Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water

Alan Snitow & Deborah Kaufman with Michael Fox

304 pages, Jossey-Bass, 2007

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Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water
Alan Snitow & Deborah Kaufman with Michael Fox
304 pages (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman amply demonstrate in Thirst that they are onto something real and worrisome – America’s chronic clumsiness in figuring out the right role for private firms and market principles in high-stakes public issues. And their book is so earnestly intended that any reader with half a heart is rooting for it to succeed. Thirst is essentially an adaptation into print of excerpts from the eponymous documentary by Snitow and Kaufman that National Public Television aired, to considerable acclaim, in 2004. Like the film, the book hopscotches among several separate settings where one of the many variants of water privatization is in play.

The tour starts in California, as the city of Stockton experiments with contracting out the management of its water system, and a shifting set of corporate and civic players wrangle over control of services in the city of Felton. The focus moves south to chronicle Atlanta’s transit from a lousy public system to a lousy private system and back again; then a quixotic campaign in Lexington, Ky., to bring a long-private water utility into public ownership. In Lee, Mass., town leaders’ plans to meet antipollution requirements through a private sewage-treatment contract are crushed by citizen opposition, while in Holyoke a similar initiative squeaks through amid ugly politics. When Perrier sets out to market bottled water from a couple of Midwestern sources, it is chased out of Wisconsin but (barely) remains in operation in Michigan after brutal legal and political battles.

The book’s video parentage shows through in its sprawling cast of characters, most of them interesting, some of them inspiring, a few distinctly memorable. Jim Graham is the devastatingly effective communications strategist for the community coalition that outfought a global corporation in Felton. He had gone from a job with defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. to become a media and message consultant to clients such as the über-Indie Burning Man festival; there’s probably a book to be written about his career alone. Holly Wren Spaulding is a home-schooled independent media maven who organized a “Fuck You, Perrier!” punk rock fundraiser to support anti-bottling efforts in upper Michigan. And Dale Stocking, an orthodontist who led the opposition to outsourcing the management of Stockton’s water system, gets credit for the book’s most arresting metaphor when he charges that pro-privatization forces “spoon-fed dog and pony shows” to the city council.

The print medium, though, lacks the emotional immediacy that (for better or worse) gives video such impact. And aside from some sketchy international references at the beginning and end, the book concerns itself with relatively mundane water squabbles in the United States, omitting the more dramatic South American and Asian episodes that anchor the movie. An even more fundamental consequence of the shift from the screen to the page, however, is that logical gaps that you can get away with on the tube are glaringly obvious in print.

Most of the book’s flaws stem from the fact that it conflates three different phenomena: the emergence (or rather diffusion) of a market for bottled water; the involvement of private firms in managing municipal water and sewer utilities; and the transformation of water into a commodity like any other, available to high bidders and denied to those without the means to pay. The three are presented as integrated aspects of the same dark trend of corporate triumphalism and democracy in retreat. But they’re nothing of the sort. They reflect quite distinctive market dynamics and summon very different kinds of policy concerns.

The first phenomenon is relatively trivial. Not entirely so, to be sure: Weak regulation of bottled water implies some risk, but there’s little evidence of problems with adulterated Aquafina and every incentive for companies not to poison their customers. Bottling operations surely annoy some people who live near sources and have to cope with extra traffic and cluttered landscapes. But the policy issues on both the supply and demand sides of the bottled water market are mostly secondorder.

The second phenomenon, private involvement in the management of water systems, does engage significant policy issues. Thirst accurately describes a trend of merger and consolidation that is leading European infrastructure firms to dip their toes into the American municipal market. And the authors are surely right that policy blunders – outsourcing the wrong functions, or perversely structuring contracts – can expose citizens to consequential financial and health risks.

Water systems are actually somewhat unpromising prospects, in general, for seeking efficiency gains through private involvement. This is so not because water is vital to life and health notable books 76 STANFORD SOCIAL INNOVATION REVIEW / fall 2007 – the privatized delivery system we call “food stamps” works out pretty well for a comparably primal mission – but because there is little competition for control of water systems.

Sometimes private management of water or sewer systems can improve efficiency and accountability. Sometimes it can make things worse. Figuring out when private involvement makes sense, and when it doesn’t, requires the sort of close analysis of technical and economic specifics that the authors of Thirst dismiss in favor of heart-stirring, headdodging tales of sleazy businessmen and spunky community activists.

The third phenomenon – the sweeping shift of water resources to private ownership – would indeed be something to get worked up over, if it were happening. But it isn’t, by and large. The book’s subtitle reference to “the corporate theft of our water” reflects either a very large dose of poetic license, slightly deceptive marketing, or a touch of paranoia. “Local critics are beginning to see the [bottled water] industry as a harbinger of wider threats, including the commodification of water, the export of water in bulk, and the end of the keystone idea of affordable water as a public trust and human right.” Maybe they’re seeing it that way, but that does not make it so.

As the stories told here make abundantly clear, government remains in solid control of America’s water resources. Ugly episodes in the 19th century left their lessons, and today the law, not the market, has the final word on who gets water and on what terms.

Will that change? The authors clearly think so, predicting an “epic power struggle, which will spread to every corner of North America.” There are certainly cynical operators somewhere out there who’d be happy to leave us all parched and filthy if they could make a buck in the process. But even in the hyper-market- friendly United States there’s virtually no prospect that citizens will stand aside and let corporations have their way with our water. In case after case profiled in this very book, corporate threats that range from circumscribed to delusional spark instinctive and generally successful opposition.

Communities have seen their water rights wrenched away in the past, and surely will in the future as the planet gets more crowded and the climate nastier. But the blunt instrument of power politics, not intricate and brittle market mechanisms, is the driving force behind most water grabs. William Mulholland, remember, was a civil servant – chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department – when he drained the Sierra Nevada Mountains to make Los Angeles blossom before World War I.

Privatization has little to do with water policy’s biggest lunacies (locating California’s agricultural heartland in a desert) or tragedies (the billion-plus people who lack clean water, and the millions of children who die annually as a result).

Thirst offers inspiration and some tradecraft tips for people who are looking to raise hell about corporate threats to water. But it provides little guidance for those who are trying to decide when to raise hell. Readers struggling to figure out where the market presents a real menace to accountable water policy, where it might help a bit, and where it doesn’t much matter should look elsewhere.

John D. Donahue teaches at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and is the author, most recently, of The Warping of Government Work (Harvard University Press, forthcoming).