Starting our collaboration with the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, we are glad to publish an interview with one of their Laureates, world-renowned water activist Maude Barlow.
Maude, your latest book, Blue Future, is the final book of the Blue trilogy. It started with Blue Gold in 2002 and continued with Blue Covenant in 2007. What changes have you observed throughout these years with regards to the right to water?
Many things have changed over the years since I wrote Blue Gold. For one thing, we have built a powerful global water justice movement that is leading the debate all over the world. In communities everywhere, there are “water warriors” who protect local water from invasive extractive industries; maintain local water supplies for the greater public good and work to ensure the poor have access; and fight to establish good laws and regulations to oversee watershed protection and restoration so that water supplies will be here for future generations. One big win has been that many cities have re-municipalized their water services after disastrous experiments with privatization and brought water rates back into line so that families can afford them.
Importantly of course, the United Nations has finally recognised water and sanitation as fundamental human rights and placed the responsibility squarely on governments who now have to not only come up with a plan to ensure the delivery of safe water but prevent third parties from contaminating local drinking water sources. This was a key goal of the global water justice community (and a deeply personal one for me) and moved the dream of a water secure world for all much closer. A number of countries have adopted laws or amended their constitutions to recognize these rights and there have been several court case where the UN resolution was used to validate the right to water of local communities. In my opinion, humans took an evolutionary step forward when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt the human right to water.
On the negative side, the water crisis has deepened. We humans are polluting, mismanaging and diverting water from where nature put it to where it is convenient for us and we are draining aquifers and watersheds and damming rivers at an increasingly accelerated rate. As I show in Blue Future, our displacement of water from water-retentive landscapes is a major cause of climate chaos and the restoration of watersheds and water cycles is a major solution. Global water withdrawals have risen 50 percent in the last several decades alone and worldwide pumping of groundwater doubled in just 40 years. Half the rivers in China have disappeared. Nearly 80 per cent of the human population lives in areas where river water is already highly threatened. All the rights in the world won’t ensure water for all if we run out.
In Blue Future you offer solutions to the global water crisis based on four principles. Could you elaborate on that?
We need a new water ethic that puts water and its protection at the heart of all policy and practice. In Blue Future, I call for this water ethic to be based on four principles.
First, water is human right and must be equitably shared. While a huge first milestone has been passed with the adoption of the right to water and sanitation by the UN, the long hard work to make it real lies ahead. When governments choose to give preferential access to limited water supplies to wealthy people or corporate interests, they are violating the human right to water. The human right to water has given local communities an important tool as they confront dangerous mines, dams and fossil fuel and fracking operations.
Second, water is a common heritage of humanity and of future generations and must be protected as a public trust in law and practice. Water must never be bought, sold, hoarded or traded as a commodity and governments must maintain the water commons for the public good, not private gain. While private business has a role in helping find solutions to our water crisis, they shouldn’t be allowed to determine access to this basic essential service. The public good trumps the corporate drive to make profits when it comes to water.
Third, water has rights too outside its usefulness to humans. Water belongs to the Earth and other species. Our belief in “unlimited growth” and our treatment of water as a tool for industrial development have put the Earth’s watersheds in jeopardy. Water isn’t a resource for our convenience and profit, but the essential element in a living ecosystem. We need to adapt our laws and practices to ensure the protection of water and the restoration of watersheds – a crucial antidote to global warming.
Finally, I deeply believe water can teach us how to live together if only we will let it. There is an enormous potential for water conflict in a world of rising demand and diminishing supply. But just as water can be a source of disputes, conflict and violence, water can bring people, communities and nations together in the shared search for solutions. Preserving water supplies will require more collaborative and sustainable ways of growing food, producing energy and trading across borders. It will also require robust democratic governance.
In Blue Future you tell stories of struggle and resistance by marginalized communities. Is there one story in particular you would like to mention here?
One struggle that deeply moved me was fight for the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana to be allowed to live their traditional lives hunting and gathering in the face of a government determined to move them out of the desert and force them into mainstream society. The government of Botswana actually destroyed their water borehole in an attempt to drive them out of the desert. But armed with the new UN resolution affirming the human right to water, the Bushmen took their government to court and won their water rights and the right to return to their ancestral home.
Another struggle closer to home that I praise is the June 2011 Italian referendum that overturned the Italian government’s plan to give preferential treatment to private water companies over public agencies in the delivery of water services. Led by the Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, a network of national associations, trade unions and local communities opposed to water privatization, this gutsy referendum became the model for work on a European-wide referendum that has garnered almost 2 million signatures to stop the move to privatise water services in the name of austerity. The Italian fightback has been a model for the world.
In your book you present a dramatic future scenario, with drought, mass starvation and the migration of millions of refugees in search of water, but you also offer hope and a call to action. How do you see the future and the possibility to create a water-secure world?
It is my deepest hope that rather than a source of conflict and war, that water will become nature’s gift to humanity to teach us how to tread more lightly on the Earth and live in peace and respect with one another. This will mean countries and governments coming together across political borders to protect watersheds as a survival strategy. Many exciting results can come from such collaboration. Just like the Hollywood “Comet” movies where suddenly all our differences don’t mean much because a comet is going to hit the Earth, we have a slow motion crisis coming at us in this water crisis. Unlike Hollywood, however, there will not be one saviour, but many coming together and putting one another and future generations ahead of our own interests. I firmly believe we can do this.
Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. She is a board member of the San Francisco–based International Forum on Globalization and a Councillor with the Hamburg-based World Future Council.
Maude is the recipient of eleven honorary doctorates as well as many awards, including the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel”), the 2005 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship Award, the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the 2008 Canadian Environment Awards, the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco Hero Award, and the 2011 EarthCare Award, the highest international honour of the Sierra Club (US).
In 2008/2009, she served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly and was a leader in the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN. She is also the author of dozens of reports, as well as 17 books, including her latest, Blue Future: Protecting Water For People And The Planet Forever.