A Drop of Life
The woman behind the podium said: “Who controls water controls life.”
We were at the International House on Chestnut Street on the University of Penn’s campus in Philadelphia. We had just watched a short film, part documentary, part drama, “A Drop of Life,” about a small town in India with a big water problem. The award-winning film about the global water crisis was directed by the woman, Shalini Kantayya, a director and an environmental activist with a big heart and even bigger desire to alleviate some of the more intractable issues of our time through movie making. This was her second film, but I got the sense, listening to her rattle off statistics as if they were the names of beloved family members that Ms. Kantayya had been thinking about this long before beginning her film career.
A self-described sci-fi fan who is perpetually inspired by a good story, Kantayya’s film had the sci-fi paradigm with its small group of rebels pitted against the monster conglomerate water company. The town’s citizens were literally dying for clean water while the corporation sold it to them a few cups at a time for more rupees than anyone could spare. And because of the new water supply, the old water supply had been turned over to the cows and was no longer safe to drink from. The people appeared to be doomed. More than that I don’t want to tell you because I want you to see this lovely film and experience its takeaways first hand — who controls water controls life, not just in developing nations, but everywhere — and if you don’t believe that, just consider what’s happened in the United States within the last few years:
Flint Michigan children have elevated levels of lead in their blood today because of the City’s cost-saving measure in 2014 to switch their water draw from the Detroit River to the Flint River which was 19x’s more corrosive;
Charleston, West Virginia where Freedom Chemical spilled crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water of about 300,000 residents in nine counties; and
The entire state of California which was required by Governor Jerry Brown to reduce their water usage by 20% to combat a severe, decade-long drought.
Those are just a few examples. The world is littered with more. Kantayya’s message is simple: “We’re on the edge of a storm,” and need to act now. It’s time to “think outside the bottle,” and remember that water is “a shared right that we are not just owners of, but stewards of.” Kantayya believes that a good place to start would be to end water privatization. Since 2010, the cost of water has risen 48% in 30 major cities, yet corporations continue to extract water for pennies on the dollar and soon supply will be unable to keep up with demand. Pushing the responsibility off to the states is, in fact, irresponsible because the states simply can’t afford it. Kantayya says it’s time to hold both the government and corporations accountable if we are to keep up with trends and changes in consumerism and an ever greater demand for water based on a growing population. For example, while it’s great that EPA protects us against 91 chemicals, there are over 60,000 chemicals on the market which means we’ve got some work to do.
So how do we make the leap? First we need innovation — like the water purifier created by the inventor of the Segway, or the poop straw that instantly purifies contaminated water, or an aquaponic fish farm. Next, we need to invest in our aging infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars worth to repair and replace broken pipes across the country. Third, we need a women’s movement because women are always at the heart of any movement on sustainability and history shows that when women get involved, change happens. Finally, we need to realize that sustainability doesn’t come at the expense of jobs, rather the opposite — $188 billion in water infrastructure will create 1.3 million jobs.
How will we change-averse humans deal with such sweeping changes in such a short span of time? It will be an enormous undertaking, but Kantayya has faith, hope, and tenacity, and encourages others to have the same. She described a scene from one of her favorite sci-fi movies, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Pursued by enemy fighters, Hans Solo flies into an asteroid field to lose them:
C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred twenty to one!
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!
— Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Defying the odds — it’s where Shalini Kantayya lives.