Climate, Capitalism, & the Water Crisis

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“I remember attending a conference in Boise,
Idaho, three years ago and hearing a lot of
scientists get up and say, “Read my lips, this
isn’t a drought, this is permanent drying out.”

” … — there are 36 states in the U.S. in some
form of water stress, from serious to severe.
Thirty-six states! Most Americans don’t know this
— why is this not part of people’s everyday
concerns?”
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The Growing Battle for the Right to Water
By Tara Lohan, AlterNet
Posted on February 14, 2008, Printed on February 14, 2008
http://www.alternet.org/story/76819/

From Chile to the Philippines to South Africa to
her home country of Canada, Maude Barlow is one
of a few people who truly understands the scope
of the world’s water woes. Her newest book, Blue
Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming
Battle for the Right to Water, details her
discoveries around the globe about our
diminishing water resources, the increasing
privatization trend and the grassroots groups
that are fighting back against corporate theft,
government mismanagement and a changing climate.

If you want to know where the water is running
low (including 36 U.S. states), why we haven’t
been able to protect it and what we can do to
ensure everyone has the right to water, Barlow’s
book is an essential read. It is part science,
part policy and part impassioned call. And the
information in Blue Covenant couldn’t come from a
more reliable source. Barlow is the national
chairperson of the Council of Canadians and
co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which is
instrumental in the international community in
working for the right to water for all people.
She also authored Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop
Corporate Theft of the World’s Water with Tony
Clarke. And she’s the recipient of the Right
Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative
Nobel”) for her global water justice work.

She took a moment to talk to AlterNet in between
the Canadian and U.S. legs of a book tour for
Blue Covenant. (Barlow just kicked off her U.S.
tour; for a list of tour stops and dates, click
here).

Tara Lohan: This year in the U.S. there has been
a whole lot press about the drought in Atlanta
and the Southeast, and I think for a lot of
people in the U.S. it is the first they are
hearing about drought, but the crisis here in
North America is really pretty extreme isn’t it?

Maude Barlow: It really is, and it kind of
surprises me when I hear people, for instance in
Atlanta say, “We didn’t know it was coming.” I
don’t know how that could be possible, and I do
have to say that I blame our political leaders. I
don’t understand how they could not have been
reading what I’ve been reading and what anyone
who is watching this has been reading.

I remember attending a conference in Boise,
Idaho, three years ago and hearing a lot of
scientists get up and say, “Read my lips, this
isn’t a drought, this is permanent drying out.”
We are overpumping the Ogallala, Lake Powell and
Lake Meade. The back up systems are now being
depleted. This is by no means a drought …

The thing that I’m trying to establish with the
first chapter, which is called “Where Has All the
Water Gone,” is that what we learned in grade
five about the hydrologic cycle being a closed,
fixed cycle that could never be interrupted and
could never go anywhere, is not true. They
weren’t lying to us, but they weren’t aware of
the human capacity to destroy it, and the reality
is that we’ve interrupted the hydrologic cycle in
many parts of the world and the American
Southwest is one of them.

TL: How is this happening?

MB: By farming in deserts and taking up water
from aquifers or watersheds. Or by urbanizing —
massive urbanization causes the hydrologic cycle
to not function correctly because rain needs to
fall back on green stuff — vegetation and grass
— so that the process can repeat itself. Or we
are sending huge amounts of water from large
watersheds to megacities and some of them are 10
to 20 million people, and if those cities are on
the ocean, some of that water gets dumped into
the ocean. It is not returned to the cycle.

We are massively polluting surface water, so that
the water may be there, but we can’t use it. And
we are also mining groundwater faster than it can
be replenished by nature, which means we are not
allowing the cycle to renew itself. The Ogallala
aquifer is one example of massive overpumping.
There are bore wells in the Lake Michigan shore
that go as deep into the ground as Chicago
skyscrapers go into the ground and they are
sucking groundwater that should be feeding the
lake so hard that they are pulling up lake water
now, and they are reversing the flow of water in
Lake Michigan for the first time.

We are interrupting the natural cycle. And
another thing we are doing is something called
virtual water trade. That is where you send water
out of the watershed in the form of products or
agriculture. You’ve used the water to produce
something and then you export it, and about 20
percent of water used in the world is exported
out of watershed in this way, because so much of
our economy is about export. In the U.S. you are
sending about one-third of your water out of
watersheds — it is not sustainable.

This is not a cyclical drought. We are actually
creating hot stains, as I and some scientists
call them, around the world. These are parts of
the world that are running out of water and will
be, or are, in crisis. Which means that millions
more people will be without water. I argue that
this is one of the causes of global warming. We
usually hear water being a result of climate
change, and it is, particularly with the melting
of the glaciers. But our abuse, mismanagement and
treatment of water is actually one of the causes,
and we have not placed that analysis at the
center of our thinking about climate change and
environmental destruction, and until we do, we
are only addressing half the question.

I do blame in a very big way, the political
leadership in most of our countries for having
failed to heed the call of scientists and
ecologists and water managers who’ve been telling
us for years now there is a crisis coming —
there are 36 states in the U.S. in some form of
water stress, from serious to severe. Thirty-six
states! Most Americans don’t know this — why is
this not part of people’s everyday concerns? That
is what I’m hoping this book will help do.

TL: Do you think governments, like the U.S. or
Canada, have any kind of a contingency plan?

MB: No. There are people in the U.S. who believe
Canada is the contingency plan. Or Northeast
water or Alaska water. So, moving water is one of
the contingency plans, likely by pipeline. You
could also ship it by tanker. Other than that,
no. And not only are there no backup plans, but
there is not even an understanding that you’ve
got to stop increasing the demand on water. In
the U.S., people are moving into the very area of
the country that has no water — a huge migration
is taking place to to the American Southwest
where they’re building more golf courses.

I just read about a new water theme park in
Arizona that will have waves so big you can have
serious surfers, like real surfing in the desert.
There is just this lack of understanding about
how nature works, how the hydrologic cycle needs
to be protected and how watersheds need to be
protected, and when you start playing god by
moving this stuff around like this we are just
creating this massive crisis. There is not enough
water for the demands being made on it in the
American Southwest.

TL: You said 36 states in the U.S. are water
stressed — what does that actually mean for the
people who live there?

MB: Well, in a dire case, literally running out
of water. In many other cases, the predictions
are that the demand will increase seriously and
they’ve got to start planning. I quote in the
book that the demand in Florida is growing so
much and overpumping is happening so much that
there are actually sink holes opening up and
swallowing homes and streets and sometimes whole
shopping centers. It is called subsidence. Mexico
City is sinking in on itself because all the
water under the city has been taken out and now
they are going farther afield pumping water.

It can go from that kind of crisis, or as in some
communities in the Midwest, you face having no
water to the Chicago area, where the demand is
going to grow hugely, and therefore the demand
will be on the Great Lakes, which are already in
trouble. There are four trillion liters taken out
of the Great Lakes every single day and believe
me, nature is not putting a trillion gallons back
in. It is not rocket science that we are not
allowing nature to refill and replenish. And now
there are new demands on the Great Lakes because
communities and industries off the basin are now
demanding access to it.

TL: You mentioned global warming earlier, and I
just want to come back to that for a moment. Are
we approaching climate change in the wrong way by
not recognizing its connection to water?

MB: Yes.

TL: So what should we be doing?

MB: Well, we have to put it into the equation.
I’ve found that some politicians are actually
using global warming as an excuse not to do
anything, and I’ll give you an example. It is the
polar opposite of the Bush administration, which
is that global warming doesn’t exist. In
Australia, which thankfully has gone through a
government change, they are disengaging the water
from the countryside and letting farmers sell it
through brokers, they are disrupting streams and
aquifers. They are draining the wetlands. They
are privatizing. They are doing all sorts of
things wrong, including overusing and polluting
it, and so on. And what did the prime minister
say? “It’s got nothing to do with anything we’re
doing; it’s global warming, and it blew here from
away — we didn’t even create it.”

I think global warming is becoming a little bit
of a catch all for some governments to do nothing
or to put off a solution to other things until
they find a solution to global warming, and there
is no excuse. Right now we have got to stop the
abuse of water. The single most important thing
that we can do for global warming, aside from
stopping the overpumping of greenhouse gas
emissions, but the twin to that is to retain
water in watersheds. Because the hydrologic cycle
is what cools the temperature.

Global warming can be averted through a great
extent if we could maintain watersheds and
maintain the cycle in its purest form. That means
keeping green spaces, building green rings around
urban centers — everything from parks and
gardens — stop polluting, stop overmining
groundwater and retain water in watersheds, which
means we have to live more sustainably, we have
to grow our food differently, we have to stop
believing in unlimited growth and more stuff and
more competition, and all of that.

I find that global warming is such a crisis that
we won’t do anything on any other front because
all our attention is going there. I think we are
terribly missing the boat on this, and I’m very
interested in getting a debate going on this in
the climate-change community so that when people
are talking about the causes of climate change,
our drying up of the earth from below will be
considered as serious a cause as the trapping of
heat from greenhouse gas emissions. It is not
only part of the analysis we are missing, but
part of the solution.

TL: That is interesting. I haven’t heard a lot of
people talking about it from that angle.

MB: Nobody.

I’m working with a group of scientists in
Slovakia and a few other places, voices in the
wilderness, but when you start putting it
together, honestly, it makes such sense. I mean
if you start to look at the growth of deserts —
in the last 30 years we’ve doubled the growth of
deserts in the world, and it will double again in
20 years. Well, if you are creating deserts and
you’ve got heat rising from the earth with urban
heat islands, the inability for the hydrologic
cycle to be maintained because of urbanization,
it makes a lot of sense. Of course that is all
exacerbated by melting glaciers and the lowering
of the ice packs, which protects from
evaporation. It is kind of a deadly combination.
I spoke at a conference about this recently in
London, England, and was received by people from
the climate change world, really, really well,
and I thought “This is a good sign.”

TL: You spent a lot of time in this book, and
also in Blue Gold, talking about privatization.
Can you talk a little about why we should be
concerned about it?

MB: Well, as water dwindles in the world and
available fresh water is becoming more scarce,
the demand is growing, water is becoming a
commodity, it is becoming valuable to those who
want to put a price on it, which is why I called
the first book Blue Gold. And this blue gold is
attracting private sector interest in many, many
ways, and there is a private sector interest
coming together to control every level of water,
from when we take it out of the ground, bottle
it, to how we deliver it, to wastewater
treatment, and now the biggest and newest is
water reuse and recycling. That sounds benign at
first, but when you really start to look at it,
really it is about big, big corporations like GE,
Dow Chemical, Proctor & Gamble getting into the
ownership, control, and recycling of dirty water,
which because there are billions of dollars at
stake, in my opinion, becomes a disincentive to
protect source water. And you can start to
understand why governments, in collusion with
these companies, are starting to spend millions
of dollars on cleanup technology but will not
enforce rules to stop pollution in the first
place.

And then we have desalination. There are 30 desal
plants planned for California alone. They are now
talking about nuclear-powered desalination. They
are talking about building those plants as we
speak. The people in the anti-nuclear movement
had better dust off and come back because it is
all coming back with desalination. And then there
is nanotechnology, which they want to be totally
deregulated. I’ve got a great quote in the book
where this guy says, “We are going to do to water
what we did to telecommunications in the 1990s,”
which is total deregulation. They want
governments out of the business of water.

I have a whole section in the book on how water
has become such a hot commodity. When I wrote
Blue Gold there was no water being exchanged on
the Stock Exchange, now there are over a dozen
indexes just for trading water. It has become a
multi-multibillion-dollar industry just
overnight. A lot of it is this water reuse — it
is the fast-growing section of the water
industry. I argue that there is a race going on
over who’s going to control water, whether it
will be seen as a public commons, a public trust,
and part of our collective heritage that also
belongs to the earth — or whether it will be
controlled by private corporations, and I don’t
know who will win.

TL: But it is not all bad news.

MB: No, we are making good inroads in the bottled
water area — a lot of universities, high
schools, are having drives to reject bottled
water. We’re getting restaurants now taking the
challenge up to not serve bottled water, and
we’re getting people to take a pledge not to
drink bottled water.

There has been a huge fight back from the big
utility companies, particularly in the global
south, to the extent that Suez has basically
announced it is going to leave Latin America
because people are so furious with them, which
has been the result of fabulous grass-roots
activism. So, it is not that this is a done deal,
but most of the our governments are supportive of
these private-sector incursions.

It is all about technology and not about
lifestyle and alternative ways and decreasing
growth and stuff — they are saying we are not
going to challenge the model, it is unlimited
growth, continued competition, continued
economical globalization, continued
privatization, continued deregulation — we’ll
just continue to find ways to clean up the mess
as we go along.

TL: Water is not just an environmental issue, but
a national security issue, you discovered with
this book.

MB: Yes, water has become an issue of national
security in the U.S. Six years ago I couldn’t
find any inkling at the national level — the
Pentagon or White House — of a coming water
crisis, either globally or in the U.S. But in the
last, two to three years, this has been hugely
changed. There is now a consortium advising the
Bush administration and the Pentagon — it is
called Global Water Futures. It is made up of
this think tank called the Center for
International Studies and Sandia Laboratories.
Then I dug deeper and found it is being
contracted out to be run by Lockheed Martin. And
this consortium involves Coke and Proctor &
Gamble and others. So you finally have the U.S.
government saying, “Holy crap, we’re in trouble
here, you can’t be a super power if you don’t
have energy and water.” Now they’ve got this
advisory body that not only has this think tank
and the corporate side too, and the high
technology side, and the military side. It
becomes very clear what you are dealing with.

TL: Can you talk more about the grass-roots resistance to all of this?

MB: The thing that is so stunning, especially in
the global south, is that when you are dealing
with water, you are dealing with life and death.
For a lot of people it is like, “Well, we didn’t
know what to do when they privatized our
education or shut down our public hospitals —
but water is different.” They are willing to go
the wall for it — as one person said to me, “You
may as well kill me with a bullet as dirty
water.” People just take a stand and are
determined they are not going to compromise.

We took the time as a movement … whenever
anybody always asks me how to build a campaign, I
always include these steps. We took the time to
find language that we all jointly agreed on —
that water is not a commodity, that it belongs to
the earth and all species, it is a public trust
and human right, and so on. We’ve taken the time
to work this out so that if you ask any of us
around the world, you are going to hear the same
kind of language. There is a trust that we have
built in this shared philosophy and shared vision.

TL: How is it that you’ve managed to create such
as worldwide message and come together?

MB: Part of the origin was when I wrote a report
for the International Forum on Globalization back
in 1999. It was called Blue Gold: The Global
Water Crisis and the Commodification of the
World’s Water Supply. It took off, and a bunch of
people from around the world started reading it.
We got it translated into many, many languages,
and I started hearing from people saying, “I
thought this was personal and we were fighting
this particular company in our community, and we
didn’t know that this was a global fight.”

So, to my knowledge, that was the first analysis,
and that morphed into the book. I started
traveling and meeting people and Food & Water
Watch got set up in the U.S. And then there was
meeting people in Europe who were fighting big
water companies, coming together at the big World
Water Forum and bringing folks together from the
global south to challenge what we call the “lords
of water.” And, of course, technology has been
incredible. You don’t have to have a computer in
every house — you just have to have somebody on
the other end who has the capacity to receive
this information.

TL: What else do we need to be doing?

MB: We need laws. Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“Legislation won’t change the heart, but it will
restrain the heartless.” We need legislation at
every level of our government. It is all well for
grass-roots people to do all their wonderful work
— but they shouldn’t have to do all the work. We
need laws at every level, from municipal up to
state to national to international, that protect
water ecologically on one hand and protect the
notion of a human right and right of the earth,
and not a commodity, and that is so fundamental.

That is why I call the book “blue covenant” — we
need a covenant of three parts — from humans to
the earth to stop destroying the lifeblood of the
earth, from the rich to the poor (global north to
the south) for water justice, not charity —
justice. Water should be a fundamental right for
all generations, and no one should be allowed to
sell it for profit. We want this right up to the
United Nations. It is a struggle at every level.
But we just keep going. The fight back around the
world is claiming space, but we have to have the
weight of law behind us. We have to make, as a
society, decisions about what matters. And if we
believe that people shouldn’t die because they
can’t afford water, then we have to bring things
to bear to make that happen — we have to change
things. If the World Bank has money to give to
Suez or Veolia, they’ve got the money to give to
a public agency.

TL: So are you hopeful we can move change in the right direction?

MB: I’m always hopeful — it is part of my job. I
consider hope to be a moral imperative, and I
also don’t think you have any right to go around
alarming people with these facts unless you are
also prepared to talk about what needs to be
done, and success stories, and be hopeful. I am
very very hopeful that we can collectively do
this.

If I’m worried — it is about the exponential
abuse of water — can we catch this and stop it
fast enough?

For a list of stops and dates for Barlow’s book tour, click here.

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/76819/

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