Whose water is it anyway?

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Books on the environment often spawn despair. But apocalyptic thinking is the last thing author and activist Maude Barlow wants to impose on readers of her fifth book on water, Whose Water Is It, Anyway?, which hit bookstores this month.

Barlow’s earlier works tackled the facts of a global water problem, pushed the United Nations to declare clean water a human right and asserted that Canada has its own serious water problems. 

Whose Water Is It, Anyway? goes beyond the catalogue of misuse and abuse to the success stories, such as the 10-year-old Blue Communities program, which Barlow developed with the Council of Canadians to protect and promote water as a public trust.

That program’s growth in Canada and abroad testifies to people’s willingness to act to protect their water. By working together, Barlow says, we can get ourselves out of this mess.

Whose Water Is It, Anyway? is your fifth book to send an urgent message about the water crisis. Does it ever feel like Groundhog Day to you?

It does. The water crisis is about five years behind the climate crisis in people’s consciousness. You had to repeat the climate crisis over and over and over so that people really started to understand, this is real. But it’s Groundhog Day with a message of hope. Like the movie, it ends with something good.

We’re still working to establish human rights and we’ve barely started with animal rights. Why is now the time to recognize water’s sovereign rights?

This is part of a larger movement to recognize the rights of nature in law. It says that water in and of itself has rights; aquifers have rights not to be poisoned, rivers have rights to reach the ocean or to reach their destiny and they shouldn’t be dammed until they’re dead. [If] you can change the way you look at water as being a commons not just for humans, but that serves others, well, you wouldn’t see what’s happening in the Amazon now.

The Amazon holds incredible biological information, ancient information that we need, that animals need, that plants need to survive. You wouldn’t be able to do [what has been done to the Amazon] if we truly understood that the Amazon has rights. Of course you take some trees down, and of course you’ll farm some of it and of course you’ll take the bounty from the Amazon so that we can live, but not at the expense of a whole ecosystem. So the notion is for us humans to stop thinking about ourselves at the top of the chain and [that] all of nature exists there for us, for our pleasure, for our profit.

How does the Canadian myth that our country is flush with water lead to our abuse of it?

Up until a few years ago, if you looked at the Environment Canada website it said that Canada had 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. That’s simply not true. We have about 6.5 per cent of the available fresh water. And we are really using it very quickly. We don’t have good legislation, we don’t have national drinking water standards, we have inadequate national standards on sewage treatment, we have no standards on animal sewage treatment.

So we really have nothing to crow about. We’re blessed, but that doesn’t mean that we can be careless with it.

[W]hat we are doing to water separately, the way we’re polluting it, diverting it, mismanaging it, over-extracting it, moving it from one place to another, using it improperly for industrial farming and so on is a major cause of climate chaos. It’s not just that water is a victim. And one of the major ways that we can address and mitigate against climate change is the protection and restoration of watersheds and the things watersheds need, which is health forests and healthy wetlands.

You’ve watched the Blue Communities project succeed beyond expectations. But with federal water policies often swimming against the local current, do Blue Communities have any chance of averting a water crisis?

There is a tension there, because not only do you do get the Trudeau government promoting these trade agreements, Agriculture Canada is promoting the export of bottled Canadian water.

You’re going to hear more and more about bottled water takings for export, because there are parts of the world that are desperately thirsty. We’re not talking about charity here, we’re talking about a big bottled water industry going after Canada’s water. And we have got to stop the federal government from promoting this and we have to stop provincial governments like Ontario and British Columbia from allowing it by giving it commercial licence.

I think you’re going to see more and more of an outcry, and it’s going to come from local groups, it’s going to come from municipalities, because those are the people living right where the water source is being affected.

You’ve been described as “a gadfly who continues to tilt at windmills… recounting the ills of the world in the hope that someone will listen.” Is anyone listening?

It didn’t feel too much like tilting at windmills when we got the United Nations to adopt the human right to water and sanitation. We have had some tremendous successes. I really feel that people are listening.

Who needs to hear? I guess it’s got to be the people who make the decisions. The Trudeau government has done some good things. They’ve increased the funding for water and sanitation in First Nations. They have reversed the war on science and scientists that [former Prime Minister Stephen] Harper started. But they also promised to have a minister of water and a ministry of water and they didn’t do that. So we still have a long way to go.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Maude Barlow sets off on a 12-city Canadian book tour this month, capped by an October appearance at the Law & Water Gala in Washington, DC. She will be at the Runnymede Library on September 30.

@nowtoronto