result of the installation of the pre-paid water meter, residents of the township were forced to drink from an unclean source. Over 5,000 people died of cholera died because of that meter. Irresponsible development policies like the pre-paid water meter deepen the life-threatening divide between rich and poor.
The science-fiction water meters I had imagined in my film have already spread to over 10 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, and the United States. Since the making of A Drop Of Life, pre-paid water meters have been introduced in India. This film attempts to move, inspire, and mobilize people to act on this critical issue.
A Drop Of Life emerged from a desire to bring attention to this crisis on which all life depends, and from a belief that mass media can create the spark that ignites social change. African Water Network, a water advocacy organization that works with communities targeted by pre-paid water-meter programs, has screened the film in over 40 villages across Africa, using it as a tool to inspire dialogue about local water issues.
We spend a billion dollars a year on bottled water. What if we put that money into our public systems? In partnership with 7th Empire Media, the A Drop Of Life educational tour will raise awareness through screenings and workshops that challenge students to imagine themselves in new situations and develop critical thinking skills around this issue. Students are encouraged to take Corporate Accountability International’s Think Outside the Bottle Pledge, a campaign to end bottled water consumption in the United States.
I am currently launching an abridged version of A Drop of Life in hopes of developing a feature-length science fiction drama on the subject of the world water crisis. The distribution process will serve as a “calling card” for the long-form project, which will tap all the tools and viral energy of today’s youth culture to engage a new generation in a large-scale environmental movement. A feature-length release would be accompanied by a musical soundtrack, video games, mobile phone content, and a vast online presence, as well as a companion social impact plan designed to create a global culture of respect for water as a human right and shared collective responsibility.
In the decade that I’ve become politicized around water rights, I’ve realized that solutions already exist. We don’t need to nor can we afford to wait for some futuristic technology to save us. By making small changes in our everyday lives, we can transform cultural practice. The core problem is a pervasive corporate culture that ignores our collective responsibility for the world’s water. We can stop buying bottled water. We can carry canteens and reclaim our role as stewards of water. We can use only what we need. We can pressure our government representatives to keep water in the commons and advocate for water subsidies for poor people. We can share this vital resource with every species on the planet for generations to come. To attempt any less, to tell ourselves that the challenges are too insurmountable, or that ultimately water is “someone else’s problem,” is simply unthinkable. A Drop of Life is one step toward starting the conversations that create social change.
Read the first installment of our series on the arts-policy nexus, which discusses the leading role artists are playing in popular protests in Russia and China, here.
Shalini Kantayya is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, educator, and eco-activist. She is the Creative Director of 7th Empire Media, a production company that uses artistic expression and mass media to promote sustainability and human rights.