To the last drop of water by Ewa Ewart – what do we say about water?

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In March, a documentary titled: To the Last Drop, directed by well-known documentary filmmaker Ewa Ewart, was broadcast on a channel of a popular TV station. It addresses one of the key environmental problems – water pollution, particularly of rivers. The film shows water quality problems from the perspective of communities connected to specific rivers, among others, in a highly emotional way. Sarno, Rhine, Waal, Danube, Oder. The document outlines the links between human activities, climate change, public health and water quality and quantity.

When do we talk about water?

Ewa Ewart’s documentary has generated a lot of interest and sparked conversations about what is happening in terms of water management. This is one of the first such wide-ranging discussions in the public space on water resources that was not initiated by some “water disaster.” Until now, publicly, the topic of water has been raised virtually only in the event of drought, floods or other catastrophic events (such as on the Oder River in 2022). Unfortunately, such polemics are usually dominated by a single thread, related to the current event. The broader context is overlooked. The expertise remains that water phenomena are closely interconnected. It is therefore extremely gratifying that To the Last Drop shows that it is not possible to protect against flooding or drought disconnectedly. Only a comprehensive view can be effective. River systems are interconnected, needing room to run naturally and opportunities for biodiversity.

European perspective

The narrative in To the Last Drop is conducted from a primarily European perspective. This is important because it essentially presents a point of view that is close to us.

From the point of view of an expert in the field. hydrology and water management Ewa Ewart’s documentary did not present revolutionary news. In the specialist community, we know that measures are needed to restore the natural character of rivers or develop natural retention. We know that poor water quality is an extremely important problem and that it is the result of an increasing number of diverse pollutants.

At the European level, the need to protect water and the directions for action in this regard are a kind of consensus, unchanged for many years now. The Water Framework Directive was adopted in 2000. It introduced a view of water as an ecosystem. This is because the basis for determining its condition is the state of the biological elements – fish, plants and other aquatic organisms. The European Union requires the development of plans to introduce measures to improve water quality. This is the third time most member countries have developed water management plans. Ours has just been adopted. Nevertheless, the topics raised by Ewa Ewart are still relevant.

So why aren’t we talking about what to do?

Clean water is needed by all of us. Conservation measures are very rarely discussed. If the topic does come up, the conversations tend to be rather superficial. Water conservation boils down to slogans we heard in school – turn off the water when you clean your teeth, don’t wash your cars in the river, don’t litter. This is decidedly insufficient.

So why isn’t the discussion of water part of the public debate on a larger scale? Climate change is discussed at length, and we have become accustomed to the language used in these conversations. No one is surprised anymore by symbols showing the carbon footprint of products. We are talking about photovoltaics and hydrogen propulsion to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Myths are still circulating, but most of the debate, however, is on the merits – prevention and adaptation to change.

In the case of water, this is still not so obvious. The water footprint is still a concept known only to those interested in the subject. How to read a water assessment and, most importantly, where to look for it is still an expertise. The benefits of natural retention will be mentioned at most by nature enthusiasts and experts. This is due, in my opinion, among other things, to the rather hermetic language that has developed in water management. It is full of acronyms – ccwp, aPGW, PZRP, GZWP, etc. This cuts off ordinary people who have the welfare of our waters at heart from access to information. Besides, the position of water management in our governance system is quite low. On the administrative side, water management has changed ministries many times before. Also, the cross-cutting nature of the issues touching many sectors: agriculture, food, energy, transportation or security, does not make it easy to understand the intricacies of the water topic. To shape water policy, you need agreement on many levels. In the document To the Last Drop falls the sentence, “Rivers do not function as a whole in law. The river is divided into water on one side, fish on the other, and plants as separate entities.” In Poland, it works exactly this way.

I see a great need to change the way we talk about water. Documents such as To the Last Drop greatly facilitate a broad discussion. They give rise to considerations about the state of our rivers, and how the economy and its development relate to water conservation. It is extremely encouraging to know that locally, river protection is beginning to attract interest. I hope that initiatives such as granting legal personality to the river for its protection will be subjected to public and substantive debate in Poland as well. Without talking, not just among experts, about how we want to protect rivers, real action will be much more difficult. For water issues affect all of us.

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