Letters to the Editor

Friday, 17 February 2012

Maude Barlow reports on the water war

Above, Maude Barlow relates a story from the water wars during her 
talk at UNB last night. 

By Cheryl Norrad

FREDERICTON - International water activist Maude Barlow spoke at UNB Fredericton last night to a packed auditorium, and overflow room, at the Wu Conference Centre as part of the university's Andrews Initiative speaker series, 2012 Year of Water.

Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, spoke bluntly on the worldwide water crisis, beginning with other countries around the globe and relating it to the situation in Canada and New Brunswick.

"We are running out of water on the planet," said Barlow, blaming pollution, improper crops and land-based industrial systems that use up water.

China, with its booming economy, she said, is quickly using up its water supply, while India has already hit the bottom of its water table, along with Australia and countries in the Middle East.

"Four thousand cities in China are in danger of being deserts, including Beijing, where tumbleweeds have been seen blowing down streets," said Barlow.

Citing U.N. statistics, Barlow said by 2040 two-thirds of the planet will be in water stress. Already there are conflicts arising due to the unequal distribution of water supplies. Calling it water theft, Barlow described how Mexico City runs a pipeline almost 100 miles into the countryside, taking water from rural citizens to supply urban dwellers. Uniformed security guard the pipeline and anyone caught trying to stop the water being pumped to the city is dealt with violently.

China is taking water from the Tibetan Himalayas through large dams it has constructed, diverting it for use. This is causing dissension with India and will likely lead to a future conflagration over water between the two.

Barlow said the crux of the global fight over water is between it being a commodity versus it being a human right. The commodification of water includes water utility companies running on a for-profit basis and bottled water companies. Barlow gave a shocking example of the scale of pollution and waste by the bottled water industry.

"In one year, the amount of discarded empty bottles of water can go to the moon and back 65 times," she said.

When water becomes a tradable property, it can become too expensive to afford. Barlow said the Australian government gave companies water rights for trading and selling, but when it realized what it had done and tried to buy the rights back, it couldn't. The water was too expensive.

She also said many are surprised to hear the water crisis is hitting the United States, one of the richest countries in the world.

"Water supplies in Detroit have been cut to 90,000 families because the city can't afford more."

Barlow opened the part of her discussion on Canada's water situation about how Canadians are used to having water on tap as much as they want, when they want it.

"We have a myth of abundance," she said. "We have to change our thinking."

Describing water policy in Canada, Barlow said the national water law is forty-two years old, the country has no national standards on water and the national water supply hasn't been mapped by governments.

"There is no national energy policy in Canada...Harper believes in nothing but open markets...an invasion of the North is coming to get our resources there...Harper is dangerous," she said.

The shortage of water in Canada can be seen in how ninety per cent of First Nations don't have running water in their homes, Lake Winnipeg is dead, and the Great Lakes are being overextracted and could be bone dry in 80 years. Experts predict Alberta will be the first province that won't have water due to the ravages of industry.

Worrying Barlow the most is the coming Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) Canada is currently negotiating with Europe that will give big European water corporations the right to challenge any province or municipality that doesn't open up its market.

"CETA is bigger than NAFTA, corporations from Europe will have access to 'sub-national procurement' where all federal monies for provincial and municipal spending will go into public/private partnerships and outside companies can bid on [water] contracts."

Barlow also forsees more civil disobedience in Canada over the water issue with First Nations taking the lead in the protests.

Turning to New Brunswick, Barlow showed she was fully aware of water issues here by mentioning the plight of the people who've lost their wells in Penobsquis, the expanding potash industry and lamented last week's announcement on wetlands by Environment Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney as a "disgrace to government."

"New Brunswick water is not protected due to the voracious appetite of industry...it's clear the Alward government is giving preference to industry and putting communities on the backburner," Barlow said.

She also brought up the contentious shale gas fracking issue that has been making headlines in the province in the past year, describing the impact of the industry on water and how it has brought protest groups together.

"The Council of Canadians will stand one-hundred per cent with you and call for a moratorium on fracking; we have to get a moratorium on fracking in this province," said Barlow to applause.

Concerning to Barlow is the fact New Brunswick is the only province in Canada with no ban on commercial water exports.

"If water becomes a tradable commodity under NAFTA, American companies can take it," she said.

Barlow advised the audience to fight the fracking industry here by using laws beyond its borders.

"The right to water is an international law...signatories are bound by three obligations...the right to respect [is one] where no one can come in and take the water. This should be used to fight fracking," she said.

Circling back to her description of the water war being one between commodities and rights, Barlow outlined the Council of Canadians position on water rights as a threefold approach: 1. Water has rights; it is sacred and must be protected through restoration and watershed planning. 2. Water is a public trust where government has a fiduciary responsibility to entrench water as a public trust necessary for life. She gave Vermont as an example of this with its legislation saying the state's water belongs to the people of Vermont. 3. Water is a human right and it's equitable distribution around the world has to be ensured.

Barlow ended her talk by encouraging New Brunswickers to fight for their water as "water warriors" because, "...the local fight for water is part of the global struggle."