Blog | October 24, 2010

This article was originally published in the Edmonton Journal on Oct 24, 2010

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON—With tears welling up in her eyes, the Australian farmer looked over her parched fields where she grew rice for a prosperous export market. Rice production, a water-intensive business, was encouraged by the national government that handed out water licences in the 1990s.

Trouble was, the water ran out after six long years of drought. By 2008, Australia’s rice crop had dropped by 98 per cent, all rice mills were mothballed and farmers were left scrambling to find a way out.“Why didn’t they have a plan to start cutting back on water use sooner?’” said the devastated farmer. Canadian activist Maude Barlow listened carefully as she put a comforting arm around the woman.

That was about two years ago when Barlow was on a book tour to Australia — just as parts of that dry country “hit the water wall,” as she puts it.  Her latest book, Blue Convenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, describes water shortage, the impact of climate change on water and the influence of big corporations in global water politics.

There’s a glimpse of Canada’s future down under, she says, unless governments here do some planning to conserve water on this continent.  Barlow has been sounding the alarm about a looming world water shortage since the mid-1990s, when she began to cast water as the next oil — an increasingly scarce commodity that could lead to global conflict unless governments started planning ahead.

In Canada, the water crisis will hit Alberta first, she says. The province has already put a halt on new licences in three river basins — the Bow, the Oldman and the South Saskatchewan — where flow is low. Any prospective new water user has to buy an allocation from an existing licence holder.

In November 2009, the province promised a public consultation on proposals to manage water licences and deal with the sale of water rights. No date has yet been set.  Barlow does not believe water should be bought and sold like a commodity, and will say so in Edmonton on Tuesday when she addresses a forum organized by Public Interest Alberta. She’ll be joined by Australian Ian Douglas of the National Coalition for Fair Water Use in Australia and First Nations environmentalist Duane Goodstriker.

Barlow ranks among Canada’s most controversial citizens. Provocative, fearless and uncompromising, she constantly rankles corporate Canada with her unrelenting campaign against foreign takeovers, privatization and free trade. Two years ago, she infuriated many Albertans — and struck a chord with others — when she compared Alberta’s oilsands mines to the grim, desolate landscape of Mordor, the land ruled by the Dark Lord in the fictional trilogy Lord of the Rings. Critics call her alarmist, anti-business, an international rabble-rouser.

But she’s a hero to the left, a tireless campaigner for social justice, environmental causes and globalization issues — all of which she has voiced as longtime chairwoman of the advocacy group Council of Canadians.  The council may not have the high profile of 20 years ago when it led the battle against Brian Mulroney’s free trade deal with the U.S. in the 1988 election. But it fights on, finding new turf in battles against globalization. That has earned Barlow herself a profile on the world stage.For the past two years, she has worked at the United Nations, one of only a handful of Canadians to win a high-level UN appointment.

She was named special adviser on water to the UN General Assembly, a job that put her on a collision course with the Canadian government, which opposed the call for a resolution to declare access to clean water a basic human right.  While Barlow worked to build support among UN ambassadors for the resolution, the Canadian government (under Paul Martin and Stephen Harper) did its best to derail the resolution. Who would win that battle would not become clear for many months.  Barlow didn’t find it daunting. Going up against the Canadian government, the powers that be, is a constant factor in her life as a dissident. 

It was Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua, who brought Barlow to the UN headquarters in New York.  The priest-turned-politician was elected president of the UN General Assembly in late 2008. He had ambitions to make access to fresh water a human right in his year-long tenure. He’d never met Barlow, but had read her books on global water justice and knew she was right for the job. She quickly accepted.“It was an incredible honour,” says Barlow, of the unpaid position.“It opened huge doors.”

Under Miguel’s leadership, Barlow spent much of 2009 meeting with UN ambassadors and agencies that deal with water to lay the groundwork for the resolution. There was much work to be done to understand the impact of the resolution, get counties on side and understand the legal framework.

Being Maude Barlow, she also went to work on the home front. Barlow decided to organize a group in Canada called Friends of the Right to Water. Maybe it could persuade the Harper government to change its mind.On Earth Day, April 22, 2009, Barlow and Miguel addressed the UN General Assembly to press for the resolution. But Miguel’s term ended before the water resolution could come forward for a vote.

By then, however, Barlow’s work had caught the eye of Bolivia’s UN ambassador, Pablo Solon, who was determined to carry on with the water resolution in the General Assembly. Together, they worked for another year.  Then, this June, Barlow headed to New York to address the G77, a group of mainly Third World countries. That evening, Solon invited her to dinner, where he announced he would bring forward the long-awaited resolution to declare access to water and sanitation a basic human right.Barlow drew in her breath.

“Are you ready for a fight?” she asked the ambassador, worried that not enough work had been done to ensure the resolution would pass.  “But he said, ‘It’s been years of research; it’s time for the UN to deal with it.’ So he did.”On July 28, Barlow found herself back at the UN to watch the crucial vote. It was a tense day. Canada had worked hard behind the scenes to gather opposing forces to defeat the resolution. Nobody knew which way the vote would go. Barlow paced back and forth in the spectators’ gallery watching the lights go up on the big screens recording each country’s vote.When the voting ended, 122 countries had voted in favour, including France, Germany, Russia and China. There were 41 abstentions, including Canada, the U.K., the United States and Australia. No one voted against.

“The whole place broke out in cheers,” she recalls. “It was a very moving moment.”  Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted to affirm water as human right with legal obligations within each country. Almost all countries that had previously abstained got on-board — but not Canada, she said. Barlow says that’s partly why she was opposed to Canada’s bid this month to get a seat on the Security Council. Canada’s foreign policy is just too far outside the mainstream, she says.

Last night, Maude Barlow went to a very big party in downtown Ottawa with hundreds of members of the Council of Canadians. It was a celebration of the council’s 25th birthday and of victories like the UN water resolution.The council risked losing its profile in the early 1990s as the debate over economic nationalism faded after the free trade deal with the U.S., says Steve Patton, political scientist at the University of Alberta.  But in the last decade, the council has had success in reinvigorating itself, partly by making alliances with other progressive organizations across the country. It has also been able to recruit more young people, mostly by taking on issues around globalization through trade agreements, says Patton.

“They aren’t trying to stop globalization, they want a different form,” he says.  The council has been criticized by its business foes for not participating in elections to test its public support. But Patton says that’s not a serious issue. There have always been advocacy groups on both the ideological right and left, he says.

“It would be a sad day if all politics were partisan party politics,’’ says Patton. “It’s good for democracy to see people engage outside parties and the electoral process.”  Barlow herself says she’s “morphed from economic nationalist to social and environmental justice champion. ”But free trade and relations with the U.S. still flare up.Example: the role played by the Council of Canadians in defeating the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a plan for deeper integration among Canada, U.S and Mexico. First advocated by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2005, the partnership called for a new defence perimeter around North America, and the “harmonization” of policies on pollution, education and energy.

Deeper integration of the two economies would lead to a single currency. The Martin and Harper governments pushed ahead for a few years, but about a year ago, the initiative stalled, says Barlow. And the Obama administration is not interested. 

These days, Barlow is taking aim at Canada’s effort to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the European Union. Negotiations are going on mostly under the radar, says Barlow, so Canadians may not be aware of what’s on the table.  This time “provincial procurement” is on the table, areas that are deemed protected under NAFTA. European countries are pushing for access to provincial and municipal services, including health care and education. If they succeed, it also means local authorities could not favour local suppliers, says Barlow.

Canada’s business community supports the proposed deal. Opposition to free trade is deemed to be “yesterday’s thinking.” Canada has to get rid of outdated trade barriers and be open to ideas from Europe.Barlow, 63, blessed with four grandchildren, shows no signs of slowing down. Recently, she held a party for her mother on her 90th birthday in Ottawa.

“We had a piper play the bagpipes on a gorgeous fall day.”She gets her social conscience from her father, Bill McGrath, who led prison reform efforts in Canada.  In the mid-1980s, Barlow joined the Liberal party and ran for a Liberal nomination in Ottawa but lost the bid. It was a critical moment. Had she won, she might have been fighting for change within the political elite as MP for her leafy, middle-class Ottawa neighbourhood. Instead, she makes life uncomfortable for the political establishment by protesting on the outside.Does she have any regrets about being on the outside, protesting on the streets, not in the government chambers?

“Best thing I did was leave the Liberal party," she says. “I’m absolutely clearly on the outside, because it gives you the ability to speak your mind. If you go into a mainstream party you have to compromise, compromise, compromise. It would drive me crazy. “Chretien’s book about his life as prime minister was called Straight From the Heart. My book was Straight Through the Heart: How the Liberals Abandoned the Just Society.’’

She knows she is disliked and marginalized in boardrooms across the country and among the conservative circles that dominate politics today. But that’s no surprise, she says.“My grandmother once told me, “serious people will make serious enemies.”

How does she find the energy to keep up all this work? “If you see an injustice and make a decision to take action, it’s a stress reliever. It’s the challenge of making a difference, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”Barlow’s passion these days is saving the planet and “sounding the alarm.”

“I spend my life trying to tell people we are a planet in crisis.  ”Fixing it means taking action to slow climate change, which is melting glaciers and drying up rivers.The looming water shortage will lead to global conflict if the world doesn’t act, she says.  “China is already helping itself to water in the Himalayas, for instance.”As well, big corporations are buying large tracts of land in Africa, and with the land they get the water that will produce food for export, says Barlow.

In fact, Canada recently paid a foreign company to get back water rights in Newfoundland, she says.When American forestry giant AbitibiBowater went into bankruptcy protection and closed its mill in Newfoundland, the federal government had to pay the company under NAFTA Chapter 11 for forgone timber and water rights. The company was paid $130 million in compensation even though it had closed the mill.Barlow wonders if the Alberta government might get caught in such a dispute if an American oilsands company, with a licence on the Athabasca River, pulls out.

That’s why she’s hoping to spark a discussion about water markets in Alberta and how to deal with a shortage. In her view, water should be held in a public trust.The province has yet to release it proposals and signal when the public consultation will begin.

Is Barlow being alarmist with her fears of shortage?A Statistics Canada report in 2008 suggests not: “Renewable water resources have declined in southern Canada over the past three decades. From 1971 to 2004, water yield (supply of fresh water) in southern Canada, the area in which 98 per cent of the population lives, fell by an average of 3.5 cubic kilometres a year.

This annual loss is equivalent to the water contained in 1.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools, and almost as much water as was supplied to Canada’s entire residential population in 2005. This represents an overall loss of 8.5 per cent of the water yield in southern Canada over the 34-year period.  ”The Council of Canadians isn’t opposed to using water for industrial uses. It just wants a plan to make sure there’s enough for human consumption first — and a way to take back commercial water allocation if water resources start to run out.  “We’ve got to get over the myth of abundance of water. Alberta has only two per cent of the country’s freshwater, yet 65 per cent of its food production depends on irrigation. We don’t have an endless supply of water.”

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