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Trickle Down

Maude Barlow on water as a right, free trade and Canada's 'shame.'

By Rob Annandale 29 Oct 2007 |

Rob Annandale is on staff at The Tyee.

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Water: 'The Coming Battle'
  • Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
  • Maude Barlow
  • McClelland & Stewart (2007)

[Editor's note: Maude Barlow will be speaking at Victoria's Da Vinci Hall Centre at 6:30 tonight and Vancouver's Maritime Labour Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.]

Maude Barlow made the transition from housewife to feminist activist in the 1970s, eventually advising former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau on women's issues. In the 1980s, she shifted her attention to the long battle against Canada's free trade agreements.

While she hasn't turned her back on her earlier causes -- her Council of Canadians recently asked the Supreme Court of Canada to look into the constitutionality of NAFTA's investment rules and Barlow is an outspoken critic of the planned Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) -- the focus of her latest book, Blue Covenant, is the state of the global water supply.

Four years on from Blue Gold, which she co-authored, Barlow feels the looming water crisis has still barely registered in the public consciousness.

"I guess what I'm hoping is that this is a kind of cri de coeur to get people alarmed enough," she told The Tyee from her Kelowna hotel room. "People are becoming very alarmed about global warming from greenhouse gas emissions but have not put this piece in the puzzle yet."

That's something that has to change in a hurry, she says, or we are all in a lot of trouble.

Here is what she had to say about national sovereignty, the creeping privatization of water and recognizing the right to water as a basic human right.

On the water situation in B.C.

"First of all, the glaciers are melting and a lot of the systems that feed the watersheds here from the glaciers will be in trouble. So this notion that because it's wet now, we'll always be able to maintain the amount of water that we need everywhere is not true and it's certainly not true for here. The water systems here are also affected by the overextension of the water-taking for the tar sands.

"Thirdly, I see the beginning of a process of a kind of semi-privatization happening here in B.C. and I think British Columbians should be concerned about whether they're going to be able to maintain control over their water resources. It's kind of happening more through a process whereby companies get the private rights, the hydro-electricity rights on lakes and water systems in B.C. but then might be able to claim to own the water or to be able to decide what happens to the water. So a lot of people are really worried that this is a step towards the potential privatization of water. Also in B.C., there is a huge problem on the First Nations reserves around water.

"So there are water issues here and there's going to be a big dispute in Victoria, whether a treatment plant that's put in there is going to be controlled privately or publicly. You're not facing in B.C. what Alberta's facing. I've just come from Alberta and Alberta will be a water have-not province if it continues with the expansion of the tar sands at the rate that they're talking about now. But certainly nowhere in Canada and nowhere in the world can afford to be complacent around water now."

On waking up to what's going on

"I think people need to get more involved, more knowledgeable about how you start to privatize what has been a public resource. You don't do it all at once and you certainly don't get to vote for it. Nobody says, here's the situation, do you want this or not and you get to vote for it. It's kind of one step at a time that you begin to lose control over water."

On Canada's role in fixing things

"We should be very involved in shaping international policy. It is to our shame that we continue not to do that. Canada has stood consistently against a right to water convention at the United Nations or setting up a rapporteur or moving that whole issue forward. I think it's because declaring water a human right would basically negate the reality that it's actually a good, a tradable good as defined in NAFTA."


"I think the government should ignore NAFTA and bring in a full ban on the commercial export of water. And I argue that the U.S. has basically broken NAFTA by the way that it handled the softwood lumber issue. I mean, three rulings went against them and yet they continued to disobey those rulings and continue to this day to be arguing and imposing these fines on Canada. So I think they basically abrogated NAFTA by that behaviour and I don't think Canada should be required to abide by it at all."

On the difference between water as a right and a need

"Until recently, the World Bank and all the big corporations and the Canadian International Development Agency and the Northern governments have been basically saying it's a need that can be just as easily delivered by for-profit, private entities. Therefore, they can make a profit. If it's a need, it can be delivered by public or private institutions or agencies. I argue if it's a human right as opposed to a need, then we cannot add the profit principle to it and that you have to take the profit principle basically out. And that's a fundamentally different way of looking at water."

On the dangers of replacing one imposed Western paradigm with another

"We would have to be really, really careful that we're not again coming in and imposing a solution. But the people in the Global South don't want privatized systems. They have risen up very strongly against it. They want local control of their water. They want it delivered on a not-for-profit basis. They want it to be considered a fundamental right.

They've been forced into the position of having to take these private systems through the World Bank and the other regional development banks who say if you want money, if you want funding for water services, this is what you have to do, we're going to set the conditions.

"We really feel that the main thing is to be working in solidarity, not imposing but helping to develop local facilities. This is a kind of solidarity as opposed to the traditional aid in truly empowering communities and societies in countries of the South to be able to do this, to provide water on a not-for-profit basis to their people."

On claims of sovereignty

"It's a very important question: do you get to have this water just because you live here, just because your parents were born here or whatever and other people don't get water just because they live somewhere where there isn't any? How fair is that? Not fair. On the other hand, most scientists will tell us we have to learn to live within nature's limits and within the ecological realities of watersheds. How to square this is going to take a great deal of thinking and I don't pretend to completely know the answer. But I do think there are some principles that need to be addressed first."

On sharing Canada's water

"If you are ever going to share water from a water-wealthy area of one part of the world to another or even within an area -- and you might find one day that Alberta's going to need help, for instance -- it has to be done by the people deciding through their government on a not-for-profit basis. So it's a really important argument for public control of water, this notion of "should you share from place to place." Because if it were allowed to be corporately controlled the way energy is controlled, water from Canada would go to Las Vegas. It would go to the golf courses and the automobile and computer industries in the U.S. It would not go to the kids in Latin America and Africa who are dying right now from lack of water. So it would have to be decided on a humanitarian basis and it would have to be decided on a not-for-profit basis.

"That's number one. Number two, we all collectively have to be sure that we can ecologically afford to move massive amounts of water. I believe that mostly, nature put water where it belongs and when we start to play around with this, we are playing God to some very serious extent."

On finding solutions

"So far the United Nations in its Millennium Goals is just looking at connecting up the pipelines with people. It's not looking at all at stopping pollution and until we stop the front-end destruction of water, we'll never solve the problem that so many people don't have access to water. So it has to be hand in hand. You can't just look at the concept of "is there enough water," it's what has happened to that water and how's it being treated and how's it being polluted.

"Lots of countries have water, it's just that they're either destroying it through their economic policies or it's polluted. There are very few countries that are actually going dry. It's that they've mismanaged or corporations operating there have destroyed the water table. We can bring back water tables so in every country, in every society, in every watershed system, we have to start protecting water and bringing it back."

On technology

"There will always be some place for technology, certainly the water clean-up technology. But I am deeply concerned that many governments -- the U.S. government, the Europeans, the Chinese, the Israelis -- are all looking to what I call the false solution of technology to deal with the crisis of water and the reality is that the world is actually running out of potable water."

On moving people instead of water

"Let's hope it doesn't have to come to that in massive quantities. I think if we stop destroying water systems and I believe we know how to do that, it should not lead to massive refugees. But it is leading to massive refugees now because we are not collectively adopting the conservation principles which I outline in the book. I guess my hope is that myself with others who are sounding the alarm are going to help move the political leaders to take action so that we don't have to come to the point where half the world is so dry that nobody can live in it. And that's where we're going if we don't take action now."