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Water Crisis: Maude Barlow’s Battle For Our Water Rights

It’s easy to take water for granted, but there’s a battle taking place for this precious resource. It’s easy to take water for granted, but there’s a battle taking place for this precious resource.

 

Every organism on earth counts on water. It’s the essence of life. It’s the stuff that makes up more than half your body weight.

Hydroponics growers have an especially direct interest in water quantity and quality. Perhaps more than most people, hydroponics gardeners lament that water is often polluted or expensive. In some locales, reverse-osmosis units are almost as necessary as grow lights.

On a global scale, Canadian-born activist and author Maude Barlow is water’s warrior. She has been called the Al Gore of water because she’s spent much of her professional life telling the inconvenient truth about water shortages, water privatization and water pollution.Barlow is a tireless campaigner for environmental and humanitarian causes.

It’s fair to say that water advocacy is Barlow’s most prominent cause. She is the leader of the Blue Planet Project, which is an offshoot of the Council of Canadians that stands up to businesses and governments that view water as a capitalist commodity. She helped found Friends of the Right to Water and is chairperson of the board of Food and Water Watch. She has assisted indigenous peoples on every continent to help them stand up against business interests who try to steal their water.

We cannot buy our way out of the global water crisis. It will require refocusing on respect for nature and respect for each other.

How she finds time to do it all, I don’t know, but Barlow is the author or co-author of highly respected studies and 16 books, including Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, and Our Water Commons.

She has honorary doctorates from 10 universities and was one of the “1,000 Women for Peace” nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. In the same year, she received the prestigious Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship as well as the Right Livelihood Award. Known as the “alternative Nobel” and given by the Swedish Parliament, the Right Livelihood Award cited her “exemplary and long-standing worldwide work for trade justice and the recognition of the fundamental right to water.”

Barlow also won the Citation of Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Canadian Environmental Awards and the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award, Canada’s highest environmental honors.

Clearly, Maude Barlow is an inspiring example of someone who is doing everything she can to improve conditions on our planet, and Rosebud Magazine is honored that she took time from her busy schedule to answer our questions.

Rosebud Magazine: Affluent people in rich countries tend to think that water quality and quantity for them are just fine and will never be otherwise. They think of water problems as only occurring in poorer countries. Why should all of us care about water?

Maude Barlow: People should care about water because it relates to virtually everything in their daily lives. Our obsession with oil is misplaced. Water has far more profound impacts on our lives. Water is life. There is no substitute for water.

With reference to the economy, development, gender rights, health, land, food and education, without water all other rights are nearly impossible to fulfill and life becomes a hard and miserable existence. This applies equally to a first-world or third-world situation. We all need water, no matter our socioeconomic or geopolitical standing.

Studies in the U.S. and Canada have shown a decrease in water supplies. In September 2010, Statistics Canada reported that renewable water in southern Canada has declined 8.5% since 1971. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that groundwater resources, which provide half of the U.S.’s drinking water, are diminishing.

This water is removed from the hydrological cycle and put into vast ponds, which are polluted cesspools of hydrocarbons. This water may never again be fit to drink.  

We cannot buy our way out of the global water crisis. It will require refocusing on respect for nature and respect for each other. It is also very important to recognize that in today’s globalized world, the lines blur dramatically between states and regions. By consuming products that were made unsustainably, you may be directly responsible for draining lakes and rivers in other regions.

Water needs to become part of our consciousness, along with the idea that our water footprint may be too large and treading on the most vulnerable. Cotton farming, for instance, is responsible for draining the Aral Sea. You could be wearing cotton clothes that are the product of this environmental crime.

RM: You’ve warned that corporations and governments are colluding to take water away from the public commons and change it into a privatized, polluted or otherwise pirated commodity.

MB: Trade and investment agreements routinely include water and sanitation services in environmental services and require that markets be liberalized and that there be deregulation of this sector. This threatens water regulation, which is troubling enough, but it also means that communities lose control of their water resources.

This happens when states are compelled to enter into so-called public-private partnerships. These are a particularly egregious example of state and corporate collusion. The corporation gets all the profit from these partnerships, while the state is a small player at best, and in the worst cases, they play a destructive role of implementing and enforcing unjust agreements.

In my own country, the provincial government of Alberta has given permission for vast water use in the tar sands energy project. The government issues licenses to corporations to withdraw 652 million cubic metres of water each year for these projects.

This water is removed from the hydrological cycle and put into vast ponds, which are polluted cesspools of hydrocarbons. This water may never again be fit to drink. This is done with the complete blessing of the government.

Communities across Canada and the U.S. are protesting hydraulic fracturing, or “hydro-fracking,” a controversial method used to extract shale natural gas. Fracking fluids have contaminated residents’ drinking water with toxic chemicals. There are documented cases where homeowners living near a fracked well can literally light their water on fire because of methane gas bubbles in their pipes.

As much as 9 million gallons of water are required for a single fracking job. Despite the devastating impacts on water resources, governments across North America are issuing exploration permits and water licenses for fracking projects.

The commons is under threat by private companies, but this only works if states facilitate this taking. The state should instead be keeping these essential resources in the hands of communities and not handing them over to corporations who see the water as a commodity like any other. Water must never be treated like a commodity.
Pollution is another form of privatization or enclosure of the commons. In effect, polluting our water takes the water and makes it useless to anyone else who may use it.

Dumping things like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals and radioactive materials into water makes this polluted condition almost permanent and exacerbates shortages. Mining industries are particularly problematic when we think of water quality and toxic pollution of water.

RM: You’re known worldwide as someone who helps communities fight back against water theft and pollution. Please describe some of these grass-roots efforts.

MB: There are a vast number of ongoing, effective grass-roots actions aimed at reclaiming community water rights. It is not always the corporations that are the problem; sometimes the struggles are against central governments which are far removed from the community.

For instance, in Rajasthan, India, the biggest challenge to some amazing aquifer-revitalization work was the federal and state governments. Indian government laws like the Forestry Act or Public Works Act were used to try and stop ancient and effective techniques for water management.

Trees needed to be planted on common lands to stop moisture loss, but this contradicted the law, so the law was ignored. Earthen dams needed to be built to allow slow release and aquifer recharge, but the law only allowed concrete structures, which would not allow the water to keep flowing.

Until we respect the rights of nature, the rights of a drop of water to follow its natural course as part of a larger cycle, then we will perpetually be eroding the capacity of the natural world to support our aspirations.

Direct action was the heart of our movement when, in 1999, the citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia, took to the streets in the water wars and kicked out the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation when it tried to take over the community’s water supplies.

This peaceful demonstration was met by violent oppression by the state, which was trying to protect the profits of this large corporation. The people persevered, and Bechtel was driven out. But Bechtel sued the people of Bolivia for 25 million dollars; in the end, it settled for 2 Bolivianos, about 60 cents.

In Plachimada, India, a group of women sat in peaceful vigil outside the gates of a massive Coca-Cola bottling plant. After sitting there for over four years, the plant was finally shut down. The company had tried every form of pressure to remain open, but finally the courts sided with the women and the community.

A government-appointed panel recommended that Coke pay $47 million in compensation to the victims in the small village. Unfortunately, Mylamma, the woman who began the vigil, died before the compensation was ruled upon, and it is unlikely that Coke will pay anything, as the compensation recommendation is not legally binding.

Inspiring among grass-roots efforts are referendums, which are championed particularly in Latin America. Colombia and Uruguay are particularly good examples. Uruguay engaged a referendum process and then changed their constitution to recognize water as a human right and public service. In Colombia, the mass campaign for a similar referendum has been undermined by the government; the people have to go back and collect more signatures, but they are persevering in their struggle.

RM: You’ve spoken of a human right to clean water and sanitation, and also of the rights of humans to a safe and healthy environment. Part of what I’ve read that’s attributed to you sounds like deep ecology, the ethical system that says all life forms, not just humans, have intrinsic value and a right to life. Do you believe humans should limit their population growth and consumption growth to allow water to be available for ecosystems and native flora and fauna?

MB: I am not sure this is the right question. I think that if we do not respect nature and natural systems, there will be no choice but to limit population and consumption. Of course all life has intrinsic value—we are not somehow above other life, nor are we immune to the laws of nature.

By not respecting natural systems, we reduce the amount of water we have. Use- water is not completely renewable. You actually reduce the amount of water in the hydrological cycle by creating more deserts due to anthropogenic impacts on the climate. And we continue to dump water directly into the oceans, not allowing it to infiltrate naturally into our ecosystems … because we have paved over the natural environment.

Until we respect the rights of nature, the rights of a drop of water to follow its natural course as part of a larger cycle, then we will perpetually be eroding the capacity of the natural world to support our aspirations, be they human-rights- or development-related.

The current climate crisis is a case in point. All natural systems are being impacted and undermined by climate change, and until we see the consequences in broader terms, we are being shortsighted.

Both water and climate are linked and test whether we are able to consider the longer-term implications of our actions, and whether we can do anything to mitigate the worst of our impulses. If we do not have the capacity to think in terms of the ecosystem and future generations, then we will be condemning our children to a very chaotic and difficult future.

© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2012



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An interesting talk with Maude Barlow about the coming water crisis.
Last modified on Wednesday, 03 October 2012 22:07

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