What can Mad Max tell us about water scarcity?

Death Valley National Park

Hollywood's location in drought-ridden California means water scarcity is an issue close to its heart. Fikret Onal under a Creative Commons Licence

The newly released Mad Max: Fury Road is the latest blockbuster to take place in a world without water.

Recent films about water scarcity include Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, but Mad Max is a step further in Hollywood’s campaign to educate audiences about the world’s water crisis.

While much of the publicity around the film has focused on the fiercely feminist Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, or Tom Hardy’s ability to fill Mel Gibson’s dust-covered shoes, screenwriters George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris have clearly done their homework on how water scarcity will impact humankind.

NASA’s chief water expert Jay Famigletti has already declared that Mad Max offers a glimpse of our drought-stricken future and that the sweeping dust bowls of the film aren’t that far-removed from what California’s Death Valley will look like in 50 years’ time.

As California is far from the worst drought-afflicted area of the world (that honour goes to Somalia), let’s take a closer look at the film’s predictions.

Transnational companies will control the world’s water supply

In Mad Max, the water supply is controlled by an obsessive, violent despot named Imortan Joe, and it looks like he already has real-world counterparts.

As early as 2012, The Centre for Research on Globalization released a list of the world’s ‘Water Barons’, powerful men who were buying up water stocks.

Water is proving to be a good investment for transnational companies: water stocks have outperformed all other resource and commodities stocks over the last 15 years and a growing world population creates even more demand, especially with water scarcity already on the increase.

Investment companies in the Middle East have been encouraging clients to invest in water for decades and the recent outrage over Nestlé’s attempts to privatize water has done little to stop the company, which now owns 70 per cent of the world’s bottled water brands.

There will be a new class system

Just as Joe is able to pluck the best ‘breeding stock’ from his thirsty subjects and keep the crowd submissive via a massive tap in the side of his mountain fortress, those who control the water will be able to create a new power structure.

If a few transnational companies retain control of the world’s water, we will see a new class system emerge: those who have water and those who don’t. Which in turn leads to the fact that...

Water will become a way to demonstrate affluence

One of the most discussed scenes in Mad Max shows supermodels giving themselves a shower in the desert.

These are Imortan Joe’s best ‘breeding stock’ women, who have escaped and are the reason for the film’s multi-car, multi-mile desert chase. This, along with the first time Imortan Joe opens the tap, is a near-perfect encapsulation of the film’s ongoing narrative of water as wealth.

While in the current day money has traction for the things it can buy us, in a drought-stricken future, just having water, let alone being able to waste it, will be a symbol of affluence.

In a world without water our needs become limited to a very few basic things: hydration, nutrition, shelter.

Water will become a source of conflict

Famigletti points out that there are multiple ways drought may become a source of conflict in the future: from neighbours fighting over control of a well to businesses denying individuals access to water.

Water scarcity will also become a reason for migration: as large parts of the world are left without water, drought refugees will become increasingly common.

Drought-motivated migration is likely to become a source of conflict throughout the world, and the current situation in Yemen is evidence of that. Researchers estimate that 70-80 per cent of conflicts are a result of water shortages. A statistic which makes Max and Furiosa’s battles with Joe’s henchmen seem positively tame.

Hollywood will continue to play a role in the battle against water scarcity

Could humanity be saved by Hollywood’s location in the drought-ridden state of California?

Although its interest won’t save the world, there’s no doubt that having Hollywood on board helps activists battle water scarcity.

As Famigletti repeatedly mentions: the world of Mad Max was clearly inspired by California’s water-parched landscape. Awareness of the world’s water crisis is vital, especially in Western countries that may not, yet, be facing drought. By continuing to feature water as a coveted commodity, Hollywood has managed to bring the subject of drought to international attention.