'Race against time' to fix unequal water supply, says leading activist

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  1. 'We all learned as children that we could never run out of water'
  2. 'Abusing, displacing and over-extracting water at an absolutely alarming rate'
  3. 'The poor not having access to water is part of the struggle'
  4. 'You defecate in a plastic bag and throw it in the local waterway, so the water system is totally polluted'

Maude Barlow grew up believing that water was in endless supply, an indispensable but boundless commodity. “I can still see the little drawing that we learned from in grade five,” she said.

But extreme deprivation in places of poverty, where pit toilets lead to polluted drinking waters, contrast starkly to the overuse of water and wastefulness in richer regions.

Now an internationally-acclaimed water activist and environmentalist, Barlow is pushing for a radical rethinking of global water usage. A water crisis looms, caused by overuse and unequal access. The world’s demand for water is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030, according to the United Nations (UN).

Barlow, a senior advisor on water to the 63rd president of the UN General Assembly, was a leading figure in the successful campaign to have water internationally recognized as a basic human right in 2010.

But there is much more to do to stem the growing crisis, she says. She believes water should be available equally to all and that for-profit companies should not have power over it.

In her bestselling books Blue Gold and Blue Covenant, Barlow exposed the battle for ownership of the world’s diminishing water supply and outlined the emergence of an international movement to redeem water as public property. Her third book, Blue Future, laid out how to prevent the crisis worsening and protect global water supply in the critical years to come.

Barlow is the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, a global “water justice” movement, and a chairperson of the Council for Canadians. Barlow spoke to WikiTribune by phone from her home in Canada.

See WikiTribune’s water project here

WikiTribune: Your book puts forward ideas for a “water-secure and water-just world.” How would you describe the water situation now?

Maude Barlow: We’re on the cusp. I still think it’s all solvable, but we’re in a race against time in terms of water justice.

We got the United Nations to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. That was a big fight. My country was opposed, and Great Britain was opposed, and the United States was opposed and all sorts of countries and all sorts of big corporations and the World Bank and all sorts of powers-that-be were opposed, but it was a really powerful moment to promote the notion that nobody should have to die or watch their children die of lack of water because they can’t pay for it.

Since then, dozens of countries have either amended their constitution or brought in a law promoting or declaring the human right to water.

The human right to water has been recognized … and the notion of it is a very important one because we’re in a race against time in terms of the declining water stock.

We all learned as children that we could never run out of water. I can still see the little drawing that we learned from in grade five.

Maude Barlow was a leading figure in the successful campaign to have water recognized as a basic human right by the United Nations in 2010. Photo: Ben Powless via Flickr

But in fact we are abusing, displacing and over-extracting water at an absolutely alarming rate.

Over two billion people drink contaminated water every day

We’re extracting ground water far faster than it can be replenished. My worry since day one when I started working on the water issue in the mid 1980’s is that … There are those who see that whoever controls and owns water will be powerful and wealthy in a planet running out of water where the demand is going straight up, and the supply is going straight down.

What about the UN’s claim that only 60 percent of the population will have the supply it needs by 2030?

MB: It means that we’re already struggling, and we already know that over two billion people drink contaminated water every day because they don’t have access to clean water. So the question becomes, with these declining water stocks and this dramatic increase in demand, who’s going to get this water?

Australia is into water trading. Chile is big time into water trading. The Western United States is into water trading. Where you literally trade, you can buy and sell the actual water, not just water services. But everyone has the right to water for life. We have to ask how we’re using water. Who’s getting access to it? Who’s making money from it? Who’s controlling it on a for-profit basis? Who’s making these decisions? And who’s getting left out? These are really, really big questions we have to ask.

How does water as a commodity affect the world’s poorest, in particular those in destitution in the Middle East? (Read WikiTribune’s report on the water crisis in Yemen.)

Assad took the water rights of millions and millions of peasants and distributed them to the wealthy

MB: Very much so. You can look at Egypt, one of the precursors or the causes of the so called Egyptian Spring was that they privatized water, and the price of water went up dramatically, the price of food as well. People literally could not afford water. The vast majority could not. The wealthy could.

Similarly in Syria. There was a drought but instead of thinking about how to most justly live with this drought and get through this drought, [President Bashar al-]Assad basically took all the water rights of millions and millions of peasants and distributed them to the wealthy. And millions of peasants had to leave their land, went south and a lot of them formed the basis of the rebels of the opposition to the government.

So, the poor not having access to water is very much a part of the struggle. This is similar of course to Yemen which many have said will probably be the first country to truly run out of water.

What is the day-to-day impact on individuals who don’t have access to water like we do in places where it runs from taps, where water runs freely?

MB: Well, I grew up with running water. I lived in a country with more water than most. I never thought of it. Water came out of a tap and then later it came out of a bottle.

We’re very much opposed to bottled water, but for a time, you know, it was transition. Everybody walked around with their hydration tool. Nobody thought about it. And then I started to travel, looking at the issue of water. To my knowledge, I wrote the first analysis of the politics of water.

Basically, I asked, “Who owns water?” And the reason I got into it was that I was reading the Kennedy US Free-Trade Agreement in the mid 1980’s which was the precursor to NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement which became the basis of all of the trade agreements. And I noted that in the annex it described tradable goods [one] was water. It said water in all its forms, including ice and snow, were tradable goods, right to be disciplined by trade rules. And in other words, governments can’t stop the trade in water. And we’ve had thirsty American cities eyeing our water forever, right?

There have been huge plans in Canada to export our water commercially. So that just set off alarm bells in my head.

After visiting slums and in South America, different parts of Africa and Asia, I could remember coming home and thinking, “Oh my God.” I thought, okay how many water sources do I have in my house? I started counting all the ways I could get water and hardly pay for it.

A child stands on a polluted shore in Haiti, where an earthquake in 2010 devastated water and sanitation systems. Millions don’t have access to safe water. Photo: Feed My Starving Children via Flickr

I had just come back that time from Bolivia where I was in a very poor community where this woman went into this rain barrel. She had a little bit of precious rain water to save for her family for clean water because you don’t ever wash your clothes in clean water or put clean water on your garden, clean water is just for drinking. She gave me a glass of it. And I thought, “I don’t need this. I’m staying in a hotel in La Paz. You need this.”

In some slums in Nairobi and Kenya they have “latrine pits.” You just can’t imagine how filthy they are. You just can’t. They’re just dirt pits. Now you either go in to what they call flying toilets. You either defecate in a plastic bag, and then you just throw it in the local waterway there, so the water system is totally polluted. Or you pay money to go in and use this pit latrine which is beyond anything you can imagine. So when you have to go into communities and see the dignity of people living in those circumstances, loving each other, caring for each other, sharing this water, it’s so incredibly moving.

And then I come back and I see people drinking water from plastic bottles when the water coming out of their tap is perfectly clean, you know?

What solutions do you suggest for solving water crises and inequality?

MB: There are examples where communities have said, “Let’s stop fighting with each other over this.” There is a group of people from all the warring areas: Palestine, Lebanon, Israel. They came together and said, “The Jordan River is in crisis, and let’s get together and not talk about history or politics or religion. Let’s just get together and talk about how to save the Jordan River,” and they’ve done a miraculous thing there.

Of course, it’s never just water. Yemen isn’t just water, it’s caught up in all the ancient tribal grievances of the area. But when you can sit down together and say, “We’re all gonna die here because we can fight to the last drop of water, fight each other to the last drop of water or maybe we can just stop, and see if we can’t come together to save this water source for itself, for the ecosystem, and for future generations. We have some kind of responsibility here.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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