Reporting on Water as a Global Story
A network of international journalists produced multimedia reports on the consequences of privatizing water.
As giant corporations in the 1980’s and 1990’s gobbled up almost every journalistic enterprise and began reducing them to cash cows and political tools, investigative reporting gradually receded from journalism. Charles Lewis, a producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” responded in the late 1980’s by creating The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), an investigative reporting venture started by journalists and run by journalists. It is essentially built on a promise to keep the faith. From its offices in Washington, D.C., CPI has consistently broken major stories on topics including political party financing, the American justice system, the environment, and corruption in corporate America. Its medium is primarily the Internet, but the center has also published numerous books and articles in newspapers and magazines around the world.
In 1997, CPI’s founders assembled an international network of investigative journalists from about 45 countries and created The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). In the era of globalization, what happens in our backyard often is happening (or having consequences) throughout the world. Certainly there are common threads of behavior to be found as centralized corporate and political power structures work together to impose systems, ideologies and strategies worldwide. It seemed clear that journalism needed to create new and strategic approaches to reporting these global stories.
At meetings of this network’s members, story ideas were discussed. At the 2001 meeting there was agreement that launching a worldwide investigative project about water was a natural fit. The topic also seemed—with water’s stunning visual and audio potential—like the perfect candidate for a multimedia treatment using the Internet, print, radio and television. Humans possess a deeply natal attraction to water, so documentary film and even radio are natural media for telling stories about water.
In print, this story would be driven by narrative details and ideas. Water supplied a good story that went far beyond the simple truth of the reckoning with expanding populations, reduced water resources, and projected solutions. The story of water at its essence would offer a revealing look at international corporate and political intrigue and the internal machinations of world power elites.
Defining the Project
When dealing with such a large multimedia and global project, it is crucial—when trying to organize the work of 15 journalists throughout the world—to embark with a crystal clear and agreed-upon focus. To achieve this kind of clarity, our project’s theme had to be contained in a single word and line. Given that the United Nations had set millennium goals for delivering clean water to the world’s population and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had devised the financial means to do this, we also knew that major global corporations would control the utilities and supply the expertise. So the word we focused the journalists’ attention on was “privatization.”
We wanted journalists to examine in a number of countries how the world’s political, financial and corporate power centers were privatizing water as they sought to transform this life force into a commodity. Our story would be about how five companies set out to control the world’s drinking water. As the project’s editor, I sent this theme to every journalist involved in the project. Because the CPI member selection process involves a fairly vigorous vetting of their past work, there are no weak links. This meant there would be no question of us being able to select well-qualified journalists for this project. The issue would be to determine the right countries or regions from which to report this story: We needed to identify countries and characters who played key roles in the battles over privatization and whose stories would clearly demonstrate how the battles unfolded.
My research narrowed our list of potential countries to about 20. I then sent off a list of questions to ICIJ members in those countries as a guide to them providing us with more on-the-ground, in-depth research. Their replies led me to focus reporting on South Africa, Argentina, Colombia, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, France, England, the United States, and Canada.
While each country told a unique part of this story, what these journalists learned gave our project the ability to report on a global pattern, devised by the World Bank and its corporate partners. France and the United Kingdom were home to the world’s largest water companies—Suez, Vivendi and Thames. Both countries aggressively privatized their local utilities, and once their home water markets were saturated, they were ready to push their market strategies out into the rest of the world.
While Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had supplied the ideology, the World Bank provided the financial muscle. Newly created organizations, such as the World Water Council, the brainchild of the water industry, helped to sell privatization as the only solution to the world’s “water crisis.” Business magazines, such as Fortune, applauded the self-proclaimed success of bringing water to the poor of Buenos Aires, Manila, Jakarta and South Africa. Atlanta would be these companies’ foothold in North America, as they set out to privatize water in the United States and Canada, promising cheaper rates and more reliable service. Bechtel privatized the water of Cochabamba in Bolivia. Enron jumped into the market with a water utility company that won a major concession in Argentina, while it also started a project to trade California water on the Internet. Wall Street salivated over the billion-dollar potential of water commodity trading. In its customary portrayal, all sounded great.
At ICIJ, we started to take a hard look at what was happening on the ground.
Reporting the Story
What we found is that bribery, corruption and international political haggling drove the business as companies competed for billion-dollar concessions. Once private companies moved in, competition ended and a ruthless, monopolistic capitalism took over. People had their water cut off and homes seized when they were unable to pay their utility bills. In South Africa, one consequence of this was the largest cholera outbreak in the country’s history as thousands were forced to get water from contaminated ponds and streams. In Buenos Aires, corporations reaped windfall profits while the poor did not get their promised water or sewage services. Soon the companies demanded contract changes imposing higher water rates and reduced service obligations.
There was no question that in some areas water services improved. But improvement always came with a high price tag that went beyond money. The community ceded its control of its water system, and this often resulted in a loss of community itself. Now everything depended on the whims of the water companies. Even though privatization was sold on the argument that the private sector could do the job more cheaply and more efficiently, the ability to hold these companies accountable vanished, while events also proved the opposite to be the case. The profit motive and high financing costs drove people’s costs up and efficiencies were achieved by a reduction in services.
What we learned in reporting on these situations is that when political will exists, water systems are always better run and service is more reliable under government control. The belief that everyone has a right to clean water is simply not compatible with a capitalist approach to its control.
So what happened in many of these places where privatization was tried is that prices skyrocketed, services plummeted, and protestors refused to pay. Many took to the streets. In Bolivia, a protestor was killed by an army sniper— a murder that was captured by a video camera. Over time, companies were unable to meet debt payments and/or service obligations and concessions collapsed, as happened in Atlanta, Manila, South Africa, and Argentina. As the dust settled, one former Enron executive moaned: “Nobody wants anybody to make money on water.”
Events such as these continued to occur while we were researching and writing the stories and preparing the radio and television documentaries. The journalists and researchers supplied us with a continuous stream of updates as we prepared these stories for broadcast and publication.
We communicated primarily through the Internet as stories went through numerous revisions. Each journalist was required to footnote every fact and quotation used in the story. Original documents had to be sent to the ICIJ to be included in the legal binder so the lawyers we hired to review the articles would have documentation available for every line of every story. Most of the stories were heavily edited and rewritten to conform to the overall style of the project. None of the journalists complained, because they understood from the start that this was a team effort.
In January 2003, a year and a half after we’d begun work on the project, our findings were published on the CPI Web site under the title, “The Water Barons.” The center also published this collection of reports as a paperback. Sections were republished in various newspapers and magazines. Bob Carty, a radio reporter and ICIJ member with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), broadcast a radio documentary series—based on the same reporting— the following month. Parts of this were also aired on National Public Radio.
The TV Documentary
Producing a television documentary, however, would prove to be far more difficult. Our budget numbers showed it would cost about $1 million to do it right. I teamed up with Neil Docherty, a documentary maker with the CBC and “Frontline.” We would produce it together, although he would have the lead role as director. We persuaded the CBC’s public affairs show, “The Fifth Estate,” to put into its schedule a two-hour special on water privatization. Negotiations with the National Film Board of Canada and a Paris-based production company called Taxi-Brousse got us important sources of financing that allowed CBC to spread the risk.
This part of the project, however, remained a battle as promises were not kept and communications among the various companies were problematic too often, resulting in serious misunderstandings. Probably the only reason the film was made on deadline was because Neil and I simply pressed on and an ever-supportive CBC paid the bills. We filmed in South Africa, Argentina, France, United Kingdom, and Switzerland, and in the United States we went to Texas, California, Atlanta, Washington, New York, and Detroit and in Canada to Moncton, Toronto and Winnipeg.
The documentary’s narrative line opened with a mystery story: Two thugs were arrested in a Paris train station with a tote bag containing guns, ammunition, brass knuckles, handcuffs and billy clubs. They were on their way to a small city in the south of France called Beziers. We showed how a Vivendi water executive had hired them through a middleman to intimidate a retired engineer, a former water executive with Suez who now ran a small consultancy business that advised cities and towns on their water concession contracts with private water companies. In his work he’d shown a number of city councils how the companies ripped them off, and this led to cities renegotiating or canceling contracts. Antiprivatization citizen groups followed up on his work and began to file lawsuits against the companies and the city councils for the return of the water utilities to public control. Vivendi wanted him out of action. Around this small tale of intrigue, we wound the story of global water privatization.
The documentary was broadcast on CBC in March 2004 with the title, “Dead in the Water.” The French are expected to broadcast their version this year, with the name, “Les Barons de l’Eau.”
While the story being told across these various media is largely the same, each medium brings to its telling a different texture, level of detail, and sensorial impact. And with these differences, new perspectives surface. Print provides a durable and detailed intellectual richness that neither radio nor TV achieved. The documentary (in its various forms) lends the subject matter a visual and emotional impact that makes the characters and the issues immediately tangible and real.
Dozens of researchers, writers, editors, photographers, sound and other technicians worked on these projects. For a project such as this to succeed, finding the best, most motivated people is crucial. Doing good journalism these days can be an enormous emotional struggle against corporate and managerial interests that exist in a world in which self-preservation and self-promotion can too often be the major forces motivating journalists. Fortunately, the journalists affiliated with CPI or ICIJ are doing what they do for different reasons. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of them work in countries where they are under constant threat of imprisonment—and many of them have been imprisoned—or even death. Those involved with this project were fearless investigators. If it had been any other way, this project would never have succeeded.
William Marsden is an author, documentary filmmaker, and an investigative reporter for The Gazette in Montreal, Canada. He served as project manager of “The Water Barons,” which won an Investigative Reporters and Editors’ award for its online report.