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U of A President refuses to disclose advisory board members, impugns Maude Barlow

U of A President Indira Samarasekera at the no doubt completely ideologically balanced World Economic Forum in Davos (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In an interview in the March 28 edition of the University of Alberta’s student newspaper, the Gateway, University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera has again refused to answer questions about the membership of the external advisory board for the University’s recently-announced Water Initiative.

In the interview, which was in response to Council of Canadians Chair Maude Barlow’s comments during her March 22 World Water Day keynote address at the university, in which she raised concerns about the apparent pro-water privatization slant of the advisory board being assembled to advise the new initiative.

The Council of Canadians released on February 28 a draft list of advisory board members which the university had circulated in an email to potential members. In addition to Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmanthe, to whom the university also awarded an honorary degree amidst a weeks-long storm of protest, the list included the CEO of Total, the former president and CEO of Nexen, the former chairman and CEO of Syncrude. The president of a capital management firm and an energy information company were included, as was Anders Berntell, then the head of the Nestle-funded Stockholm International Water Institute and now executive director of the 2030 Water Resources Group, which is chaired by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.

“The list we’ve seen raises serious questions about the purpose and direction of this new initiative at the University of Alberta,” said Maude Barlow when the list was released. “There’s no one on the list who is actively challenging the corporate push toward more water privatization and more water markets. It seems as though the president and the university through this initiative is lending its credibility and positioning itself on the pro-privatization, pro-market side of the global debate over who will control water in the future.”

But in response to direct questions from Gateway reporter Scott Fenwick about who has been confirmed for the advisory board, President Samarasekera responded that “it’s inappropriate to talk about specific names” until “an accurate and final” board is assembled. Despite this, the president was perfectly willing to drop the name of India-based environmentalist Sunita Narain as being on the advisory board, indicating that her presence on the board which Samarasekera says includes around “a total of 35 names” is an indication of including people on “both sides of the ideological debate.” In a February 27 interview in the Edmonton Journal, Samarasekera similarly refused to confirm or deny whether Peter Brabeck-Letmathe had been invited to be on the board, despite his name appearing on the draft list being circulated by the university.

In the Gateway interview, Samarasekera also continued her attacks on Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians (which she previously accused of harassing honorary degree recipients and being the only group upset about Brabeck-Letmathe’s honorary degree — a claim refuted within 24 hours by an open letter signed by 70 organizations from 20 countries). In the interview Samarasekera said Barlow has “such a one-sided view of the world. It’s tragic” and accused her of engaging “rhetoric an ideology.” The ideological perspectives of other people on the draft advisory board list, including views that the human right to water is “extreme”, that Alberta should move towards a water exchange, the need to “embrace market-based instruments” for water, and that “water must have a price” apparently are not of concern to President Samarasekera.

The Council of Canadians and members of the University of Alberta community will continue to monitor the development of the UAlberta Water Initiative and push for the public disclosure of who has been confirmed to serve on the initiative’s external advisory board.