There remains as much cause for alarm over the world’s depleted, poorly managed and increasingly corporatized freshwater stores as there was when Maude Barlow and her writing partner Tony Clarke hit the panic button with Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of World’s Water in 2002. Barlow’s strengths as a writer in Blue Future are the same as they were then: she has one of the most thorough and comprehensive understandings of her subject of anyone alive. She is able to fire off a succession of facts regarding large-scale greed and willful blindness to environmental and societal consequence. These litanies leave a reader depleted and incensed, sympathetic to the thirsty and displaced residents of the world’s distant “hot stains” and nearby crumbling agricultural and civic water infrastructures.
She can also turn her findings in the opposite direction, rattling off a series of small-to-large-scale public victories over the transnational companies and World Bank financiers who continue to monetarily “value” what she argues should instead be a core value, that is, “the right to water.” (In 2010, this right was officially recognized by the UN’s Human Rights Council, thanks in no small part to her efforts.)
Blue Future is, far and away, the most comprehensive of the three books in her trilogy. This is in large part because the tireless work that other activists, academics, citizen and indigenous groups, unions, scientists and progressive politicians have done to stem the commodification of water has widened the scope of the discussion over the past decade. There is now more empirical evidence to suggest that a transparent and community-based approach to water management offers us both a sustainable water base and the long-term economic growth that the current top-heavy market model fails to provide the majority of citizens. These rising voices play to Barlow’s strengths as a researcher and organizer, as a conduit for other voices. The sheer volume of citations is, more than any single plea from Barlow, the wellspring from which this book can rightly claim to be hopeful.
In the introduction, she offers the book “as a guide… to clarify the values and principles needed to protect the planet’s fresh water.” The book is then quartered by four guiding principles: “Water Is a Human Right.” “Water Is a Common Heritage.” “Water Has Rights Too.” “Water Can Teach Us How to Live Together.”
No single entity takes centre stage in the story of water as told in Blue Future. This does not mean that specific countries or businesses are not held accountable here for the strain their industrial and economic practices put upon the earth. Canada, under its current federal government, is failing to live up to any of the four principles outlined in the book. The rampant pollution of Alberta’s water supplies due to energy-intensive oil extraction in the tar sands; trade agreements that continue to allow foreign companies invested in the Canadian industries to sue the government for any new conservation-based legislation that would impede their economic interests; the dismantling of the Wheat Board, which allowed smaller, less water-intensive farmers more negotiating power; and facilitating our own mining companies’ dubious water-extraction practices in foreign regions – all of this is broken down for the reader in quick, deft strokes. Barlow is then able to shuttle the discussion over to other areas of the world, maintaining the view of the crisis over freshwater management and sustainability as a truly global crisis, one that must be taken up in the spirit of co-operation and mutual regard for the right of all humans to drink from the well. Her book “[thinks] more like watersheds and less like nations or states,” crosses imposed borders, follows its own natural path.
There are a few moments late in the book when arguments moved a bit too quickly, when certain possibly well-meaning conservation efforts by big business were dismissed outright as the sweet talk of evil giants. But these were minor shallows in a book of deep and rushing intensity, one that should be required reading in every household, boardroom, and government office. It’s impossible to do justice to Barlow’s years of service to such an important cause in a few newspaper-column inches. Blue Future does those years justice. Drink for yourself.
Nick Thran’s most recent book, Earworm, won the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Poetry.