Maude Barlow: The Growing Battle
for the Right to Water
interviewed by Tara Lohan
www.alternet.org/, February 14,
From Chile to the Philippines to South
Africa to her home country of Canada, Maude Barlow is one of a
few people who truly understands the scope of the world's water
woes. Her newest book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis
and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, details her discoveries
around the globe about our diminishing water resources, the increasing
privatization trend and the grassroots groups that are fighting
back against corporate theft, government mismanagement and a changing
If you want to know where the water is
running low (including 36 U.S. states), why we haven't been able
to protect it and what we can do to ensure everyone has the right
to water, Barlow's book is an essential read. It is part science,
part policy and part impassioned call. And the information in
Blue Covenant couldn't come from a more reliable source. Barlow
is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and co-founder
of the Blue Planet Project, which is instrumental in the international
community in working for the right to water for all people. She
also authored Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of
the World's Water with Tony Clarke. And she's the recipient of
the Right Livelihood Award (known as the "Alternative Nobel")
for her global water justice work.
She took a moment to talk to AlterNet
in between the Canadian and U.S. legs of a book tour for Blue
Covenant. (Barlow just kicked off her U.S. tour; for a list of
tour stops and dates, click here).
Tara Lohan: This year in the U.S. there
has been a whole lot press about the drought in Atlanta and the
Southeast, and I think for a lot of people in the U.S. it is the
first they are hearing about drought, but the crisis here in North
America is really pretty extreme isn't it?
Maude Barlow: It really is, and it kind
of surprises me when I hear people, for instance in Atlanta say,
"We didn't know it was coming." I don't know how that
could be possible, and I do have to say that I blame our political
leaders. I don't understand how they could not have been reading
what I've been reading and what anyone who is watching this has
I remember attending a conference in Boise,
Idaho, three years ago and hearing a lot of scientists get up
and say, "Read my lips, this isn't a drought, this is permanent
drying out." We are overpumping the Ogallala, Lake Powell
and Lake Meade. The back up systems are now being depleted. This
is by no means a drought ...
The thing that I'm trying to establish
with the first chapter, which is called "Where Has All the
Water Gone," is that what we learned in grade five about
the hydrologic cycle being a closed, fixed cycle that could never
be interrupted and could never go anywhere, is not true. They
weren't lying to us, but they weren't aware of the human capacity
to destroy it, and the reality is that we've interrupted the hydrologic
cycle in many parts of the world and the American Southwest is
one of them.
TL: How is this happening?
MB: By farming in deserts and taking up
water from aquifers or watersheds. Or by urbanizing -- massive
urbanization causes the hydrologic cycle to not function correctly
because rain needs to fall back on green stuff -- vegetation and
grass -- so that the process can repeat itself. Or we are sending
huge amounts of water from large watersheds to megacities and
some of them are 10 to 20 million people, and if those cities
are on the ocean, some of that water gets dumped into the ocean.
It is not returned to the cycle.
We are massively polluting surface water,
so that the water may be there, but we can't use it. And we are
also mining groundwater faster than it can be replenished by nature,
which means we are not allowing the cycle to renew itself. The
Ogallala aquifer is one example of massive overpumping. There
are bore wells in the Lake Michigan shore that go as deep into
the ground as Chicago skyscrapers go into the ground and they
are sucking groundwater that should be feeding the lake so hard
that they are pulling up lake water now, and they are reversing
the flow of water in Lake Michigan for the first time.
We are interrupting the natural cycle.
And another thing we are doing is something called virtual water
trade. That is where you send water out of the watershed in the
form of products or agriculture. You've used the water to produce
something and then you export it, and about 20 percent of water
used in the world is exported out of watershed in this way, because
so much of our economy is about export. In the U.S. you are sending
about one-third of your water out of watersheds -- it is not sustainable.
This is not a cyclical drought. We are
actually creating hot stains, as I and some scientists call them,
around the world. These are parts of the world that are running
out of water and will be, or are, in crisis. Which means that
millions more people will be without water. I argue that this
is one of the causes of global warming. We usually hear water
being a result of climate change, and it is, particularly with
the melting of the glaciers. But our abuse, mismanagement and
treatment of water is actually one of the causes, and we have
not placed that analysis at the center of our thinking about climate
change and environmental destruction, and until we do, we are
only addressing half the question.
I do blame in a very big way, the political
leadership in most of our countries for having failed to heed
the call of scientists and ecologists and water managers who've
been telling us for years now there is a crisis coming -- there
are 36 states in the U.S. in some form of water stress, from serious
to severe. Thirty-six states! Most Americans don't know this --
why is this not part of people's everyday concerns? That is what
I'm hoping this book will help do.
TL: Do you think governments, like the
U.S. or Canada, have any kind of a contingency plan?
MB: No. There are people in the U.S. who
believe Canada is the contingency plant. Or Northeast water or
Alaska water. So, moving water is one of the contingency plans,
likely by pipeline. You could also ship it by tanker. Other than
that, no. And not only are there no backup plans, but there is
not even an understanding that you've got to stop increasing the
demand on water. In the U.S., people are moving into the very
area of the country that has no water -- a huge migration is taking
place to to the American Southwest where they're building more
I just read about a new water theme park
in Arizona that will have waves so big you can have serious surfers,
like real surfing in the desert. There is just this lack of understanding
about how nature works, how the hydrologic cycle needs to be protected
and how watersheds need to be protected, and when you start playing
god by moving this stuff around like this we are just creating
this massive crisis. There is not enough water for the demands
being made on it in the American Southwest.
TL: You said 36 states in the U.S. are
water stressed -- what does that actually mean for the people
who live there?
MB: Well, in a dire case, literally running
out of water. In many other cases, the predictions are that the
demand will increase seriously and they've got to start planning.
I quote in the book that the demand in Florida is growing so much
and overpumping is happening so much that there are actually sink
holes opening up and swallowing homes and streets and sometimes
whole shopping centers. It is called subsidence. Mexico City is
sinking in on itself because all the water under the city has
been taken out and now they are going farther afield pumping water.
It can go from that kind of crisis, or
as in some communities in the Midwest, you face having no water
to the Chicago area, where the demand is going to grow hugely,
and therefore the demand will be on the Great Lakes, which are
already in trouble. There are four trillion liters taken out of
the Great Lakes every single day and believe me, nature is not
putting a trillion gallons back in. It is not rocket science that
we are not allowing nature to refill and replenish. And now there
are new demands on the Great Lakes because communities and industries
off the basin are now demanding access to it.
TL: You mentioned global warming earlier,
and I just want to come back to that for a moment. Are we approaching
climate change in the wrong way by not recognizing its connection
TL: So what should we be doing?
MB: Well, we have to put it into the equation.
I've found that some politicians are actually using global warming
as an excuse not to do anything, and I'll give you an example.
It is the polar opposite of the Bush administration, which is
that global warming doesn't exist. In Australia, which thankfully
has gone through a government change, they are disengaging the
water from the countryside and letting farmers sell it through
brokers, they are disrupting streams and aquifers. They are draining
the wetlands. They are privatizing. They are doing all sorts of
things wrong, including overusing and polluting it, and so on.
And what did the prime minister say? "It's got nothing to
do with anything we're doing; it's global warming, and it blew
here from away -- we didn't even create it."
I think global warming is becoming a little
bit of a catch all for some governments to do nothing or to put
off a solution to other things until they find a solution to global
warming, and there is no excuse. Right now we have got to stop
the abuse of water. The single most important thing that we can
do for global warming, aside from stopping the overpumping of
greenhouse gas emissions, but the twin to that is to retain water
in watersheds. Because the hydrologic cycle is what cools the
Global warming can be averted through
a great extent if we could maintain watersheds and maintain the
cycle in its purest form. That means keeping green spaces, building
green rings around urban centers -- everything from parks and
gardens -- stop polluting, stop overmining groundwater and retain
water in watersheds, which means we have to live more sustainably,
we have to grow our food differently, we have to stop believing
in unlimited growth and more stuff and more competition, and all
I find that global warming is such a crisis
that we won't do anything on any other front because all our attention
is going there. I think we are terribly missing the boat on this,
and I'm very interested in getting a debate going on this in the
climate-change community so that when people are talking about
the causes of climate change, our drying up of the earth from
below will be considered as serious a cause as the trapping of
heat from greenhouse gas emissions. It is not only part of the
analysis we are missing, but part of the solution.
TL: That is interesting. I haven't heard
a lot of people talking about it from that angle.
I'm working with a group of scientists
in Slovakia and a few other places, voices in the wilderness,
but when you start putting it together, honestly, it makes such
sense. I mean if you start to look at the growth of deserts --
in the last 30 years we've doubled the growth of deserts in the
world, and it will double again in 20 years. Well, if you are
creating deserts and you've got heat rising from the earth with
urban heat islands, the inability for the hydrologic cycle to
be maintained because of urbanization, it makes a lot of sense.
Of course that is all exacerbated by melting glaciers and the
lowering of the ice packs, which protects from evaporation. It
is kind of a deadly combination. I spoke at a conference about
this recently in London, England, and was received by people from
the climate change world, really, really well, and I thought "This
is a good sign."
TL: You spent a lot of time in this book,
and also in Blue Gold, talking about privatization. Can you talk
a little about why we should be concerned about it?
MB: Well, as water dwindles in the world
and available fresh water is becoming more scarce, the demand
is growing, water is becoming a commodity, it is becoming valuable
to those who want to put a price on it, which is why I called
the first book Blue Gold. And this blue gold is attracting private
sector interest in many, many ways, and there is a private sector
interest coming together to control every level of water, from
when we take it out of the ground, bottle it, to how we deliver
it, to wastewater treatment, and now the biggest and newest is
water reuse and recycling. That sounds benign at first, but when
you really start to look at it, really it is about big, big corporations
like GE, Dow Chemical, Proctor & Gamble getting into the ownership,
control, and recycling of dirty water, which because there are
billions of dollars at stake, in my opinion, becomes a disincentive
to protect source water. And you can start to understand why governments,
in collusion with these companies, are starting to spend millions
of dollars on cleanup technology but will not enforce rules to
stop pollution in the first place.
And then we have desalination. There are
30 desal plants planned for California alone. They are now talking
about nuclear-powered desalination. They are talking about building
those plants as we speak. The people in the anti-nuclear movement
had better dust off and come back because it is all coming back
with desalination. And then there is nanotechnology, which they
want to be totally deregulated. I've got a great quote in the
book where this guy says, "We are going to do to water what
we did to telecommunications in the 1990s," which is total
deregulation. They want governments out of the business of water.
I have a whole section in the book on
how water has become such a hot commodity. When I wrote Blue Gold
there was no water being exchanged on the Stock Exchange, now
there are over a dozen indexes just for trading water. It has
become a multi-multibillion-dollar industry just overnight. A
lot of it is this water reuse -- it is the fast-growing section
of the water industry. I argue that there is a race going on over
who's going to control water, whether it will be seen as a public
commons, a public trust, and part of our collective heritage that
also belongs to the earth -- or whether it will be controlled
by private corporations, and I don't know who will win.
TL: But it is not all bad news.
MB: No, we are making good inroads in
the bottled water area -- a lot of universities, high schools,
are having drives to reject bottled water. We're getting restaurants
now taking the challenge up to not serve bottled water, and we're
getting people to take a pledge not to drink bottled water.
There has been a huge fight back from
the big utility companies, particularly in the global south, to
the extent that Suez has basically announced it is going to leave
Latin America because people are so furious with them, which has
been the result of fabulous grass-roots activism. So, it is not
that this is a done deal, but most of the our governments are
supportive of these private-sector incursions.
It is all about technology and not about
lifestyle and alternative ways and decreasing growth and stuff
-- they are saying we are not going to challenge the model, it
is unlimited growth, continued competition, continued economical
globalization, continued privatization, continued deregulation
-- we'll just continue to find ways to clean up the mess as we
TL: Water is not just an environmental
issue, but a national security issue, you discovered with this
MB: Yes, water has become an issue of
national security in the U.S. Six years ago I couldn't find any
inkling at the national level -- the Pentagon or White House --
of a coming water crisis, either globally or in the U.S. But in
the last, two to three years, this has been hugely changed. There
is now a consortium advising the Bush administration and the Pentagon
-- it is called Global Water Futures. It is made up of this think
tank called the Center for International Studies and Sandia Laboratories.
Then I dug deeper and found it is being contracted out to be run
by Lockheed Martin. And this consortium involves Coke and Proctor
& Gamble and others. So you finally have the U.S. government
saying, "Holy crap, we're in trouble here, you can't be a
super power if you don't have energy and water." Now they've
got this advisory body that not only has this think tank and the
corporate side too, and the high technology side, and the military
side. It becomes very clear what you are dealing with.
TL: Can you talk more about the grass-roots
resistance to all of this?
MB: The thing that is so stunning, especially
in the global south, is that when you are dealing with water,
you are dealing with life and death. For a lot of people it is
like, "Well, we didn't know what to do when they privatized
our education or shut down our public hospitals -- but water is
different." They are willing to go the wall for it -- as
one person said to me, "You may as well kill me with a bullet
as dirty water." People just take a stand and are determined
they are not going to compromise.
We took the time as a movement ... whenever
anybody always asks me how to build a campaign, I always include
these steps. We took the time to find language that we all jointly
agreed on -- that water is not a commodity, that it belongs to
the earth and all species, it is a public trust and human right,
and so on. We've taken the time to work this out so that if you
ask any of us around the world, you are going to hear the same
kind of language. There is a trust that we have built in this
shared philosophy and shared vision.
TL: How is it that you've managed to create
such as worldwide message and come together?
MB: Part of the origin was when I wrote
a report for the International Forum on Globalization back in
1999. It was called Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the
Commodification of the World's Water Supply. It took off, and
a bunch of people from around the world started reading it. We
got it translated into many, many languages, and I started hearing
from people saying, "I thought this was personal and we were
fighting this particular company in our community, and we didn't
know that this was a global fight."
So, to my knowledge, that was the first
analysis, and that morphed into the book. I started traveling
and meeting people and Food & Water Watch got set up in the
U.S. And then there was meeting people in Europe who were fighting
big water companies, coming together at the big World Water Forum
and bringing folks together from the global south to challenge
what we call the "lords of water." And, of course, technology
has been incredible. You don't have to have a computer in every
house -- you just have to have somebody on the other end who has
the capacity to receive this information.
TL: What else do we need to be doing?
MB: We need laws. Martin Luther King Jr.
said, "Legislation won't change the heart, but it will restrain
the heartless." We need legislation at every level of our
government. It is all well for grass-roots people to do all their
wonderful work -- but they shouldn't have to do all the work.
We need laws at every level, from municipal up to state to national
to international, that protect water ecologically on one hand
and protect the notion of a human right and right of the earth,
and not a commodity, and that is so fundamental.
That is why I call the book "blue
covenant" -- we need a covenant of three parts -- from humans
to the earth to stop destroying the lifeblood of the earth, from
the rich to the poor (global north to the south) for water justice,
not charity -- justice. Water should be a fundamental right for
all generations, and no one should be allowed to sell it for profit.
We want this right up to the United Nations. It is a struggle
at every level. But we just keep going. The fight back around
the world is claiming space, but we have to have the weight of
law behind us. We have to make, as a society, decisions about
what matters. And if we believe that people shouldn't die because
they can't afford water, then we have to bring things to bear
to make that happen -- we have to change things. If the World
Bank has money to give to Suez or Veolia, they've got the money
to give to a public agency.
TL: So are you hopeful we can move change
in the right direction?
MB: I'm always hopeful -- it is part of
my job. I consider hope to be a moral imperative, and I also don't
think you have any right to go around alarming people with these
facts unless you are also prepared to talk about what needs to
be done, and success stories, and be hopeful. I am very very hopeful
that we can collectively do this.
If I'm worried -- it is about the exponential
abuse of water -- can we catch this and stop it fast enough?