A DROP OF LIFE: A Filmmaker’s Journey Inside the World Water Crisis

Written by

Shalini Kantayya
Shalini Kantayya ilmmaker, educator, and activist Shalini Kantayya finished in the top 10 out of 12,000 filmmakers ON THE LOT, a show by Steven Spielberg search of Hollywood’s next great director. A William D. Fulbright Scholar in documentary, her movie a DROP of LIFE won Best Short at Palm Beach International, Audience Choice Award, and a Crystal Dior Nomination at Tokyo Short Shorts. She has received recognition from Jerome Foundation’s Centennial, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, among others. She is a Kellogg Food & Society Fellow and a TED Fellow.

The journey to make 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 accepted a friend’s request to help him document the largest gathering of people in human history, at the Maha Kumbha Mela.

The Maha Kumbha Mela is a religious festival in which people come to bathe in the holy confluence of three rivers at an auspicious time because doing so is believed to wash away sins and bring the soul closer to liberation. I found myself living in a tent at the bank of the Ganga with my crew for the duration of the 40-day festival.

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 River Indus. 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, of 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 — and in India, before British colonization led to water’s being administered by the state, communities were responsible for being caretakers of their own talab, the collective source of water.  I was moved by this faith in water as sacred and as a common responsibility for the preservation of all life and it led me to learn more about water.

I found the statistics alarming; between one-half and two-thirds of the world’s population, over four billion people, will not have adequate access to clean drinking water by the year 2027. Water scarcity is already a reality for one billion world citizens. 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.

The more I researched and read about water, 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.”  After living many years between India and America, I wondered how water conflicts in the future will affect the already vast disparities between the “First World” and “Third World.” I created A Drop Of Life in order to convey the widening life-threatening divide between people who can afford this vital resource and those who cannot.

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 frightening future, a world in which water is reserved for only those who can afford it, exists today.   The science-fiction water meters I had imagined already exist today in over 10 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, and the United States.

In the decade that I’ve become politicized around water rights, I’ve realized that solutions already exist. The gap between the end of the world and the life saving action we need to take is within our reach. It means making small changes in our everyday lives. We can transform cultural practice. We can stop buying bottled water and strengthen laws to protect our clean drinking 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 preserve and protect this vital resource for every species on the planet for generations to come.

1Barlow, Maude, and Clarke, Tony. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New York: The New Press, 2002).
* ABC News, Oct. 15, 2007

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