Skip to content

NEWS: Barlow speaks against bottled water at University of Toronto, March 21

Toronto’s NOW magazine reports:

In the fight for universal access to water, it turns out, there are warriors and there are hunters.

Maude Barlow is a warrior. Or that’s how the Council of Canadians national chairperson describes herself at a panel hosted by the student-led Public Water Initiative at U of T, (March 21) on the eve of World Water Day.

The group is lobbying the university to eradicate the sale of bottled water on campus and Barlow, who’s served as the senior advisor on water at the UN General Assembly, explains why this is a democratic move to wage ahead in the battle against the hunters.

Water hunters: they come in many forms, tapping into the H2O resources of poor and indigenous communities (Cochabamba, Tanzania) as well as rich and powerful nations (Australia, Canada). Barlow quickly identifies four major corporations—Pepsi, Coca Cola, Danone, Nestle—who are scouring the world for new sources to bottle and sell all over the world.

“Bottled water is the first step in thinking about water as something private and not public,” she warns the packed auditorium. It’s a slippery slope that Barlow fears will see access splintering into a system for the elite and one for everybody else, similar to the health care model in the U.S.

Government buildings in nearly one hundred municipalities across Canada have been designated bottled-water free. It would be a “powerful symbol if University of Toronto takes a stand and says were not going to provide bottled water, we’re going to provide public water,” Barlow says.

Eleven Canadian universities, including Ryerson and Queen’s University, have followed suit with pledges to phase in campus-wide sales bans over the next few years.

Barlow cites a 2007 report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities that says the country needs about $31 billion to fund water and wastewater infrastructure development in Canada (think cleaner and more accessible water fountains). Otherwise, she says, cash-strapped communities will cease financing of these services and people will need to turn to private sources—or hunters—for water supplies.

She quickly dispenses the “first world’s” myth of abundance; that quaint notion that we can continually dip into our freshwater supplies without fear of consequence. For example, Canada’s claim to 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply only rings true if you include every lake aquifer and river flowing through the nation.

In reality, southern Canada has 2.5 per cent of available fresh water that can be accessed without interrupting the natural water flow and damaging the ecosystem.

“We see water as a convenient tool for us; a resource for our conveniences, our profits and our pleasure. We don’t see it as the most essential element of a living ecosystem,” she says.

Sitting beside Barlow, is Debby Danard from the First Nation group, Mother Earth Water Walk, that has been organizing walks around the Great Lakes since 2003. Danard pours water into a silver cup and places it on a table in front of the podium, a reminder of the aboriginal reverence for water, she says, pointing out that First Nations need to be given a voice in the decision-making table.

The day following the panel, the Council of Canadians releases its Great Lakes Commons report outlining the allocation of funds needed to preserve the lakes as a protected bioregion. The study highlights figures demonstrating a lack of concern for depleting water levels in North America. The Canadian government, it says, allots $8 million a year for Great Lakes cleanup and protection while the Obama administration has pledged to increase funding to $2.2 billion over the next five years.

The Council is calling on our feds to allocate $7 billion for water initiatives, such as developing a national public water fund and cleaning up waterways. The study also urges a change to the rapid rate at which water is pumped from the Great Lakes and warns they will be “bone dry in 80 years” if it continues.  It also debunks the common misconception that rainwater replenishes the supply in lakes.

Back at the panel, Barlow says, “It’s very important for us to know that we are a planet that’s running out of water.” Lake Chad, once the sixth largest lake in the world, has been drained of its supply by 90 per cent, she points out, while the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake on the planet, is nearly dried up. “We are actually capable of destroying very large bodies of water.”

A few years ago, Barlow was on a boat paddling along the Naivasha River Valley—the lush Kenyan backdrop to Robert Redford and Meryl Streep’s love affair in the 1985 film Out of Africa — where she witnessed how the lucrative European rose industry is destroying the lake. With 70 per cent of the roses sold in European supermarkets coming from Kenya, largely from Lake Naivasha, the valley suffers imminent deterioration caused by unregulated water abstraction, fishing, and clearance of wetland vegetation.

Closer to home, the laws protecting our resources aren’t much stricter. The Canada Water Act is 41 years old and “totally out of date,” according to Barlow. In 2010, Ontario passed the Water Opportunities Act, which enables the government to use water supplies as a measure to lure business, and regulation codes in place are voluntary.

Last July, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize access to water as a basic human right: Canada was one of the 41 countries to abstain. As of October, every country except Canada—along with Tonga and Israel— has yet to recognize the right to water at least once.

It’s easy to see where we stand.

This article – and a photo of Maude speaking in Toronto – is at http://www.nowtoronto.com/daily/news/story.cfm?content=179845.