Lady in the water

Activist Maude Barlow fights for universal access to water, a disappearing resource

By Tobin Hack

Kenyan children who have lost their eyes to river blindness; trash, blood, and sewage being dumped into rivers in Bolivia; huge, World Bank-funded dams turning fresh water to poison by blocking their flow. When it comes to the suffering caused by water shortage, water pollution, and water privatization (big private corporations buying up countries’ and towns’ water rights), Canadian activist Maude Barlow has seen it all. With her Blue Planet Project, Barlow is working to stop water companies like Suez from buying up the world’s water supply and selling it back to people for profit, and to develop a United Nations “covenant on the right to water.” And though she’s been facing these challenges for decades, she’s managed to keep a certain lightheartedness. She can even still chuckle over her neighbor’s wanton indulgence of cooling his car off by spraying it with the hose for 20 minutes. Blue Covenant is Barlow’s latest book, and she’s featured in the newly released FLOW: For Love Of Water, a film by French director Irena Salina. To brush up our H2O know-how in time for World Water Day (March 22), Plenty sat down with Barlow for a big-picture chat.

When do you see the water crisis hitting?
It’s already here in many parts of the world. This isn’t a cyclical drought; we’re actually running out of water in many parts of the world. A scientist I know calls them “hot stains.” They’re parts of the world that are already running out of fresh water: 22 countries in Africa, all of Northern China, big parts of India, Australia, Mexico City, the whole Middle East, most of the southwest of the US. I was just in Florida, and they’re pumping their water so fast now that whole shopping centers are disappearing into these great big sinkholes. So the crisis is already here in some parts of the world, and it reflects very badly on us that we’re so unready for it.

Why do countries sell their water rights to big corporations?
One of two reasons: If a country is poor and owes a debt to the global north, the World Bank or other regional development banks will offer help on the condition that the country allow a private, for-profit corporation to come in. The other reason is that in richer countries, many municipalities go to the private sector because they believe it’s more efficient. Or the municipalities go to the private sector because they’re starved for funds.

Is desalination one of the answers?
Desalination is a technology of last resort. It will be part of an answer in parts of the world where there are no other answers. There’s a place for small desalination plants, but not the big behemoths—they’re fossil-fuel intensive, they dump chemical brine back into the ocean. But the number of desalination plants in the world is going to triple in the next ten years. Anywhere from 25-30 new plants will be installed in California, and it’s not necessary here.

We could get way more water from conservation. There’s a huge dependency in this country on water-cleaning technology—not just desalination, but toilet-to-tap technology, nanotechnology. Billions of dollars of research are going into it. I worry that when you get big companies investing in water technology, there’s a deep disincentive to protect source water because there’s so much money to be made in cleaning up dirty water. And now they’ve started the trade and sale of sewage water. You can actually buy it in bulk. Say you’re a developer in California and you need to prove you’ve got enough water to supply people with in order to get the right to develop, and you don’t. One of your options is to buy dirty water and get a company like GE to clean it up for you. I worry about the corporate control of water and dependence on technology instead of conservation and source protection.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work?
In the global north, it’s apathy; this myth of abundance, and the notion that somebody will fix it. In Arizona they’re going to build a water park on the desert that’s going to have waves so high you can surf on them, and a river that’s going to run so fast you can white water raft down it—in the middle of the desert. It’s that inability to understand what we’re up against. In the global south, it’s desperate poverty and inequality. But you have to find a balance between lecturing people and hoping the word comes to them though books, films, neighbors who are talking. Or kids, who come home and tell their parents, “You shouldn’t drink bottled water.” Maybe that’s the great hope—the next generation. I find that when I speak to youth, they really get it. Especially high school students; they’re ready to hear it, they’re ready to move.

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