By Melissa van Mayrhauser
Zooming in on a lake in Cambodia, viewers see colorful boat homes perched on a forested lake. On closer glance, they see that pollutants have blackened the water.
A fisherman reaches into the murky water and says that he drinks it even though it makes him sick, as he does not have another option. Meanwhile, poverty rates continue to rise in the area, which are linked to water-related health concerns.
Eighty-five percent of all wastewater around the world is not treated, viewers hear, showing that thinking about water issues involves questions not only of quantity, but also of quality.
The water documentary “A Thirsty World” combines French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photography with down-to-earth messages, a mélange that calls attention to problems of water security on a global scale. (The film was shown at a special Columbia screening last month at La Maison Française. “A Thirsty World” will be distributed in the USA by NBC Universal Pictures in 2013. You can watch a trailer in English here.)
Bertrand’s images remind viewers of water’s power and its potential to accomplish great missions, from carving mountainsides to delivering nutrients to fields to sustaining life.
Within this majestic framework, Directors Baptiste Rouget-Luchaire and Thierry Piantanida zoom in their focus to individuals in 20 countries around the world. They show their struggles to confront issues of water quality and quantity.
An attorney in China defends fishermen whose livelihoods have suffered because of water pollution. Due to his efforts and their newfound awareness about their rights, they receive compensation, and the river’s pollution decreases while fish populations increase.
A farmer in the American West looks out over his corn crop and thinks about whether to sell his water reserves to local towns. He would make a large profit while ending the line of farmers in his family who had worked off the land for generations.
Rouget-Luchaire said that they approached the film from a global perspective, not only because Arthus-Bertrand has focused on worldwide ecology in his work, but also because “water is an issue worldwide.”
“Whenever we spend money on water, it’s linked to other countries because of the crops and food that we buy from other countries,” Rouget-Luchaire said.
The directors tried to compile a more complex picture of how individuals think about issues of water scarcity and sanitation by showing one story at a time. Rouget-Luchaire said that the team looked to speak to people who “are talking from their heart,” while they also chose untraditional locations to film.
“The director went into the Congo and other parts of Africa that are really not filmed at all,” Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, said. “So simply in terms of exposure of those geographies and the lives of those people, the film is stunning.”
Lall and Pierre Gentine, a Columbia Water Center researcher, said the issues raised in the film connect to what the Water Center is working on, particularly in terms of making agriculture more water-efficient.
Lall is working on developing a strategy to help farmers take measurements of soil moisture, so that they will just irrigate what is necessary rather than overusing water; Gentine is studying how plant physiology influences drought resistance.
The film showcases locations where individuals are changing the ways that they manage water. The audience sees images of Cambodian farmers who are using water in a more efficient way, and Indian farmers who are choosing crops that require less water, for example.
Lall, Gentine and Rouget-Luchaire called for students to respond to the film and its message about the interconnectedness of global water issues by using social media to raise awareness with a broad audience about water conservation.
“Hopefully what comes out of this film for students is that if you’re looking at development, if you’re looking at being an energy person, if you’re looking at educational opportunities, then what this film really gets across to you is that there are opportunities in all of these areas from a global perspective,” Lall said.
Guest blogger Melissa von Mayrhauser is a senior at Columbia College and an intern at the Earth Institute.