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Fight for Water Hits Crisis Levels Worldwide

Films explore variety of conflicts over life-sustaining resource

"Dhaka’s Challenge" explores the limited access to safe water and adequate sanitation in one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.

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Rosanne Skirble

Nearly one billion people around the globe lack access to clean, safe water. It's a common problem in many parts of the developing world, but its severity and human impact are not widely known, according to experts at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a Washington-based news organization.

As part of the United Nations’ annual World Water Day observance, the center is screening a slate of documentaries about international water issues at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. The films portray a variety of conflicts over water and the efforts to protect this life-sustaining resource.

The challenge in presenting these films, says Peter Sawyer, projects coordinator at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, is to share with a wider audience the urgent issues surrounding water security.

"Our goal for this screening is to just get these issues out there," he says. "We don’t feel that they are in the public consciousness and we think that they should be and we think that they should be because they are really important."

Dhaka's challenge

In "Dhaka’s Challenge," filmmaker Stephen Sapienza explores one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. He says one-third of the 15 million people in the Bangladeshi capital live in slums, where access to safe water and adequate sanitation is limited.

"And you can see it everywhere when you are riding around in Dhaka. You see people cuing up to go to public toilets," says Sapienza. "You will see hanging toilets where people will actually defecate on the top of an open river or creek."

It’s a sanitation disaster at the heart of this year’s World Water Day theme - Water for Cities. Each year 400,000 newcomers join Dhaka’s urban poor, putting pressure on its already crowded slums. City water from Dhaka’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) comes at a price, available only to land owners. The film documents how a non-profit group helped change the law to give the same water privileges to the urban poor.  

Diabalok Sing Ha is the group’s founder. "A win-win situation actually occurred because Dhaka WASA, they wanted their revenues and on the other hand, poor people, they wanted the service and they immediately see the economic advantage of getting access to Dhaka WASA water supply because that is cheap in comparison to the private market, so they immediately buy in."

Sapienza says more groups are seeking those rights, an effort that has already begun to scale up in Bangladesh and could become a model in other parts of the world.

"My story was just trying to point out that these problems are solvable on some level even if you have to start small and it’s possible in the long run to save many, many lives."

Flood damage

A second Pulitzer Center-sponsored film is focused on Pakistan. Floods in 2010 covered one-fifth of the country, claiming 1,600 lives and destroying towns and farmland.

"Water Scarcity on the Indus River," directed by Fred de Sam Lazaro, journeys to Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan, where aid worker Maqsood Alam helps restore flood-damaged farms and irrigation canals for the half-million local people who depend on them.

In a place better known for militant extremists, Alam says his major problem has been putting a lot of farmers back to work.

"Farm families that have (this) subsistence kind of agriculture, they have lost their source of income generation."

That recovery will take time, says Pakistan water activist, Simi Kamal. "Really to help these people get back on the land, help them stay away from diseases as much as they can, help them with their own food needs, help get the kids to school, you know, help them get over this winter."

The film also explores the irony that Pakistan is laced by rivers fed by the melting glaciers of the Himalayan Mountains, but suffers from chronic shortages because water distribution is managed so poorly, and complicated by disputes with neighboring India.

China lake

Water scarcity affects one-in-three people on every continent, according to the World Health Organization. A third Pulitzer Center-supported film documents how China’s second largest fresh water lake has shrunk by half since the 1940s. Dongting Hu Lake is used to quench the thirst of local communities while also meeting the competing demands of farms and factories. Increasing levels of silt from economic development are diminishing the lake even further.

"It’s true that fish are less and less," says Chinese ecologist Jiang Yong. "There are several reasons. First, the demand for fish has become greater. The population is growing and there are more and more people around the city. They love to make fish and make several dishes. People have a conception that eating fish is a must when you come to Dongting."

Yong adds that awareness of environmental protection is not enough. People need to find a way to live with the lake and not over-exploit it, if the lake is to survive.

US water fight

In the southeastern United States, people in three states have been squabbling for the past 20 years over access to the waters of the Chattahoochee River. The documentary "Chattahoochee: From Water War to Water Vision" takes viewers along that winding river - through Georgia, Alabama and Florida - to meet the people whose livelihoods depend on it.  Producer Jonathan Wickham says the solution to competing urban, agricultural and business needs will require a new way of thinking about the shared resource.

"And if you live upstream, that means you can make reasonable use of the water supply as long as you don’t deprive your neighbors downstream," says Wickham.

The 52,000-square-kilometer watershed serves six million people - from Gulf of Mexico oystermen to the 3.5 million residents of metropolitan Atlanta. The city is currently facing a court order to share local water resources with neighboring counties which could cut the city’s supply in half.

Katherine Bliss, director of the water project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says what this story and the others from around the world have in common is that solving these complicated water problems requires that people become educated and engaged.

"I think each of the films, by highlighting the human struggles, relates not only to the kind of negotiations they are talking about, but education and awareness, conservation and promoting a greater understanding of the fact that water is a shared resource."


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