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Rights + Justice

Maude Barlow on Taking Back Our Right to Water

She’s warned Canadians about the planet’s impending water crisis for years. And now it’s gotten worse.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture critic. Reach her here.

More than a decade ago, Maude Barlow sounded the warning bell on the war over water.

When Blue Gold: World Water Wars screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2008, I remember being stunned by the scale of the crisis documented in the film. A lot has changed in the previous decade, a great deal of it for the worse.

On the eve of the 2019 Vancouver Writers Festival, where she’ll appear at an Oct. 23 event, Barlow chatted with The Tyee about her new book Whose Water Is It, Anyway?, and her fight to protect this most precious of elements.

As she says, water is vital to all life on earth. Given its importance, you’d think that humans would treat it carefully, but of course you’d be horribly wrong. The abuses that we subject water to range from the goofy (hello, Las Vegas!) to the unfathomably horrific (goodbye, Arctic ice!).

The scale of the problem is difficult to comprehend, but Barlow lays it all out in plain language and blunt numbers. At a recent talk at the University of California, she offered some statistics from the UN that were both startling and grim.

By 2030, the global demand for water will exceed supply by 40 per cent.

By 2050, seven billion people will be affected by water crises.

As she recounted, 22 countries in Africa are in a water crisis. In India, river systems are polluted beyond human use. A number of countries in the Middle East are slated for serious water depletion, and many of China’s major rivers have completely disappeared. Brazil, which has never suffered from drought in its entire history, was stricken in recent years, thanks in part to the razing of the Amazon rainforest.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the global water crisis is the human ability to pretend that it’s simply not happening. In her talk, Barlow gives the example of Cape Town in South Africa, home to many a golf course and luxury swimming pool. Faced with Day Zero, the date when the city had been expected to run out of water, Cape Town was forced to police its citizens, ensuring that only water absolutely necessary for life was used. The city managed to cut water consumption by 50 per cent and Day Zero was averted, but as an article in the Atlantic states, many residents laid responsibility on the construction industry’s profligate and wasteful use of water.

Even in Canada, where we think we’re sitting pretty, the myth of water abundance is a whole lot of vapour. Whether it’s contaminated water, a lack of sanitation, or the profound impact on agriculture and food production, the scope of the problem makes one want to curl up and wail.

I imagine that Barlow must sometimes feel like a watery Cassandra, predicting doom and disaster while people are having a gay old time at the swimming pool. But the woman has put words into action, creating a means by which to better safeguard water.

It starts by refining the nature of the stuff itself, not as a publicly traded commodity like oil and gas, but as an essential element of life.

In Whose Water Is It, Anyway?, Barlow lays out a path by which communities can regain control. Initiated in 2009 by the Council of Canadians, the Blue Planet Project and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Blue Communities Project has spread across the planet with Paris, Berlin, Montreal, Comox, Thunder Bay, and Lunenburg flying a blue flag. “We’re working on Vancouver,” she says.

As Barlow explains, the Blue Communities Project is founded upon three basic principles: “Recognize water and sanitation as human rights. Ban or phase out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events. Promote publicly financed, owned, and operated water and wastewater services.”

Taking these three foundational approaches, the program has expanded rapidly in recent years, which only makes sense. Without water, we are, in the common parlance, seriously boned.

On the eve of the Canadian election, what does Barlow want people to know about the issue?

“It’s a strange and sad election,” she says, noting that in the recent leadership debates, water wasn’t overtly raised. This lack of attention means we are letting our greatest national resource drain through our fingers. As Barlow explains, part of this has to do with the myth that Canada is swimming in fresh water. The oft-quoted stat that we have 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water is actually more like 6.5 per cent. Much of that supply, she says, we’re happily selling off to multinationals, who set up shop in smaller communities across the country where they buy water cheaply to be bottled and sold for export.

Canada, like most other industrialized nations, has been wanton with water by giving away bottling licences to corporations like Nestlé, who pay pennies on the litre.

The Council of Canadians launched a boycott of Nestlé products, in protest against its habit of sucking up all the water in a given area and selling it for profit, along with heaps of plastic bottles. Some two billion litres of water were pumped out of the Aberfoyle aquifer in Ontario, much of it after the company’s permit had expired.

“They’re giving away licences,” says Barlow. “There’s been a 1,500 per cent increase in bottled water in the last decade. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are promoting bottled water.” She lists the names of a number of companies, including Whistler Water and the new Canal Flats bottling facility in B.C., who are churning out massive amounts of bottled water that’s exported out of the province, much of it shipped internationally.

Barlow says the model of public-private partnerships embraced by the Canadian government has not been a good plan for the long-term protection of our national water resources. “Although there are strong national guidelines for wastewater, there needs to be better, stronger laws for drinking water.”

She admits that even though she’s mad at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his failures, the Liberal government has taken action. “They’re the first government taking it seriously,” she says.

But protecting water can’t be left to the federal government. It often boils down to the local level — municipalities shepherding the resource where it’s found. Barlow places her hopes for the growth of the Blue Communities model being actively taken up by cities, churches, libraries, and even schools. McGill University in Montreal recently committed to going “blue.”

Such grassroots action has major political implications. Pressure on the BC NDP government to ban bottled water has amped up with a campaign to protect the province’s water resources. According to Council of Canadians website: “Eighty-three per cent of Canada’s bottled water exports come from British Columbia. At a time when our communities’ drinking water sources face threats from severe weather, fracking, mining, climate change and over-extraction, we cannot let corporations drain our water for profit.”

Arguably, the conversation about climate change, resources and environmental justice has shifted, but whether it’s sufficient to bring about wholescale change is the bigger question.

Much of what Barlow talks about requires a systemic rethink of not only human rights, but also of the rest of the planet. As she states: “Water was not put here just for us humans.” Canadians are also still labouring under the notion that the hydrologic cycle will just keep going. “We need to unlearn this idea,” she says.

Although things may not be as grim in Vancouver as they are in Flint, Detroit, or even Bolivia, where privatization resulted in exorbitant rates for water and the Cochabamba Water War involving protests and a government crackdown that turned violent, there is still a war being waged over control. The Bolivian story deserves greater attention. When corporations sought to privatize municipal water systems, profit became the central issue as costs spiralled and people were forbidden even to collect rainwater.

The result was a mass uprising. The people rebelled and kicked out the corporations. One of the organizers of the action, a labour leader and shoemaker named Oscar Olivera, said, “I would rather die of a bullet than thirst.”

It’s a quote that Barlow uses in her book and her lectures, embodying the idea that water is worth dying for. Increasingly it’s also worth killing for. Weaponized and used as a political tool, water has become a central point of conflict in a number of regions, whether it’s Israel depriving the Palestinians of water or China taking Tibet’s water.

As water becomes scarcer, the stage is set for violence. But before we kill each other over a glass half full, is there another (better) way?

“People often ask me, ‘What can I do?’ I say be specific and be positive,” Barlow says. The solutions are often quite straightforward, but they require working together. The Blue Communities model with its simple clear edicts — clean water is a fundamental human right that should be in public hands, and bottled water should stop — is something that most people can get behind.

“I’ve been an activist all my life. People care,” says Barlow. Young people especially care, as they’re the ones inheriting a deeply uncertain future. Here is where Barlow foresees considerable hope. “Young people are leading it, and it’s percolating up to government.”

The timing of Whose Water Is It, Anyway? is critical. The rising tide of public attention being paid to the deleterious state of the planet has brought on greater awareness. Although Barlow says the water problem is lagging behind the bigger issue of climate change, they are in fact, closely related.

Does she foresee a significant change with younger people getting actively involved with climate justice?

By way of illustration, she tells a story about the recent climate march that took place Sept. 27 across the country.

“[During the march] there was a group of five- and six-year-olds. They were so little; they were holding onto a rope with their little signs. It does make you feel hopeful.”

Maude Barlow joins Sarah Cox (Breaching the Peace), Candis Callison (How Climate Change Comes to Matter) and Leila Harris at the Vancouver Writers Festival on Oct. 23 at Performance Works. Ticket information here.  [Tyee]

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