One of the benefits of living in the Great Lakes region is that we live near to roughly one third of the world’s fresh water supply. However, since the Great Lakes are seen by many in the market-driven world as a resource, the responsibility of those of us who live here is tremendous if we are serious about protecting these bodies of water. In an excellent sequel to her first book on the global water wars, Maude Barlow has done us all a great service by writing her newest book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.
Blue Covenant is a clarion call to anyone who cares about the future of human and non-human life, all of which is dependent on water. Barlow takes on the difficult, yet important, task of confronting readers with the stark realities surrounding water. The first few chapters are devoted to a litany of statistics and examples of how humans are destroying and diminishing the world’s fresh water supplies. For example, Barlow states “Forty percent of US rivers and streams are too dangerous for fishing, swimming or drinking, as are 46% of lakes due to massive toxic runoff from industrial farms, intensive livestock operations and the more than one billion pounds of industrial weed killer used throughout the country every year.” This reality is even worse in most of the developing world where there is less wealth and less of an infrastructure to provide access to and treatment of water. Again, according to Barlow, “More than one-third of Africa’s population currently lacks access to safe drinking water, and within fifteen years, one in two Africans will be living in countries that are confronted with serious water stress.”
After Barlow lays out the grim realities of the current global water crisis, she investigates some of the main factors that are causing this crisis. The author identifies industrial practices such as water used in technology production or irrigation of corporate agriculture as one of the factors involved in creating the current global water crisis. These practices not only divert large amounts of fresh water from watersheds and rivers, they are a major cause of water pollution. For example, according to David Pimentel at Cornell University, “it takes seventeen hundred liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol, when the water used to process the corn to bio-fuels is added to the water used to grow corn, usually using wasteful flood irrigation systems.”
Another major factor in the current water crisis is the push to privatize the use of water. One way that privatization can be seen is in the push to have private corporations run municipal water systems. This push towards privatization is particularly evident in poorer countries and is being promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank as conditions for debt relief. Another international entity that is pushing privatization is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=World_Business_Council_for_Sustainable_Development) a group that is comprised of mining, oil, beverage, and finance corporations who came together in 1997 with the intent of directing international water policy in their favor.
The other major player in creating a global water crisis is what Maude Barlow calls the “global water cartel.” The global water cartel is made up of companies like Nestle, Suez, Coca Cola and Pepsi. These companies have not only been diverting more water away from public use to bottled water for profit, they have been influencing policy around the world.
The book also looks at how the water cartel and other industries have responded to the growing water crisis. Here the author identifies two types of strategies, a greenwashing approach and a technology solution. The technology solution has basically created other markets for some industries, which are hoping to cash in on the water crisis. The types of technology they have created are desalination and nanotechnology. Desalination is the process where companies would remove salt from ocean water so people can consume it. This is no real solution and it makes the public even more dependent on the private sector for drinking water. Nanotechnology is most likely not viable and many experts that the author cites believe that there has not been enough research to know whether or not it is beneficial for humans.
The greenwashing strategy is where companies that are using public water resources are trying to present themselves as entities that care about water. Many of these companies have engaged in PR campaigns to paint themselves as defenders of water around the planet. One example is Dow Chemical, which recently launched its Dow Water Solutions campaign to create “safer, more sustainable water supplies for communities around the world.” Dow is also sponsoring an annual Blue Planet Run, which sends runners around the world to raise money for safe water projects in the Third World. Barlow says that these and other efforts not only distracts the public from the current water crisis, it diverts our attention away from the very companies and institutions that are the main perpetrators of the global water crisis.
The last section of the book is devoted to the responses from communities all around the world to the global water crisis. Barlow documents examples of public resistance on every continent on the planet. For example, in Chile civil society prevented the plans of a Canadian mining company that wanted to remove the ice glaciers on top of several mountains in order to have easier access to mineral deposits. These glaciers are a main source of fresh water in Chile, so communities organized to fight this effort and won. In India, thousands of farmers and other citizens smashed Pepsi and Coca Cola machines in an effort to get those beverage companies to stop diverting water for local agriculture and use it for selling bottled water. In addition, the author documents the rise of global citizen movements around water rights, where groups who were once isolated are not coming together to push for strong international policy to protect public water rights. These efforts to change policy are a public response to the efforts of the global water cartel to promote policies of privatization.
Blue Covenant concludes with a plea for all of us to not only work for global water justice, but to see this effort as threefold. First, there needs to be a serious effort at water conservation. We cannot continue to consume the amount of water as individuals and communities at the current rate. To put this into perspective, Barlow says that the average human needs 50 liters per day for drinking, cooking and sanitation. “The average North American uses almost 600 liters per day and the average African uses just 6 liters per day.” Those of us living in the US have a greater responsibility to change that disparity. Second, the author urges us to work for water justice. Water justice means that we guarantee that all people have access to the necessary amount of water needed to sustain a healthy life. Lastly, Barlow says we need water democracy. Water democracy would mean that corporations, financial institutions and governments can no longer determine how water is used, rather all of us would be able to decide how water should be used.
Blue Covenant is one of the best books I have read in recent years in terms of combining good information, great analysis and a call to action. In this case, we have little choice but to act and Maude Barlow’s book is a great tool to help us put up a good fight.
Maude Barlow, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, (The New Press, 2007).