Interview with author and activist Maude Barlow
Imagine a planet where nuclear-powered desalination plants ring the world's oceans; corporate nanotechnology cleans up sewage water so private utilities can sell it back to consumers in plastic bottles at huge profit; and the poor who lack access to clean water die in increased numbers.
This may sound like science fiction dystopia, but according to Maude Barlow, author of the recently released book "Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water", this future is not too far away.
She recently spoke with IPS contributor Chris Arsenault from her home in Ottawa.
IPS: Water, as everyone knows, moves in a cycle; it is not created or destroyed. So when water is used in a major city, a farm or any other area, doesn't it eventually enter back into the water cycle through evaporation and rain? The picture of water shortages you are painting, isn't it a little over-exaggerated?
MB: We are literally physically running out of water in many parts of the world, it's not a cyclical drought. I think that is most important thing, which I try to establish in the first chapter -- where has all the water gone?
Unbeknownst to all of us, what we learned back in grade five about the hydrologic cycle being a closed cycle, and water just circulating forever without being able to go anywhere, it appears now not to be true. We don't have access to the surface water that people traditionally used for millennia, because is has been polluted. Humanity is now putting great big bore wells into the earth and taking water from underneath the ground faster than it can be replenished by nature.
Combine that with urbanisation, which doesn't allow the rain to come back to green spaces; deforestation, wetland destruction, and the mass movement of water out of water sheds for industrial farming, and you interrupt the hydrological cycle. Sure, the water is still somewhere, but we can't use it: it has either been polluted or we can't get at it or we've destroyed it in some way.
IPS: How many people are affected daily by a lack of clean, accessible water? Where are they living?
MB: About two billon people now live in areas of the world that have been declared water stressed by the U.N. Of those, 1.4 billion people either have no access to clean water or are drinking substandard water; three-fifths of the world's population has no access to sanitation.
They are largely living in the global south, although not entirely anymore. As some of the wealthy countries start to come up against the water wall, the water crisis is going to start going up everyone's political ladder; it's not just going to be poor people anymore.
There is this image of people without water living in Africa, the slums of Brazil or Bolivia or whatever. Water scarcity is coming to a community near you and that's really important to know.
There are 36 states in the U.S. that are facing serious to severe water problems. The U.S. Geological Society says it is the driest it has been in the U.S. Southwest in the last 500 years. It's the end of water in certain parts of the United States.
IPS: Some analysts think technology will solve most of humanity's water woes. Do you think this can happen?
MB: The brains in charge have decided that it's all going to saved by high technology; they are putting billions and billions of dollars into research on desalination, nuclear-powered desalination, toilet to tap recycling, nanotechnology, cloud dehumidifiers and fancy bottling companies. Israel is almost 100 percent dependent on desalinated water, as is Saudi Arabia. There is going to be a tripling of desalination plants around the world in the next 10 years.
They're looking for ways to capture what's left of water or ways to convert dirty water or salt water into something useful, which of course will be controlled by the companies who own this technology and have access to the water.
There are a whole bunch of new companies getting into the market in terms of high technology and water re-use technology; companies like General Electric and Dow Chemical. High technology is the fastest growing sector of the water industry.
IPS: Mark Twain once remarked that: 'Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over." Is water becoming a national security issue?
MB: The United States, and only very recently, is starting to see water as a national security issue. Up until three years ago, we didn't have any evidence that understood the extent of the crisis. They understand it now.
Geopolitically this is a huge issue, leading to international conflicts and water refugees. They [the U.S. intelligence community] also understand that they're running out of water in their own country. They have hired this think-tank called (CSIS) the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, to advise them on something the [George W.] Bush administration put together called Global Water Futures.
They [Global Water Futures] are working with a number of private water companies, including Coca-Cola and some of the high tech companies. They are also working with Sandia laboratories, a Pentagon-related research lab that is currently being run by Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer.
This consortium advising the U.S. government on water is being run by the world's largest weapons maker, which starts to bring the whole notion of security and water together in an unhealthy and distressing way.
I also think the U.S is looking at the Guarani aquifer in Latin America [located under Paraguay, Bolivia and other countries]. The United States has suddenly put up military bases around this aquifer, saying there are terrorists down there, but I don't think there are terrorists, I think there is water.
IPS: How should countries and the global community deal with the crisis of water?
MB: If we just talk about hooking up more people to pipes, you could put all the money in the world to that. Even if we had a world that cared about the two billion people without water, which we don't, there isn't enough water in the ground the way we are over-pumping to just set up more high technology or more bore wells in the ground. What we are doing is not sustainable.
The most important thing is to stop the pollution of surface water around the world. That means strict laws, a different form of farming, and getting rid of chemicals and nitrates which are destroying water tables. We have to be strict and stern -- with jail sentences -- for industries who are polluting our water: the mining industry, pulp and paper, the car industry and so on.
IPS: Can you talk about some of the grassroots struggles taking place around the world dealing with water issues?
MB: There is a wonderful movement; a global water justice movement. It gives me hope. The movement is built on a set of principles and one of them in "solidarity not charity"; it's not about global North groups coming to rescue the global south. It's not charity; it's not building pipes -- although sometimes that's also important -- but it is about justice; building a more equitable world.
The movement is about countries asserting their right to public services, which many can't do right now because they owe such a huge debt to the global North. It's about understanding the deeper issues here and viewing water with a more universal perspective.
We've had many wins. We do everything from local organising, taking on the big companies, taking on governments sometimes, taking on the World Bank and WTO, and showing up in strength at the World Water forums that are held every three years.
We are fighting now for a right to water covenant or convention at the United Nations, but we also want this in municipal bylaws and nation state constitutions. We want to change the thinking: water is not a commodity but a fundamental human right. It belongs to the earth, to other species, to future generations; it must never be denied to anyone because of an inability to pay.