Blog | February 28, 2012

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton JournalEDMONTON - With 100 researchers working on water issues, the University of Alberta is putting together an advisory group to enhance its leadership role on water on the global stage, university president Indira Samarasekera announced Monday. While discussions are in the initial phase, Samarasekera says she will talk with three honorary degree recipients this week about participating in a new initiative, including Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the CEO of Nestle, U of A professor emeritus Steve Hrudey and Sunita Narain, an expert on water conservation from India. The idea for the water initiative comes partly from youn0ger faculty keen on a leadership role. The university has also noted the provincial government identified water as one of its key priorities in its economic outlook, Samarasekera said. “Living in Alberta, we have almost the prefect nexus of the food- energy-water triangle” so the U of A is well placed to become centre of global research, she said. Samarasekera is determined to get a balance of views on the external advisory committee, including voices from government, corporations, non-profit institutes, think tanks and non-governmental organizations. “We will not be content until we have the right balance,” said Samarasekera, adding the list of names is not finalized, with 25-50 people are under consideration. Researchers will work across disciplines in four main areas, water and public health, industry, ecosystems and policy. She declined to discuss what role might be played by Brabeck-Letmathe, who advocates water markets and whose company runs one of world’s biggest bottled water businesses. She acknowledged the announcement of his honorary degreee caused some controversy and that her office has received a lot of mail, including aletter from Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and a former senior adviser on water to the United Nations in 2007-08. While the press has portrayed the controversy as “a mass outcry, as far as I’m concerned there is one group that is upset and that’s the Council of Canadians,” she said The university remains open to all viewpoints and will host Barlow on March 22, said Samarasekera. Students invited Barlow to participate in World Water Day. “What I don’t understand is why doesn’t Maude Barlow just phone me?” she asked, adding “ we want to hear from everyone.” Samarasekera acknowledged some professors have also written publicly to protest the honorary degree to the Nestle CEO, but it is “a small number. They are scholars and I respect their views.” She also said only “a small number” of alumni have written letters to protest. But she had scathing criticism for the Council of Canadians, accusing it of harassing degree recipients with phone calls urging them not to accept the degrees. Barlow dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that her members are making phone calls. It’s quite possible the university’s president is getting a lot of email on the issue as “it’s a big issue on campus” and across the country, said Barlow, adding she is still hoping for a reply to her letter. Barlow thinks the water initiative is getting off the wrong foot by honouring the CEO of Nestle, a company under fire for years for dubious practices marketing baby formula in the Third World Also, Brabeck-Letmathe has previously identified Alberta as potential site for a water market, she said. “When we see this major important academic institution preparing to take a side and honour those who would commodify water, the power lies with the people she is honouring.” An early list of 17 names being considered for the advisory group, obtained by The Journal, contained eight peoplewith current and past corporate connections, including Brabeck-Letmathe, four from universities and various other organizations. Perhaps the backlash has caused the university to reconsider the list, Barlow suggested. Samarasekera stressed her goal is to bring diverse views to the board. While she is aware of Barlow’s role at the UN, she is not under consideration and her name was not put forward, Samarasekera said. “One thing I am increasingly concerned about in civil society today is that we’re not tolerant of diverse voices. Any one side will stand up and say the other side should not be heard. “I think the university has an important role to be a convener of diverse voices a convener, whether it is private sector, public sector or government. ” Samarasekera said all academics working on water issues at the university will be part of the initiative. The honorary degrees will be given out Thursday and followed by a panel discussion on water with the Hrudey, Narain and Brabeck-Letmathe.

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal spratt@edmontonjournal.com

This article was published in the Edmonton Journal on February 28, 2012. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.