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Alberta running dry

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Activist warns oil sands, cattle and agriculture threatening water supply

Water. In Alberta, we take it for granted—turn the tap, there it is: clean, fresh and unlimited. But what if the very things that define Alberta—oil, beef, farms—could be destroying our finite and, shrinking, water supply? That’s what Ottawa-based author and water activist Maude Barlow warns in her new bestselling book Blue Future. This is her 16th book and her third on the threats facing water.

Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, was Senior Advisor on Water to the president of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008 to 2009 and helped get clean water and sanitation recognized as a human right at the UN. I spoke to Barlow on the phone while she was in Saskatoon, taking a break from her book tour to attend the Council of Canadians’ AGM.

Vue Weekly: Reading Blue Future, I was surprised to learn about the extent of Alberta’s water insecurity. What’s going on?
Maude Barlow: Alberta is probably going to become the first water have-not province in Canada. First of all, there’s not as much water as some provinces have. Secondly, a lot of the water you have is dependent on glaciers that are melting—the Bow River is totally glacier dependent. Then you have the destruction of so much water and contamination of so [many] water supplies in the tar sands and that whole region—the millions of litres of toxins that are flowing into the local water systems on a regular basis.

Then we have agribusiness, which is using a huge amount of water. With only two percent of renewable water sources in Canada, Alberta is using almost two-thirds of [Canada’s] water for commodities that require irrigation. So really you’re sucking up water in Alberta far faster than it can be replenished.

Albertans really need to look very seriously at not only their current water crisis, but the demands being placed on their water by agreements like the [Canada-EU Trade Agreement] which is going to open up 70  000 tonnes more beef exports to Europe every year. Beef is very water intensive, and this is water consumption, the water is not returned.

This is a very important distinction, the water is not returned to the watershed in agricultural production. So the water used to produce beef cattle, when the meat or live cattle are exported, the water goes with them. It’s important for people to understand that if you’re going to dramatically increase beef exports out of the province, you’re going to be exporting water faster and faster.

VW: If left unchecked, what could Alberta’s water future look like?
MB: Alberta could run out of water. Alberta is heading for the kind of crisis … where there just isn’t enough water for the demand. I always marvel at governments, how they promote a certain kind of agricultural growth and exports and they subsidize certain agricultural practices. They promote these trade agreements that promote more exports, more stuff, more water abuse—and they’re not talking to water experts, not even asking the question about what’s the impact of water.

If people started to understand that A) we don’t have the water for this, B) if the demand grows and these foreign corporations can claim ownership of this water, which they can under these trade agreements, then C) they can claim compensation like American companies can under NAFTA, if we even try to bring in regulations on our water. I think people would stop and ask a whole lot of heavy, serious questions about these trades and investment agreements.

VW: So what can the average person do if they want to fight for water rights and water justice?
MB: They should learn as much as they can about water and reconnect with water. I think one of the disconnects happened, for all of us, when … we just turn on these taps in our homes and our business and this liquid stuff comes out and we don’t think about it. The first thing that people need to do is reconnect, understand that water is not a resource for our pleasure, profit and convenience.

I often quote Martin Luther King Jr, who said legislation may not change the heart, but it will restrain the heartless. We need the rule of law. We need governments to reconnect to their responsibility to water, which means we need to be angry that the Harper government has gutted the Fisheries Act, they’ve gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act and they’ve gutted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Basically energy industries and mining companies are free to do whatever they want—99 percent of our lakes and rivers are no longer protected from pipes carrying the dirtiest bitumen, chemical-laden bitumen or fracked oil under, around or over them. We need to understand that will have ramifications for our water systems for many years. And we also need to ask the opposition parties what they would do about this legislation, would they re-enact it, would they reinstate the teeth in these laws?

And people need to love their water. Appreciate the fact you live in a country that has clean water coming out of the tap. This water is our water. It belongs to all of us, it belongs to the ecosystem, it belongs to future generations, it belongs to other species and it’s our lifeblood.

VW: Blue Future is the third book you’ve written on water. What’s happened since your first two books Blue Gold and Blue Covenant?
MB: Well, I wrote this because the information in the other two was dated. None of it is incorrect—in fact everything I predicted has come true with a vengeance. There’s just so much that’s happened since Blue Gold, that came out in 2002, including the fact that Blue Covenant ended with the statement that we have to promote the human right to water at the United Nations. That has happened. I wanted to catch people up to date on what’s happening, because I’m finding that people are following this story.

I wrote, to my knowledge, the very first analysis anywhere in the world on the politics of water back in the in the mid-’90s for an organization called the International Forum on Globalization. That was a report that I wrote that then became Blue Gold. So people are following this story. I find that it’s being following in universities and in movements and so on. People are intensely involved in it. We have a global water justice movement and they’re very keen to see me update the story—how are we doing in the fight against privatization in municipalities and so on.

The other thing is I really wanted to offer a blueprint for the solution. I’ve got some solutions in the other books, but I really based this one on solutions—although I catch people up on the situation. I really went into the need for what I call the new water ethics. Which is simply to put water in the centre of our lives and that all policy involved, everything we do, must be judged against the question of how it impacts water. It’s both an update and also a very new book in its approach.

VW: Have things gotten better or worse since you wrote Blue Gold?
MB: I think a bit of both. The bad news is the global water crises, the ecological crisis, is worse and it’s happening more quickly than I predicted —or anyone predicted—in those last two books. We have what David Suzuki calls exponential destruction of our water system. I always use the analogy of people around a bathtub and everybody has a straw and a blindfold and they’re just drinking up that water. And there’s lots of water for everybody until there’s no water for anybody, it just happens really quickly.

What we know is that we’re pumping the groundwater faster than nature can replenish it. One study said that if groundwater in the Great Lakes was being pumped as fast as the global water is being pumped that the Great Lakes could be bone dry in 80 years. So the bad news is that we are polluting, mismanaging and, most importantly, displacing water. We’re taking water from where nature put it in water-retentive landscapes and we’re moving it—and that’s doing great harm to the environment.

The good news is there is an awful lot more awareness. We’re building movements to understand the impact of water on climate. We always think of it as climate on water, but when you destroy water-retentive landscapes by displacing water or displacing vegetation from that landscape you actually create desert and that heats up the hydrologic cycle and heats up the air. It’s really important that we’re beginning to really make that connection to what the issue of water is really all about in terms of climate.

We’re also building a movement for local people to take back control of their water sources. Whether it’s from a private corporation running their local water service or water trading when corporations come in and claim the actual water. Or whether it’s against desalination or dams that bisect rivers, or whether it’s against corporate agribusiness sucking up water and exporting it away in the form of virtual water. There are just so many ways that water gets claimed by the private sector.

And there are so many wonderful ways in which communities are fighting back, saying this is unacceptable. So to give just one example of how, in many ways, we’re winning the fight against privatization of water services in Latin America and in Europe and in the United States: municipalities that have tried privatization are moving back.

A great example is in France. Over 40 municipalities, including Paris, have re-municipalized water; they’ve taken it back under public ownership and public control and kicked the private companies out. Their contracts ended and they did not renew them. And in Paris they’re actually able to reduce the price of the rate of water for consumers because there’s no profit motive, there’s no need to find extra money for shareholders. So it’s a win-win and another good story—and it’s important to tell those good stories because the bad stories can be pretty debilitating.

VW: You write that Canada under Stephen Harper has been a threat to global water rights.
MB: Yes, Canada is a really negative force in the world. It’s no surprise that Stephen Harper does not like or promote the UN. Year after year he refuses to go to the official UN opening every fall. That’s just appalling for Canada to snub the UN that way. The Harper government led the fight against the human right to water and sanitation at the UN, which we won in spite of the government, but it really is embarrassing.

We had this really wonderful project called GEMS (Global Environmental Monitoring System) where Canada was monitoring something like 300 lakes and water systems around the world for the United Nations to provide background data on freshwater lakes and how they’re doing.

And the government also walked away from the Experimental Lakes Area, which has thankfully been picked up by an independent organization. But the federal government walked away from its many-year commitment. This is an area of northwestern Ontario where they have done experiments on what makes water sick and what makes it well again and it has been absolutely incredibly important in terms of understanding mercury poisoning and how acid rain works.

That’s really important information, not just for Canada’s water, but for the global water system, so it’s a real tragedy.

VW: Thanks for talking with us.
MB: Thanks so much.

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