Water not a liquid asset: activist; Corporations are increasingly taking control of supply, Barlow says
Kingston Whig-Standard (ON)
Published February 1, 2008
Activist Maude Barlow says water is the future, but it is increasingly being bought, sold and controlled by private corporations, a trend she says undercuts national sovereignty and human rights.
"There probably is not an issue more moving, more demanding, more commanding than water," the national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians told a packed conference room at the John Deutsch Centre on the Queen's campus yesterday.
She warned that corporations are increasingly seeing water as a commodity to be sold - whether in its fresh state from glacier meltwater or the Great Lakes, or by recycling and reclaiming wastewater through nanotechnology and chemical treatment - and once a company has gone through the process of making wastewater drinkable again, it lays claim to it and sells it to the highest bidder.
"This is not science fiction, this is where the world is heading unless we change course," she warned.
Barlow has just published a book on what she describes as the global water crisis and the increasing role of corporations who see it as a commodity to be bought and sold - her second book on the subject - and appears in a documentary on the issue that was first screened at the Sundance Festival last month.
She maintains that water is a basic human right and that turning it into a commodity hurts both the poor, who can least afford it, and people like small-scale farmers, who are in need of it most.
She also warns that the United States increasingly sees the Great Lakes and other sources of fresh water as an issue of national importance in a way they did not even a few years ago.
"In the last two to three years, the U.S. has discovered water as a national security issue," she said.
Barlow worked as prime minister Pierre Trudeau's senior adviser on women's issues in the 1980s, and helped form the Council of Canadians in 1985 to fight Brian Mulroney's free trade agreement with the United States.
She still heads the council and for the last 10 years has taken on the issue of water as one of her main causes, travelling around the world to see the impact the the issue is having, particularly in the developing world.
What she has seen has convinced her that water is increasingly passing out of public hands and into the control of corporations, and she claims that is to the detriment of society.
"The privatization of water is the future of water," she said, noting that multinational corporations are increasingly recognizing the importance of water in a way that governments have not yet realized.
"The biggest water company in the world right now is General Electric," she told the crowd.
She said Canada is doing a poor job of protecting its water and wants the federal government to join with provincial governments to develop a national water policy that would give Canada a say in how the resource could be used.
"We have to have a debate in this country over a national water strategy," she said, saying existing bodies such as the International Joint Commission, a cross-border agency whose job is to oversee and resolve disputes about boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, such as the Great Lakes.
"The [commission] is supposed to monitor and guard the Great Lakes and our boundary waters," she said.
"But they're just boy scouts, we don't do what we need to do to assert our rights."
She said conservation, sustainable agriculture and rebuilding infrastructure - all measures that would keep water where it lies rather than transporting or exporting it - are key to preserving water and called on the audience to become "water warriors" to protect the resource.
"We should be adapting to nature, we should not be forcing nature to adapt to us," she said.