On Tues., Oct. 21, Canadian water activist Maude Barlow was named "senior adviser to the United Nations on water issues — a new position created by General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto, who raised the subject of water as a human right in his first U.N. speech in September," and the Globe and Mail (Canada) took the occasion to write a profile.[1]  --  UFPPC's Monday evening book discussion group, Digging Deeper, read Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clark (New Press, 2002) several months ago; a synopsis of the book is posted below.[2] ...


Crisis: 'We Are . . . Running Out of Clean Water'

By Erin Anderssen

** The outspoken Canadian activist tells Erin Anderssen that she will bring the same doggedness she displayed in opposing NAFTA and globalization to her new post as the U.N.'s senior adviser on water issues **

Globe and Mail (Canada)
October 25, 2008


OTTAWA -- 'What does it take to frighten people?" Maude Barlow wonders.

She rattles off a grim list of worries, barely pausing for breath: water supplies in Africa guarded by dogs and chain-link fences while families go thirsty, the vital Murray-Darling Basin in southeast Australia crumbling into desert, the mighty Colorado River in the United States drying up to a trickle.

"The water crisis is deepening everywhere," sighs the 61-year-old activist and head of the Council of Canadians, who has tasted tear gas and faced down stun guns in defense of universal access to clean water. What scares her most is that the problem will not get fixed for her grandchildren.

This week, Ms. Barlow was named senior adviser to the United Nations on water issues -- a new position created by General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto, who raised the subject of water as a human right in his first U.N. speech in September. Ms. Barlow, who has been meeting with Mr. d'Escoto unofficially since August, agreed to take the position without pay.

"With my heart and soul, I believe it is the single most important environmental and human-rights threat of our time, and it's the one hitting now," she says on the telephone from Winnipeg, where she was attending a conference. "There is nothing 'in the future' about this [issue]."

Raised in Digby, N.S., where her father was the town's first social worker, Ms. Barlow has become a prominent opponent of the privatization of water -- a June article in the Australian newspaper *The Age* said she was "to H{-2}O what Al Gore is to CO{+2}" -- but she first made her name in Canada as an outspoken activist fighting the North American free trade agreement. She received more than her share of criticism, and her more dire predictions have not come true, but on that subject she has a practised answer: "My mother used to tell me, 'Serious people make serious enemies.'"

And Ms. Barlow is nothing if not serious. She has written 15 books -- her most recent, Blue Covenant, on the global water crisis, was published last year. She travels continually and not, as one colleague pointed out, on luxury junkets. While her calendar is swamped with speaking engagements, she is not one to linger at conference centers.

"She is just tireless," says Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an organization Ms. Barlow chairs.

In India, Ms. Hauter recalls, Ms. Barlow sat for two days in a small village with mothers who were holding a silent vigil to protest against a Coca-Cola plant that was siphoning off their water to bottle it. She was tear-gassed during an anti-globalization rally at the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong in 2005.

In Johannesburg, water services have been privatized, prepaid meters have been installed by the French company Suez, and the supply cut off to those who can't afford to pay. When local townships formed a protest march, Ms. Barlow and her staff moved to the front of the line, hoping to deter the police from using stun guns. A few days later in the Orange Farm township, she confronted some visiting Suez executives, who eventually hopped back on their bus and left without taking their tour.

This is the same doggedness that Ms. Barlow now vows to bring to her new post at the United Nations, where her main focus will be developing a new convention that sees water not as "a commodity to be sold on the open market like running shoes," but as a public resource held in trust by the government and provided as a human right to its citizens.

She says issues around water cover all the areas she feels most passionately about: gender, poverty, the environment, social justice. She describes returning from a trip in which she visited Nairobi's huge Kibera slum, where people use "flying toilets" (you defecate into a plastic bag and throw it in the street), and counting up her faucets and water lines in her Ottawa home. "I could turn them all on and run them for days, and nobody would say a word. We just take it for granted."

When she began studying the politics of water, she had to unlearn much of what she had been taught about the resource -- beginning with the idea that it is infinitely renewable and that Canada is overflowing with it.

"We are a planet running out of clean water," she says. "We all learned that couldn't happen back in Grade 6. But it is happening."

And she notes that many Canadians still believe that their country has 20 per cent of the world's water supply and is therefore safe from shortages. (In fact, scientists now say Canada holds closer to 7 per cent of the planet's fresh water, and much of that is too far north to be accessible.)

Consider the ready examples that belie our myth of abundance, she says: The Great Lakes are becoming increasingly polluted as their water levels fall, many aboriginal communities have limited access to drinking water, and the oil-sands expansion continues to damage the ecosystem of northern Alberta.

Meanwhile, Canadians rank among the biggest per-capita users of water in the world. "We treat our water badly," Ms. Barlow sighs.

But while the battle for a U.N. convention declaring water access a human right, similar to freedom of assembly and speech, will probably be long, she has reason to be hopeful.

After four years of silent vigil, the women in India managed to get their case against Coca-Cola to court and its plant was closed. As quickly as bottled water became a fad in the West, it is now becoming a faux pas; for instance, cities such as London have banned its use at municipal functions and many schools in Canada have stopped stocking it.

Blue Covenant opens with a disaster scenario: a future world where the poor continue to die from dirty water, corporations have made water a luxury of the rich and climate change is ravaging the land. Asked whether she is optimistic that the world can act in time, Ms. Barlow offers the only answer, perhaps, that a woman with four grandchildren can give: "We have to have the courage to see the crisis as it is. But anyone who knows me will tell you, I was born with a smile on my face."

--Erin Anderssen is a feature writer with the Globe and Mail.



1.1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water.

The World Health Organization has found that contaminated water contributes to 80 per cent of all sickness and disease worldwide. Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with an easily preventable waterborne disease.

In China, 80 per cent of major rivers are so polluted that they no longer support aquatic life.

By 2050, based on a population growth of three billion people, humans will need an 80-per-cent increase in water supplies to feed themselves.

In 2006, 200 billion liters of bottled water were consumed globally - a 200-per-cent increase since the 1970s.

For the price of one bottle of Evian, the average North American could buy roughly 4,000 liters of tap water.

Less than 5 per cent of plastic bottles around the world are recycled.

Source: Blue Covenant: the Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, by Maude Barlow.



Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New York & London: New Press, 2002; paperback 2004 [with new preface]).

[Note: Blue Gold was initially the title of a booklet by Maude Barlow published by the International Forum on Globalization in 2000 (255).]

Preface. [June 2004] Upbeat assessment of the global movement against private control of water (v-viii).

Acknowledgments. Associates working on the Blue Planet Project of the Council of Canadians (see www.canadians.org); families.

Introduction. “[T]he world is running out of fresh water” (xi). “[U]nless we dramatically change our ways, between one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with severe fresh water shortages within the next quarter-century” (xii). The neoliberal Washington Consensus, with the World Bank and the IMF as its enforcers, advocates privatization as a response to this problem, but this is unacceptable from the perspective both of human rights and of natural ecology (xii-xv).

Treaty Initiative. Declares “the Earth’s fresh water supply to be a global commons”; written by Barlow and Jeremy Rifkin and unanimously passed on Jul. 8, 2001, at the Water for People and Nature summit in Vancouver, British Columbia (xvii-xviii).


Ch. 1: Red Alert. Treating water as a commodity for commercial exploitation breaks with a millennial tradition (3-5). While there are 1.4bn cubic km (330m cu. miles) of water on earth; 2.6% is fresh water, only 0.77% “circulates relatively quickly” as part of the water cycle; annual rainfall is only 34,000 cu. km (8,000 cu. miles) (5). Rain is a crucial part of the hydrological cycle, but most fresh water is groundwater (6). Population, urbanization, technology, and sanitation are taxing the water system to the limit (6-7). Industrial demands are 20-25% and increasing (7-9). Slovak hydrological engineer Michal Kravčík argues these tendencies are depleting fresh water resources (10-12). A frantic search for groundwater is underway (12-15). U.S. aquifers are also being depleted (15-18). Mexico (18-19). Middle East (19-22). China (22-23). Africa (23-24). Dimensions and urgency of the problem (24-25).

Ch. 2: Endangered Planet. Environmental destruction tends to occur at an exponential rate (26-27). Peril to species (27). Sewage and chemicals the “single biggest threat” (28-29). Survey of water system problems (30-35). The Great Lakes are at risk (35-37). Wetlands are being destroyed ( 37-38). Deforestation is accelerating (38-40). Global warming has special impacts on fresh water supplies (40-43). Invasive species in fresh water (43-44). Overirrigation and nonsustainable farming damages water systems; the Aral Sea is the most spectacular example (44-48). Dams damage water systems and ecosystems (48-50).

Ch. 3: Dying of Thirst. “The 3,400-kilometer maquiladora . . . on the border between Mexico and the United States are toxic cesspools” (51). Half the planet’s population drinks from unsafe water supplies (52-55). Rich/poor water divide (55-58). Water inequities within rich countries (58-60). Global food supply is running up “the hydrological equivalent of deficit financing” (60). Dams cause an array of evils (61-64). Scarcity breeds conflict (64-69). Borders lead to water disputes (69-72). The development of trade in water rights for profit is creating a new commercial water system (72-76).


Ch. 4: Everything for Sale. The World Water Forum in The Hague in March 2000, convened by big business, declared water a “need,” not a “right” (79-81). Background on globalization, transnational corporations, and the commodification of nature (81-88). Water commodification schemes: 1) government sell-off; 2) concessions or leases by governments; 3) management contracts (88-92). The groundwork is being laid for financial speculation with water, of which agreements like NAFTA are a part (92-97). States are increasingly dominated by corporate interests (97-100). “As Ursula Franklin [the 86-year-old German-born physicist, winner of the 2001 Pearson Medal of Peace], Canadian scholar, environmentalist, and long-time peace activist puts it: What we have now is an ‘economic war’ in which the new ‘enemy’ is people and Nature, and the new territories of occupation are ‘the commons’ (those not-for-profit spaces we ‘hold in common’ in a democratic society). Says Franklin, we are living under a military-style occupation with ‘puppet governments’ running the country on behalf of the corporations and their ‘armies of marketeers.’ This is the corporate security state that now shapes the political life of nations and peoples in an era of global capitalism” (100, emphases added).

Ch. 5: Global Water Lords. The 1993 privatization of Buenos Aires’s water system by Suez (101-04). Water as new market for corporate exploitation (104-06). Structure of the industry: ten corporate players in three tiers: 1) Vivendi Universal; Suez (both based in France, as France pioneered privatizing water supplies under Napoléon III); 2) Bouygues-SAUR, RWE-Thames Water, Bechtel-United Utilities, and Enron-Azurix; 3) smaller British and American companies (106-09). Suez’s worldwide expansion involved consolidating water enterprises under the brand name ONDEO (109-12). Vivendi Universal (112-17). Enron’s acquisition of Azurix, which later went to American Water Works (117-22). E.ON’s bid for SAUR (123). Unsavory aspects of privatization: health and safety, corruption, lack of transparency (124-28).

Ch. 6: Emergent Water Cartel. A system of bulk water transport is emerging, though it would be ecologically dangerous (129-32). It involves pipelines (132-34), supertankers (134-36), grand canals (137-39), water bag schemes (139-41), bottled water (142-45) under brand names (145-50). A cartel, though presently unlikely, would be possible, involving (in descending order of importance) Brazil, former USSR countries, China, Canada, the U.S., Norway, and Austria (150-53).

Ch. 7: Global Nexus. The Bolivian struggle over the Cochabamba water utility (154-56). The current system is based in a network of international agencies founded in the early 1990s (156-60). The World Bank and the IMF are key to main financing system (160-65). The role of the World Trade Organization and why GATT Article XX fails to protect water resources (165-67). Water is a “service” under the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) (167-70). Regional trade blocs like NAFTA are intended as the foundation of the future Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and establish investment rules that require that foreign-based water corporations be given “national treatment” and “most-favored nation” status, enabling a “continental energy and water corridor” (170-76). Proliferating but little-known “bilateral investment treaties” (BITs) can give water corporations additional clout (176-80).


Ch. 8: Fightback. An anti-dam struggle in India’s Narmada Valley that became symbolic (183-85). Struggles to regain local control: Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Grenoble, France (185-88). Coalitions fighting privatization (188-91). Fighting the exportation of water (191-93). Challenges based on water quality (193-96). Watershed restoration movements (196-99). Stopping dams (199-202). The internationalization of water-issue struggles (202-04).

Ch. 9: The Standpoint. Principles can be the global water justice movement’s “standpoint” (the basis of important social movements, bringing “a sense of priority, a sense of proportion, and a sense of obligation”―a concept developed by Ursula Franklin) (205-06). Malefic intent is generally lacking, but the embrace of economic globalization has produced the same result; citizens must take the lead in responding (206-08). The principle of a “water commons” as the basis for decommodification (208-11). Reestablishment of awareness of nature underlies the principle of “water stewardship” (211-13). Social justice undergirds the principle of “water equality,” with special attention to indigenous peoples (213-16). Modification of any water pricing scheme with consideration for “water universality” for humans and for Nature (216-19). Principles of limited and integrated territorial sovereignty, community of interests, and fair and reasonable use, with additional considerations for shared-water systems, as the basis for “water peace” (219-20). Ten principles for water resources: “1. Water belongs to the earth and to all species. 2. Water should be left where it is whenever possible. 3. Water must be conserved for all time. 4. Polluted water must be reclaimed. 5. Water is best protected in natural watersheds. 6. Water is a public trust, to be guarded by all levels of government. 7. Access to an adequate supply of clean water is a basic human right. 8. The best advocates for water are local communities and citizens. 9. The public must participate as an equal partner with government to protect water. 10. Economic globalization policies are not water-sustainable” (221-28).

Ch. 10: The Way Forward. In July 2001, on the campus of the Univ. of British Columbia, 800 people from 35 countries participated a conference on “Water for People and Nature” organized by the Council of Canadians (230-32). Conservation, reclamation of polluted water sources and rejection of large-scale dams and diversions, and a new attitude to water are the key to a “water-secure world” (232-36). Access to clean water is basic human right (237-39). Ten guidelines: 1) Promote “Water Lifeline Constitutions” guaranteeing 25 liters/day by right to every individual (239-40). 2) Establish “Water Governance Councils” (240-41). 3) Fight for “National Water Protection Acts” (241-42). 4) Oppose the commercial water trade (242-43). 5) Support the anti-dam movement (243-44). 6) Confront the World Bank and the IMF (244-45). Challenge corporations (245-46). 8) Link up with the social justice movement (246-47). 9) Promote the “Water Commons Treaty Initiative” at Rio+10 (world summit on sustainable development at Sandton, South Africa) in Sept. 2002 (247-48). 10) Support a legally binding Global Water Convention (248-50).

Notes. 15 pp., chapter by chapter.

Index. 12 pp.

[About the Authors. Maude Barlow, born in 1947, is one of the leading figures in the global water justice movement. She chairs a large public advocacy organization in Canada, the Council of Canadians. She has received six honorary doctorates from Canadian universities and received Sweden’s so-called “Alternative Nobel Prize,” the “Right Livelihood Award,” in 2006. She is a director of the International Forum on Globalization. Most recently, she is the author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (McClelland & Stewart, 2007). Tony Clarke is director of the Polaris Institute and chairs the committee on corporations for the Int’l Forum on Globalization.]