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Maude Barlow along the Ottawa River on Aug. 22, 2013.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: Whose Water Is It Anyway?
  • Author: Maude Barlow
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Pages: 160

Maude Barlow, the Canadian who has become one of Earth’s great defenders of clean, free water, calls her fourth book on the subject – Whose Water Is It Anyway? Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands – a work about hope.

Hope? Hmmm. It’s not easy to fit a bouncy word such as hope into the statistics she tolls off through 135 pages: the United Nations reports that call water scarcity the scourge of the Earth and link it directly to humanity’s continued degradation of lands and forests. The UN warning that more than five billion people could suffer severe water shortages within 30 years. The World Health Organization study in 2017 that stated at least two billion people drink water contaminated with feces every day. The non-profit agency WaterAid report that says contaminated water and poor toilets kill a child under 5 every two minutes, and still another UN report that says 80 per cent of waste water from human activity is discharged into waterways around the world without any pollution removal.

And we’re only at Page 3.

On the other side of the ledger are her accounts of millions of dollars of profits reaped by private corporate owners and managers of municipal water systems in many of the world’s major cities and the profits harvested by bottled-water companies that pay pennies for hundreds of millions of litres of fresh water they extract daily from aquifers. Barlow writes: “We are polluting, depleting, damming, over-extracting and diverting the planet’s water systems. We are changing landscapes and local hydrologic cycles, creating deserts in some places and catastrophic floods in others. Communities already living without clean water because of poverty, inequality and discrimination now find themselves in further danger as local water sources dry up or are claimed for profit-related purposes.”

And yet, Whose Water Is It Anyway? is in fact a bouncy book of hope, with photographs of an ever-smiling Barlow raising a defiant fist in front of an audience, hugging children and marching in demonstrations around the world for public ownership of water and the step-by-step creation of what she calls “a global water justice movement.”

The language is as relentlessly upbeat and the research as exhaustive as the woman herself. To make full disclosure, as a journalist I’ve known Barlow for 40 years, since before she co-founded the social activist Council of Canadians. I always have thought of her as an elegant Energizer Bunny. Once pointed in the direction she intends to go, nothing stops her.

The book tracks her Blue Communities campaign – now in its 10th year – to persuade communities, first across Canada and now into Western Europe and the United States, to recognize fresh water and sanitation systems as human rights, to promote publicly financed, owned and operated water and waste-water services, and to ban or phase out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events. This November, Los Angeles became the first major U.S. city to take steps to protect public water services. It joins 27 Canadian municipalities, including Montreal.

Barlow writes that two events triggered what she calls her “obsession with water.”

The first was then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision in the late 1980s to sell off public water utilities in England and Wales as part of government cutbacks. Household water rates there, Ms. Barlow writes, have climbed 40 per cent since then. The second was the announcement by the U.S. and Canadian governments, also in the 1980s, that a free-trade agreement was being negotiated, initially raising fears that the Americans would gain access to Canadian water.

The impetus for the Blue Communities campaign was a threat by the Harper government in 2009 to withhold federal funding to towns and cities that refused to turn to a public-private partnership for water infrastructure upgrading. The government claimed that municipalities could save money by involving the private sector.

Since then, Barlow estimates that more than 20 million people now live in Blue Community municipalities – including the inhabitants of Paris in addition to the residents of 105 other French communities that have remunicipalized their water services, as well as 26 Swiss Blue Communities and a grassroots network of water-commons organizations through the European Union.

So there is indeed hope, which is one of the two reasons Barlow’s book is worth reading, in conjunction with her frightening statistics. The other reason is because amid all the frustrations and disappointments of the global environmental crisis, Barlow seems to have hit upon a really good idea. Increasingly, she and other eco-activists are saying that mayors and local councils have power and the desire to take action and may well be paying more attention to the wishes of their constituents than more senior levels of government.

One organization attracting considerable attention is a new super-alliance of big-city global mayors – part of the Global Covenant of Mayors, an alliance of more than 10,000 cities worldwide – that has been formed to fast-track energy technology “to identify, pilot and scale innovations and steer budgets toward clean energy.” One of its most intriguing projects has been a decision by the mayor and council of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to allow people to pay transit fares with empty plastic bottles.

What Barlow is teaching us with this punchy little book is that, yes, there can be hope. Hope – and progress – without the grandees of national politics at glittering global palavers that invariably seem to fall short of promise.

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