BLUE GOLD: World Water Wars (2008) – A Fact Check


BLUE GOLD: World Water Wars (2008) – A Fact Check

Blue Gold covers several important water issues, from pollution and water scarcity to privatization, conservation and bottled water. While the focus of the film spans several loosely related questions, an overly simplistic refrain shines through: the private water industry is to blame for the world’s water issues.

Unfortunately for Blue Gold, the facts paint a different picture. Here are seven things to keep in mind when watching Blue Gold:



The biggest, most fundamental error in the film is a clear and conscious misrepresentation on the “ownership of water.” Critics like to confuse the idea of privatizing a water system with privatizing a water supply. Each of the film’s panelists makes repeated references to water as a “product” that is “owned” for “private gain.”

“Every drop of freshwater in the world will be privately owned and controlled … Does water pass through [a private company] and still belong to the public? I don’t think so.”

— Maude Barlow, author of “Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water

Here are the facts: just like public utilities, the private water industry is in the water system business, meaning that private water companies work to ensure that the pipes, treatment facilities, pumps, mains, and other infrastructure provide safe, clean drinking water to customers. Despite critics’ efforts to confuse the issue, privatization of a water system simply does not privatize the water supply.

In the United States, water is and remains a public good under every model of water treatment and delivery – for both public and private water systems.



Critics often claim or imply that private water companies set their own rates and charge whatever they want with no oversight.

As Barlow claimed of private water companies in the film, “This is the new colonialism … it does not come in ships.” Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch agreed, saying, “This is not just a problem in the developing world. We have the very same problem in the U.S. … It is the very same story.”

Here are the facts: in the United States, no matter whether it is a municipal government or private water company running a water system, rates are always set and approved by a public authority – either an elected municipal board or a public utility commission. Private water operators are heavily regulated and do not set their own rates, period.



The film also erroneously claims that government entities do not have power over the private water companies contracted for services. Tony Clarke, co-author of the book Blue Gold, states in the film, “There are no clear cut performance requirements or performance guarantees.”

This is completely false. Private water companies in the United States are held to the same EPA standards as public utilities. In fact, studies have shown that private water companies have “near-perfect” records with Safe Drinking Water Act compliance[i] and private utilities have had 24% fewer drinking water violations than publicly-run water systems.[ii]



Blue Gold glosses over details of the ‘failed’ privatizations it cites. Simply displaying a municipal area and its water “buyer” against music fit for a horror film obviously fails to tell the full story.

The only privatization example for which the film provides any level of detail is Atlanta, Georgia. But even then, as other critics have done, the film only tells a fraction of the story. Here are the facts left out of Blue Gold on Atlanta:

  • The film claims that the private operator “owned” water in Atlanta, which is not true. Water remains a public good under private system operations.
  • The film claims that the public-private partnership resulted in lost jobs, but the contract with Suez guaranteed workers jobs with wages and benefits equal to or exceeding those offered under public operation.[iii] In addition, employees were trained in new skills and more than 6,500 staff training hours were provided in the first year of the contract.[iv]
  • The film claims that the public-private partnership resulted in poor water quality and boil alerts for residents. However, a 2002 letter from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to the mayor of Atlanta confirmed that the alerts were caused by widespread power outages due to thunderstorms – events completely beyond the private operator’s control.[v] Further, the EPA does not list any water quality violations for Atlanta between 1998 and 2002 while the system was under private operation. However, there have been two violations where water contaminants exceeded safety standards since the city took back control.[vi]
  • It is also important to note that since being put back under public control Atlanta’s water system has experienced a variety of issues, from faulty meters and improper billings to significantly increasing water rates. As of 2011, Atlanta had the highest water rates of any major U.S. city, and inconsistent and incorrect billings have led to a class-action lawsuit against the city.[vii]

In some cases, Blue Gold wildly overstates the role private companies are playing in water delivery. For instance, the film and its panelists imply a private company “owns” Chicago’s water when in reality the company doesn’t even have any contracts for drinking water in the city. Instead, the company is simply operating one wastewater treatment facility, as it has done since 2001.[viii]



Blue Gold confuses another important issue, implying that bottled water and the private water industry are closely linked. The film fails to provide any clear information on distinct businesses of each.

Here are the facts: the private water industry is not the bottled water industry. The two have nothing to do with one another. The private water industry in the United States is focused on building and operating tap water and wastewater infrastructure. The private water industry does not bottle water – it is simply not our business.

In fact, the private water industry supports public campaigns to encourage the use of tap water over bottled water for the very reasons listed in the film – tap water is a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to address water needs.

Americans are fortunate to have some of the highest quality tap water in the world and do not have to rely on bottled water. Private water companies provide the access to capital, expertise, and experience municipalities need to build and maintain reliable, efficient tap water and wastewater systems. The three biggest private water companies in the U.S. invest $1.5 billion annually to improve community tap water systems across the country.

Drinking water and wastewater systems are vital for everyday life, and quite simply can’t be replaced by bottled water.



Blue Gold celebrates the United Nations Convention on the Right to Water, which states that water is a human right that should not be denied to anyone based on inability to pay.

The private water industry in the United States agrees with the UN – access to safe, clean drinking water is a human right. It is for this very reason that communities across the United States partner with private companies to ensure drinking water is protected and safely delivered. Today, private water companies serve more than 73 million Americans.

Notably, the UN’s Human Rights Council is explicit that the private sector can have a role in providing water access and services:

“Human rights do not require a particular model of service provision. They do not exclude private provision (including privatization). Yet States must ensure access for all, as well as ensuring – through adequate oversight and regulation, including effective monitoring and complaint procedures – that the actions of all actors, public and private, do not result in human rights violations.”

— United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation (

Water is a vital resource, and it takes investment in infrastructure to ensure access to safe, reliable drinking water. In the United States, the private water industry provides the expertise and experience municipalities need to ensure their citizens continue to receive safe, reliable drinking water and wastewater services.



When it comes to water infrastructure, our nation’s municipal water systems need a lot of work. Some upgrade estimates reach $1 trillion over the next 20 years. At the same time, the federal government is providing limited funds for water infrastructure investment.

Thus, local governments across the country face urgent and significant water infrastructure needs, and public capital alone can’t cover the associated costs, especially for municipalities with other competing investment priorities or strained fiscal environments.

Within the U.S., there is widespread, bipartisan support for the role of private water companies in delivering solutions. The U.S. Conference of Mayors[ix], the National League of Cities[x], the Brookings Institute[xi], and even the President of the United States[xii] agree that private water companies provide proven and important options for municipalities facing urgent water infrastructure and operation needs.

[i] “Investor-Owned Water Firms Boast Sterling SDWA Record,” Global Water Intelligence, Oct. 2011
[ii] David Konisky, Georgetown University and Manny Teodoro, Texas A&M University, “When Governments Regulate Governments” November 2014
[iii] “US Conference of Mayors Best Practice Recognition: City of Atlanta and United Water Services Atlanta, Press Release, Accessed 2/13/15
[iv] “US Conference of Mayors Best Practice Recognition: City of Atlanta and United Water Services Atlanta, Press Release, Accessed 2/13/15
[v] Letter, Georgia Department of Natural Resources to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, 10/11/02
[vi] EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System, Accessed 2/13/15
[vii] “Skyrocketing water bills mystify, anger residents,”, 3/2/11
[viii] Veolia North America: Chicago, Ill. (
[ix] U.S. Conference of Mayors Urban Water Council, “Mayor’s Guide to Water and Wastewater Partnership Service Agreements,” April 2005
[x] The National League of Cities, “Public-Private Partnerships: An Attractive Funding Option for Public Projects” November 3, 2014
[xi] Brookings Institute and Rockefeller Foundation, Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation “Moving Forward on Public Private Partnerships,” December 2011; Brookings Institute, “Public-Private Partnerships to Revamp U.S. Infrastructure,” February 2011
[xii] The White House, “Presidential Memorandum — Expanding Public-Private Collaboration on Infrastructure Development and Financing” July 17, 2014
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