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Blue Covenant: Maude Barlow on the Global Movement for Water Justice

StoryFebruary 27, 2008
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Maude Barlow is the head of the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and founder of the Blue Planet Project. Barlow is author of the new book Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Eight of the nation’s largest water providers from California to New York have announced the formation of a coalition to develop strategies on dealing with climate change. The members of the newly formed Water Utility Climate Alliance together provide water to more than thirty-six million people in the United States. The group has developed a list of goals that include expanding climate change research, developing strategies for adapting to climate change and identifying greenhouse gas emissions from individual operations.

Today, we’re going to spend the rest of the hour looking at the global water crisis. Flow: For Love of Water is a new documentary screened here in New York last night. The film examines how the world’s water supplies are diminishing and how the privatization of water is worsening the crisis.

    PETER H. GLEICK: For the longest time, people have taken water for granted. Most people don’t think about where their water comes from. They just turn on the tap, and they expect it to be there. Those days are ending.

    MAUDE BARLOW: This notion that we’ll have water forever is wrong. California is running out. It’s got twenty-some years of water. New Mexico has got ten, although they’re building golf courses as fast as they can, so maybe they can whittle that down to five. Arizona, Florida, even the Great Lakes now, there’s huge new demand.

    PETER H. GLEICK: The Nile River doesn’t reach its end. The Colorado River, the Yellow River in China, they, for the most part, don’t flow anymore to the sea.

    MAUDE BARLOW: So this notion that somehow these problems are far away, get rid of that. You know, take it out of your head. You know, delete that.

    PATRICK McCULLY: We’re treating the water resources of the planet with contempt, which is just so stupid, because we depend on them. We need water to live. We will only survive for a day or two if we don’t have water.

    WILLIAM E. MARKS: Scientists, through decades of study and millions and millions of pieces of data, now recognize the fact that we’re on the brink of the sixth great mass extinction ever to be experienced on the face of the earth. The fifth mass extinction was the dinosaur age.

    MAUDE BARLOW: You know those movies where there’s the comet coming at the earth, and all of a sudden the governments of the world say, “Gee, we’re not — our differences aren’t so big anymore, because we’re about to all die”? That’s really where we are. There is a comet coming at us. It’s called water shortage.

    PETER H. GLEICK: Climate change is a real problem. Humans are changing the climate. We already see evidence about it. One of the most significant impacts of climate change will be on our water resources.

    PATRICK McCULLY: We’re going to see a lot of people are going die because of the floods and droughts and various social upheavals that are caused by global warming. What’s also tragic is that there’s a lot of awareness of that now, but so much of that awareness is then being used by corporate interests. Oh, we’re running out of water, and we need to invest so much money in water, and it’s so terrible how water is managed. And then, somehow they make the flip to: oh, we must privatize it, so then we’ll use it more efficiently and everybody will be better off — which is total nonsense, total amount of nonsense. It means merely that these people have an interest clearly in making money or to selling water to people.

    MAUDE BARLOW: There are private corporate interests that have decided that water is going to be put on the open market for sale. It’s going to be commodified and treated as any other saleable good.

    REPORTER: Water is now a $400 billion global industry, the third largest behind electricity and oil.

    WATER EXECUTIVE: I bought the green. I had the blue. And I have about half of the yellow.

    MAUDE BARLOW: The market is amoral, and it’s going to lead you to taking advantage of pollution and scarcity, frankly. It’s going to lead you to selling it to those who can buy it but not to those who need it.

    ROD PARSLEY: The water sector is going to grow two to three times the global economy over the next twenty years. By buying the companies that source, treat, distribute and monitor our water supply, you’re likely to have a pretty strong investment over the next decade or so.

    BOONE PICKENS: People say that, well, water is a lot like air. Do you charge for air? Of course not. You shouldn’t charge for water. Well, OK, watch what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the documentary Flow — that’s F-L-O-W — For Love of Water by filmmaker Irena Salina. The documentary features one of the leading figures in the global water justice movement, Maude Barlow. She is the head of the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy group, founder of the Blue Planet Project. Maude Barlow is author of sixteen books — her latest just came out; it’s called Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water — joining us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MAUDE BARLOW: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the crisis. Where has all the water gone?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, I guess the most important thing I want to put out to the world is that we always hear that climate change — and that is, greenhouse gas-induced climate change — is affecting water, which is true — melting glaciers and all of that. But I am, with this book, trying to put a new wrinkle, if you will, into the whole debate. It’s kind of —- I call it the inconvenient truth of water. And that is that our abuse, pollution, misplacement, displacement and just mismanagement of water is actually one of the causes of climate change. And it’s a really different kind of way of looking at it.

Very simply, Amy, the story is that as we have polluted the world’s surface water, we are taking water from the ground, from ground water or from wilderness or from watersheds, and we’re moving it where we want it to be, so to water great big huge cities that then dump it into the ocean, so don’t return it to the watershed, or we pave over what’s called water-retentive lands, so we don’t have the hydrologic cycle able to fulfill its responsibility and bring water back. We’re doing something called virtual water trade, which is where we use our water to grow or produce something that then is exported. In the United States, you export a third of your water, domestic water, every day out of the United States in terms of these exports. You don’t have enough water to do that. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Who exports it?

MAUDE BARLOW: Mainly large agribusiness. It’s mainly commodities and corporations that are using this water to — well, to export massive amounts of commodities. But all sorts of countries are doing it. Australia is doing it. Australia has hit the water wall, and Australia is absolutely in crisis right now, and they’re still exporting massive amounts of water through virtual water, say, to China. So the question is here — we all learned somewhere back in school that it’s impossible for us to interrupt the hydrologic cycle. Not true. The hydrologic cycle has been dramatically and deeply affected by our abuse and displacement of water, and we have to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who the corporations are and how they get their hands on this water. In the film and in your book, you talk about this. I mean, there’s the struggle in Michigan. There’s the companies in California that get the water for free — explain how it happens —- and sell it for -—

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, basically, if there was lots of water, it wouldn’t matter, I suppose, if some people were getting wealthy from it. But the fact is that we’re living in a world of diminishing water. We’re actually running out. And I want to make this point so clearly. And you’re running out in many parts of the United States. It is not cyclical drought. This is the end of water in many parts of the world unless we change our behavior.

Just last week, there was a report that came out that Lake Mead may not be gone in thirteen years. This is the big backup system for Las Vegas and Phoenix. I mean, this is crisis. The Colorado is in “catastrophic decline” — is the language of one scientist. And we need to understand this isn’t cyclical drought.

So if this is the case — and it is the case — then the question of who owns and controls water is very important. Who’s going to make the decisions around water in the future? And what’s happened is that a large number corporations are now coming into the field saying — actually creating a kind of global water cartel, just as there exists for energy now, a cartel of corporations that control every drop of oil before it’s taken out of the ground. These companies are either big utility companies, like Veolia and Suez from Europe, that run municipal water systems on a for-profit system, and in the third world they deny millions of people who can’t afford it.

There’s also bottled water. We put something like fifty billion gallons of water in plastic bottles around the world last year, dumping those bottles everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: That they’re not biodegradable.

MAUDE BARLOW: Mostly not biodegradable. About 95 percent of them don’t get recycled. But the newest corporate player on the block is the whole water reuse and recycling industry. And this is —- the biggest water company in the world is probably General Electric now. Who knew, right? Dow Chemical -—

AMY GOODMAN: General Electric, which owns NBC.

MAUDE BARLOW: Which owns —- yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Among many other companies.

MAUDE BARLOW: And is now getting heavy-duty into the water recycling industry. Now, let me be very clear, there’s a very important place for water recycling, of course. And we’ve got to -—

AMY GOODMAN: What is water recycling?

MAUDE BARLOW: Water recycling is either toilet-to-tap recycling of water or there’s now — or desalination. There’s many forms water recycling, and it’s the big industry. It’s the fastest-growing part of the water industry. And this is the cleanup of dirty water.

And my concern — and the more research I did on this, the more concerned I got — was that this government, in particular, the United States, but many governments, are putting all their water eggs in the basket of cleaning up dirty water, instead of conservation, instead of protecting water at its source. What they’re coming at — the way they’re coming at it now is to clean up water after it’s been polluted. And there’s huge amounts of money to be made. And my concern is, who’s going to control that? Who’s going to own the water itself? If Coca-Cola can own the water it sells you, why wouldn’t General Electric or Suez be able to say, “Well, we own the water that we cleaned up, and we will decide how much money we make, and we will decide how much — who gets it and who’s not going to get it”? So it’s very much an issue of control, and also control about regulation at the other end.

One of the things, Amy, that I found that really kind of surprised me, because I wrote another book called Blue Gold six years ago, and at the time there was no recognition at the federal level in this country that this country was in a kind of crisis around water. Water now has moved right up to the top of the agenda, in terms of a national security issue. The United States is as worried about water as it is about energy and finding new and secure sources of water from around the world.

And this is also true for China. China is on the search for water. It’s destroyed its water table, so that all the running shoes and toys in the world, and so on, are come from there, so they’ve diverted their water from watersheds and from growing green for their people to production. And so, now they’re going to build a great big pipeline up to the Tibetan Himalayas. They’re going to take the water that belongs to the rivers that feed all of Asia. So if you want to see a water war coming, you keep your eye on that one.

But I think, similarly, the United States, it’s very clear, is looking to Canada, is looking to the Guarani Aquifer in Latin America around water sources. It’s looking to secure water as a national security issue, just like energy, because you can’t be a superpower and be running out of these essential resources. So — excuse me, this is an old cold. So, suddenly, water has just become a huge issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Maude Barlow. Her latest book is called Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. So you’re describing the water hunters. You also talk about the water warriors.

MAUDE BARLOW: Yes. It’s a term we use to describe the global water justice movement, and it’s a fabulous movement. We work with people in the Global South, we work with communities across North America and Europe, people who are fighting for local control of their water, either against a local bottled water company like in Fryeburg, Maine, or in Mount Shasta in California, where these big companies come in and take away the local water, or India, where Coca-Cola has just been kicked out of several communities. We work around the world for people who are fighting against the big water transnationals who are coming in and running their water on a for-profit system and putting in meters into people’s homes — or, you know, these slums, generally — and telling people that they have to pay. And we’ve had a tremendous success. We really have created a global water justice movement that has taken off.

And right now, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and the World Water Council, which has set itself up — I call it the Lords of Water — are all on the defensive and understanding and admitting that their program of privatization has been a massive failure. And now we’re saying governments have to come back into the picture. We have to have public control, public transparency and public accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Maude Barlow, I want to play another excerpt of the documentary Flow: For Love of Water, where the film takes us to this issue of bottled water.

    ERIK D. OLSON: Bottled water is used by millions of people around the world, because they think it’s safer than tap water. There is less than one person, according to the Food and Drug Administration, regulating the entire multibillion-dollar bottled water industry in the United States. That means that that poor person does multiple things, and one of them is water. The Food and Drug Administration, if you ask them what’s in any brand of bottled water, they’ll say, “We have no idea.”

    PENN GILLETTE: It’s so stupid. Why would people pay such a premium for bottled water? To find out, we took over a very trendy California restaurant. We printed our own elegant water menus with phony imported waters costing as much as $7 per bottle. Our water steward gives our first lucky couple our special water list.

    CUSTOMER 1: I guess we’ll get the l’eau du robinet.

    WATER STEWARD: The l’eau du robinet?

    CUSTOMER 1: Yeah.

    WATER STEWARD: Oh, fantastic!

    PENN GILLETTE: It’s French for “tap water.”

    CUSTOMER 1: Cheers! Yeah, it tastes clean.

    CUSTOMER 2: It has a flavor to it.

    WATER STEWARD: How would you compare it to tap water?

    CUSTOMER 2: Oh, yeah, definitely better than tap water.

    PENN GILLETTE: What was the actual source of these chic waters? A garden hose on the restaurant patio.

    LEE JORDAN: Three-out-of-four Americans drink bottled water, and one-in-five will only drink bottled water. And water is something we already pay for.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Leading brands are basically tap water, often sold for more than the cost of gasoline.

    GIGI KELLETT: So today we’re here at Tufts University, organizing our forty-second tap water challenge.

    CHALLENGER: I thought for sure that the Dasani water was tap water.

    GIGI KELLETT: They’re spending tens of millions of dollars every year to convince us that bottled water is better than tap water, when, in fact, it’s much less regulated.

    ERIK D. OLSON: We tested over a thousand bottles of water, over a hundred brands that are sold in the United States, and we found that it is not necessarily any safer or better or purer than your city tap water. We found some of them had arsenic in them at high levels, Some of them had organic chemicals in them, a variety of bacteria. So there were problems with about a third of the brands that we sampled. Some of the water we saw had pictures of mountains on it; it was city tap water. Glacier water came from groundwater in Florida. Some of them said that they were pure mountain. I mean, the list is very long. We found a case in Massachusetts where a guy had sunk a well in an industrial parking lot that was near a superfund site. He was pumping water out of this well and selling it under multiple different brands. So people buying this stuff had no idea where it was coming from.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the new documentary Flow: For Love of Water. Its director is Irena Salina, and its producer is Steven Starr. Maude Barlow, you’re the chair of the board of Food and Water Watch. In this last thirty seconds, what are you doing with it?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, we’re pushing here in the United States for a trust fund for infrastructure. The sewage disposal system in the United States, as in many countries, is in a mess. We’re pushing — we have a “Think Outside the Bottle” or “Take Back the Tap” campaign for bottled water. We’re getting restaurants to agree not to serve bottled water. And we’re fighting the desalination plants, particularly in California, because it’s a bad technology, it’s an admission of failure. And we can do much more with conservation and caring for source water.

AMY GOODMAN: Maude Barlow’s new book is called Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. Thanks for joining us.

MAUDE BARLOW: Thanks for having me.

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