Water Ills Focus of New Documentary

Last Call at the Oasis highlights global water crisis but opines that the "glass is half full."

A new enviro documentary about water by the "company that brought you An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc. and Waiting for Superman" [video] attempts to accomplish three things: inspire you with the beauty of water, scare the bejesus out of you about a "global water crisis" that is "the central issue facing our world this century," and at the same time leave you with an optimistic message that there are solutions to "this problem if we are willing to act now."

While there is a lot to recommend in the film -- including a plethora of important information and scientific findings we all should be aware of -- the overall result is a bit schizophrenic. I was inspired at times, convinced we've got a world of troubles, but nonplussed by the uplifting, optimistic spin at the film's end.

The Ecstasy -- Water as Inspiration

The most enthralling part of Last Call at the Oasis, directed by Oscar-winner Jessica Yu, by far happens during the opening segments of the film when we are treated to a sequence of water shots -- flowing water, splashing water, droplets of water, and people drinking, swimming in, bathing in, just plain in ecstasy over water. Vaguely reminiscent of the early documentaries known as the "city symphonies" (see here and here) or maybe a cross between them and the opening paean in Woody Allen's Manhattan. Amazing, beautiful stuff -- worth the price of admission.

The shift from inspiration to water troubles occurs with the voice of Erin Brockovich, you know, the single-mom-turned-environmental-activist who became a household name when Julia Roberts embodied her in the eponymous movie by Stephen Soderbergh. The real-life Brockovich, one of the film's lead voices, frames the theme of Oasis -- the centrality of water to our existence. (Minor science peeve: Brockovich says that water is the essential "element" for life. Actually not -- water is a molecule not an element.)

And the Agony -- The Water Crisis, Part 1: Not Enough

The film's main thrust focuses on two aspects of the water crisis: the shortage of fresh water and the dangers of pollution in drinking water.

The depiction of the water-shortage issue features world-renowned scientists: Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute (whose Freedom of Information requests have turned up at least "100 cases of bottled water recalls that we know about for things like coliform bacteria"), Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University (whose study of documented water disputes over the past 50 years showed that of the 1,800 disputes, "two thirds were cooperative" and involved "very little violence and no wars"), and Jay Famiglietti of the University of California at Irvine (who believes the problem is far greater than mass conservation can resolve).

They do a very good job of laying out the scientific information on why and how our use of water in some regions is overwhelming supply and is not sustainable. And while scientists often get knocked for being technocratic, data-spouting talking heads, these guys do, in this humble scientist's opinion, an excellent job of being relaxed, likeable, and engaging.

A good deal of this section of the film focuses on the arid American West, including California's Central Valley and Las Vegas, where growing demand for water, fueled by urban expansion and rapid development coupled with dwindling supply (caused by droughts and climate change), threatens to leave millions of people high and dry.

The Agony, Cont. -- Water Crisis, Part 2: Pollution


Environmental activist Erin Brockovich is a main voice in the film, shown arguing and fighting for better water quality around the country. (ATO Pictures)

Our spokespersons for the section on water quality are activist Brockovich and Tyrone Hayes, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Brockovich, no stranger to the camera, takes us to Midland, Texas, where, even though folks' well water is polluted by hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, they can't find anyone in government or industry willing or able to do anything about it. (The wrap-up section to the film's many story threads informs us that in Hinkley, California, the site of Brockovich's original activism brought to light in the 2000 Soderbergh movie, the electricity company PG&E "offered to buy over 100 homes in the contaminated area.")

Brockovich then discusses a project she has undertaken, creating a map of all the locations from where she has received emails and other communications from people all around the country reporting community health problems. The map, showing affected places across the entire United States, is pretty sobering and at a Senate hearing appeared to get the attention of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), but let's be a little careful -- a database compiled from emails is hardly scientifically rigorous.

Hayes's portion of the film features his work on the effect of water pollution from pesticides on frogs. This section has a light note to it, with clips of hermaphrodite frogs trying to couple, as Hayes looks on in a mix of dumbfounded delight and near disbelief.

Solutions, Yes ...

This is all fairly daunting and eye-opening and should give us all pause. But one thing Participant Media, the production company behind the film, strives for in all of its movies is to "inspire social change," as the production notes put it. And so director Yu has made sure that her audience hears about what can be done to conserve water and use it more efficiently. My guess is that you are already aware of most of these -- like cutting back on watering lawns, using low-flow toilets, not buying bottled water -- but they are worth repeating. Even though they're easily incorporated into our everyday lives, there are an awful lot of folks out there who fail to partake. Case in point: the thriving business in bottled water.

I found quite interesting the segment on using recycled/purified wastewater -- including from our toilets -- for drinking water. We visit with the astronauts on the Space Station while they slurp up water that had formerly been their urine and with a PR firm trying to come up with catchy brand names for bottled water derived from sewage. (The winner? Porcelain Springs, which then gets a plug from actor Jack Black. The testing out on the public is highly amusing.)

But ...

While this is an important film and worth checking out, there's stuff that bothers me a bit. For one, the solutions touted in it, like using a low-flow toilet, are nice, but they're not going to solve the water-shortage problem. Much more fundamental change is needed, and that brings me to my next point.


For me, the bigger issue touching water that needs serious attention is agriculture and food production. (Photo: ATO Pictures)

Agriculture is a huge water issue that does not get much air time in Oasis. In the film the major culprits causing water shortages are urban development and water-wasting people. But the fact is that agriculture is by far and away the greatest user of water.

If we want to solve the water-shortage issue, we ultimately have to address water usage in agriculture. And it's not just water availability; it's also water quality. Agriculture is responsible for a good deal of the fresh water pollution in the United States.

We're not going to solve our water problems without coming to terms with agriculture as a profligate water user and polluter.

And while we can't survive without water, we also need food, and food comes from agriculture. Oasis would have been a far more incisive film if its solutions included ones that addressed that little conundrum.

In addition to being at the root of many of our water problems, food production is also a driver of other serious environmental problems: loss of habitat and biodiversity, carbon emissions and climate change, dead zones in the ocean, pesticides and antibiotics in our food. Solving these problems is no easy task. We face a world where we will need to feed nine billion people. It's not obvious how we will do this while also lowering the environmental footprint of agriculture.

The intended theme of the movie may be that the "global water crisis [is the] central issue facing our world this century," but it left me thinking about a coming global crisis in food production.

Last Call at the Oasis began its screening rounds on the documentary festival circuit in March and will begin a national tour in selected movie theaters around the country starting on May 4 with showings in New York and Los Angeles. Check it out and share your thoughts with us.