Part of Liquid State: The science, art and wonder of water in Canada, an occasional series about one of the nation's most magnificent resources.
Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians and the country's leading water activist, is expecting the release of her latest book next month. Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever is the final in a trilogy that uses compelling statistics to examine the global water crisis. In the book, Ms. Barlow, who was a leader in the successful movement to push the United Nations to recognize water as a human right, introduces the notion that water, like living beings, has rights too.
Ms. Barlow, 66, is nationally recognized as a staunch advocate for public control of water and equal access to clean water worldwide. A grandmother of four, the Ottawa-based writer has 11 honorary doctorates and several environmental awards for her tireless work. The first book in her series, Blue Gold, was a call to people to understand that water is being captured by corporate interests and that governments should retain control of it. The second, Blue Covenant, was about the international movement to fight water privatization. It ended with the statement that people had to push the United Nations to recognize water as a human right – a global struggle in which Ms. Barlow was one of the leaders.
Blue Future starts by announcing the achievement of that goal on July 28, 2010. She spoke with The Globe and Mail about what needs to be done now that the goal has been achieved.
What is the main argument in Blue Future?
It is that we have to create a new ethic that puts water at the centre of our lives and around which we build all policy: Trade, economics, energy, food, you name it. If it hurts water, it has to be re-assessed, or dropped. The book is based on four principles. The first is that, if water is a human right, we have to find a way to pay for it. The second is that water is a public heritage, the third is that water has rights too, and the fourth is that water can teach us how to live together and we can find ways to see water as a means of peace-keeping and peace-making. For example, the warring factions in the Middle East who have unified to protect the Jordan River.
Who profits from water in our country?
Water is mostly still in public hands in Canada, but about three years ago, the Harper government tied funding to municipalities for new water infrastructure to public-private partnerships. Most people don't know about it, but it's quite dangerous because it locks municipalities to a private model, which is always more expensive. A lot of municipalities, including Regina and St. John's, by and large, don't want to privatize, but they can't get federal funds if they won't. The Harper government is keen to sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe, which would make it impossible to reverse that decision. So that's pernicious and just starting in Canada.
Also, Alberta is seriously looking at water trading, where you convert your licenses into a kind of property and you allow the owner of the licences to trade them. In the book, I look at two places that have allowed this: Chile and Australia. In both cases, they've lost total control of their public water. In Australia, the price of water skyrocketed because big farm conglomerates bought the licences from the small farmers and traded them on the open market. When the government tried to buy it back because it was drying up, they couldn't afford it.
The water never stops flowing from my tap. Why should I be concerned?
We are nowhere near as blessed as most people think. There's been a steady decline in water supply to Southern Canada because of overdraining. I was just up by Lake Huron a couple of weeks ago, and you can see where the water came to just a few years ago, and way, way, out where the water starts now. It makes me sad. You begin to have a visceral understanding of what it's like when a major body of water starts to retreat. It's partly climate change, partly over-extraction. The Harper government gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which means that 99 per cent of our lakes and rivers are unprotected from pipelines going under or over them. They're moving tar sands crude over barges and ships across the Great Lakes. We're fighting nuclear shipments as well. It's like this whole new slew of threats to the Great Lakes.
Other large bodies of water have gone under in the world. They were so large it was inconceivable they would ever be gone, like Lake Chad in Africa. The Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union is almost gone. Lake Winnipeg is by some accounts dead because of the blue-green algae from nitrates from farms. Some scientists don't know if it's recoverable. Prince Edward Island is dumping nitrates into its groundwater for its potato farming. I can name them as we go across the country. I've just been in New Brunswick and they're planning fracking operations. My message to Canadians is: If we think that somehow we're exempt from the water crisis that is upon many parts of the world now, we should think again.
What's our biggest challenge?
In Canada, our biggest challenge is this myth of abundance. It's a global myth that goes back to learning about the hydrological cycle when we were kids. The water goes round and round and it can't go anywhere. That's true. It's still on the planet somewhere, but it's a problem when you displace it from where you can access it by massive transport or dumping massive amounts of surface water into oceans.
You often speak of water in your book as if it is a living entity that can get hurt and has rights. What do you mean?
This is newer in my thinking. I used to think about water in terms of equality of access. But I've come to see that we have a human-centric view of nature in that it's there to serve us. We need to start asking what rights an ecosystem has. I mean, stop and think what it would be like if the Gulf of Mexico could have sued British Petroleum? Of course, the gulf couldn't have, but what would it be like if our laws were more compatible with protecting water in and of itself? You have to start recognizing that if we live more compatibly with the natural world, it's going to be better for everyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.