Reviews

Blue Gold: World Water War (2008)
Director: Sam Bozzo. Run: 90 minutes

The film Blue Gold: World Water Wars, which had its Scottish Premiere on March 26 at the University of Strathclyde, is a timely intervention in the global water debate. A riveting expos̩ that eloquently contextualises the implications of commodifying and privatising fresh water goods and services, Blue Gold provides a snapshot of the pressing political, economic and social issues surrounding water and exposes the powerful players operating in the global water market Рincluding international financial institutions, lobby groups and transnational water corporations. The filmmaker Sam Bozzo illustrates how the unequal power relations that characterise the global economy play out in very concrete examples at a global, national, regional and local level.

Blue Gold unfolds in four chapters. The water ‘Crisis’ tells a story of the impending threat of water scarcity due to overuse, pollution, deforestation, desertification, damning and increased urbanisation. The second chapter ‘Politics’ addresses the debate over whether fresh water is an economic good – a commodity to be sold, bought and traded in the marketplace – or a public good or trust that is part of the global commons. ‘World Water Wars’ exposes the severity of the issue in terms of concerns that threaten to reconfigure geo-political relations worldwide. The final section, ‘The Way Forward’ presents some of the alternatives to privatisation e.g. a UN convention recognising access to water as a human right.

Though the film does an excellent job in covering most of the broad concerns relating to the debate over fresh water, the main shortcoming of the film is its lack of substantive political analysis. As real as the crisis may be, the film’s examination of the water scarcity issue does more to sensationalise than it does to explore the political and social manifestations of the concept. Scarcity is a concept defined and often circumscribed by free market wants and needs. It is a concept that is measured not in terms of absolute quantity but by market demand. Stewardship of the fresh water commons is lacking, as the film notes; however, as a point of critique we must ask if this concept is the measure upon which we should best be exploring essential alternatives? This point raises concern about the section entitled ‘Politics’. Blue Gold does a fine job of presenting the commodity versus commons debate but failed to draw out the driving force of commercialisation, that which guides the logic of privatisation – capitalist accumulation.

Finally, ‘The Way Forward’ fell short of providing viable solutions to counter and resist the powerful players at the global level. This section spent too much time delving into managerial, technological and conservational innovations at the expense of exploring political and economic alternatives. Moreover, though declaring access to a human right may be progressive and look good on paper it does little to achieve equitable and guaranteed access to people in places where there is very little or no water or where water has already been privatised. The Uruguayan example used in the film, where water was declared a human right in the constitution, was more of a legal victory than a human rights victory. Furthermore, the film does not address the non-binding status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the fact that there are no legal enforcement mechanisms in place to hold ratifying parties to account.

The central message of the film – the increasing commercial trajectory of water, including the private control and corporatisation of water – resonates in Scotland. Still publicly owned, Scotland’s water utility, Scottish Water, is an attractive prospect for water transnational corporations (TNCs) reconfiguring their corporate strategies away from the uncertain markets of the third world towards the stability and potentially lucrative returns of first world economies and their highly developed utilities infrastructure and favourable regulatory frameworks. After downsizing its workforce since 2002, the bulk of the capital investment programme is carried out by the joint venture Scottish Water Solutions (SWS), made up of such private luminaries as United Utilities, Veolia, Black and Veatch and KBR (a subsidiary of the infamous Halliburton). In addition, some of the world’s prominent water TNCs are involved in the 21 PFI operated and managed Wastewater Treatment Plants in Scotland; what’s more, private equity firms have entered this PFI marketplace. Taken together, private contracts amount to much more than half of Scottish Water’s total annual budget.

Budgets, charges, regulation and corporate strategy have been increasingly transferred to experts – more often than not economists – with little scope or concern for public involvement. A central driver of Scotland’s current strategy is the purposeful and ideologically driven economic regulator, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS). With its strong links to the World Bank and right-wing think tanks WICS appears determined to use its influence to direct Scotland down a commercial route made familiar in the film.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this film is its well-crafted narrative about how the control of water is ebbing away from people and elected political officials and shifting to corporations and that this process is being resisted by various modes and methods that seek change by challenging the status quo of increasing corporate power. This film has a unique opportunity to reach a wide and diverse audience and by doing so raise critical awareness about the issues and awaken public consciousness to the importance of fresh water.

Tommy Kane and Kyle Mitchell
After the Troubles; Republicanism, Socialism and Partition,
Irish Socialist Network (www.irishsocialist.net)

To paraphrase the words of its own introduction, this collection of essays is an attempt to provide a stringent, left-wing analysis of the Northern Irish situation. It consists of an introduction by Tommy McKearney: two essays by Colm Breathnach: and two essay-length reviews by Ed Walsh. While the perspective is primarily from a republican viewpoint, and much of the material deals with the problems and tactics of Sinn Fein, the stance is by no means partisan.

Although published in February 2009, the individual essays themselves were written at various dates between 2005 and 2009. It is a criticism of the volume, therefore, that it is not entirely up-to-date with recent developments in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to the quality of the writing that all of the essays are still very relevant.

A recurrent theme in each of the essays is: what are the problems facing a radical, or revolutionary party, if and when it moves from a purely oppositional role, to one of exercising constitutional power within the very structure which it is pledged, ultimately, to disrupt. What compromises might it have to make along the way: and how can it make these compromises without, eventually, alienating its own power base. The party the pamphlet is primarily concerned with is, of course, Sinn Fein. But despite the radically different starting points, and the different contexts between Northern Ireland and Scotland, there are still interesting parallels which the reader can draw between the dilemmas faced by Sinn Fein, and the problems faced by the SNP, as they move respectively to share or take power in a devolved context. In this respect, the essay by Colm Breathnach on “The Crisis of Irish Republicanism” is probably most relevant to the Scottish reader.

The theme of Breathnach’s essay is that, despite its rhetoric, Sinn Fein has in practice accommodated its principles to the requirements of the existing power structures. The specific examples Breathnach cites relate to de facto Sinn Fein support for PFI, and for an essentially neo-liberal policy of low business taxation. As regards Sinn Fein’s double standards on PFI, he gives the following telling quotation of what Gerry Adams said when he was asked about Sinn Fein’s attitude to public private partnerships, (while addressing the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in April 2004): “Well, we are against them. Having said that, Martin McGuinness, as education minister, faced with the reality that he would either have no schools or an involvement in a qualified way with private finance, went for it. So I suppose you could argue that that is the emergence of pragmatic politics.” Overall, Breathnach concludes that the message Sinn Fein was giving out to the business establishment was “we might not be exactly to your taste but we can be trusted to carry on business as usual, we are now tame enough to be allowed a seat at the governing table.”

And how has Sin Fein attempted to maintain its own grass roots support, in the face of such departures from its ostensibly radical policies? The tactics used form a recurrent theme in each of the essays. As well as saying one thing while doing another, Sinn Fein has adopted strong, even autocratic, leadership: has cracked down on internal dissent: and has attempted to keep its youth wing in line by allowing them a more radical tone.

The problems faced by the SNP in Scotland, as it attempts to exercise devolved power, are of course not dissimilar to those facing Sinn Fein. Scottish readers will wish to judge for themselves to what extent the SNP has adopted similar tactics to Sinn Fein.

Jim Cuthbert