A Blue Community wave is coming to Vancouver

This guest blog was written by Peter G. Prontzos, Professor Emeritus in Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Langara College in Vancouver.

Council of Canadians Honorary Chairperson Maude Barlow was in Vancouver on October 18 to meet with a group of city councillors. The purpose of the meeting was to encourage Vancouver to become a Blue Community. 

Barlow was accompanied by leaders from several organizations who expressed support for the proposal. This is the first step towards seeing Vancouver join a growing list of municipalities across the globe in this important movement for human rights and to eliminate the use and sales of bottled water in city-run premises and events.

Barlow has been central to the creation of Blue Communities. She has been awarded 14 honorary doctorates, and was appointed Senior Advisor on Water by the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly (Miguel D’Escoto). One result was a UN declaration that access to water is a human right.

(At one of the teleconferences that Noam Chomsky did with my political science classes, a student asked a question about corporate globalization. Chomsky began by stating that resistance is not futile, and went on to cite the vital contribution made by Barlow and the Council of Canadians in defeating of the corporate-friendly trade deal known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the MAI).

Barlow has written 19 books, and her latest is, Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands (ECW Press)

In it, she points out that the climate emergency is, unfortunately, not just about rising temperatures and tropical hurricanes. Among the many threats that we all face, the potential for a global water shortage is one of the most frightening.

Just last year, the UN’s World Water Development Report said that, “3.6 billion people live in areas that are water scarce for at least a month per year.” If we do not take serious steps to address the problem, it will “increase to as many as 5.7 billion people by 2050.”

Most Canadians tend to take our water supplies for granted. (Except, of course, on 56 Indigenous reserves, where “Third World conditions” ­– as described by the CBC ­– mean that there still is no safe drinking water). Unfortunately, there are several other problems that threaten access to clean water in the “True North.” Fortunately, we have Barlow to explain both the threats and the possible solutions to these critical problems.

One of the major problems is privatization: selling a community’s water rights to private ­– usually foreign ­– multinational corporations. This is the case in British Columbia, where Nestlé’s bottled water operations faced opposition from communities trying to protect their water. Despite the 2015 drought and the threat of future water shortages, Nestlé continues to extract 265 million litres per year from a well in Hope, located on Sto:lo Territory. That well connects to a nearby aquifer that 6,000 residents rely on for drinking and sanitation.

To be fair, the previous provincial Liberal government did come to an agreement. Nestlé has to pay for our water ­– all of $2.25 for every one million litres that they extract. That’s not a typo. (Nestlé is one of the world’s largest corporations with annual revenues of $92 billion).

Barlow also discusses the danger from trade treaties that Canada has signed. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that the Mulroney government made with the U.S. led the way in eroding the rights of states to control their own water supplies. Under the FTA and subsequent trade deals, our water became a commodity that, under certain conditions, we would have to export, primarily to the United States.

Another threat to access to water is the, “degradation of the lands and forests that replenish the world’s freshwater sources.” Barlow cites the World Health Organization, which reported that over 2 billion people, “drink water with feces…killing more than half a million people per year.” The human right to water for sanitation is also a central issue.

Another concern is the enormous energy required to bottle water and ship to it market. It takes “the equivalent of about 160 million barrels of oil – up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce the equivalent volume of tap water.”

Plastic pollution is another growing danger.

In 2009, the “Blue Communities” Project came in response to these existential threats. Organized by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), hundreds of working people, environmentalists, and Indigenous representatives met in Ottawa to begin working “to promote public water management and public drinking water.”

In B.C., a number of communities have protected their water supplies from privatization and increased water rates, including Burnaby, Abbotsford, and White Rock. In 2011, the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution supporting Blue Communities. Barlow is now working with Vancouver residents to help make the city “Blue.” When that happens, Vancouver will join 27 other cities and First Nations across Canada, including Montreal and Thunder Bay, which have taken the plunge.

Globally, a number of cities, including Bern, Switzerland, Thessaloniki, Greece, and Cadiz, Spain have also joined the Blue wave.

In her book, Barlow explains how people can organize locally to start the Blue Community process in municipalities, educational institutions, and places of worship, and she stresses the need to include public sector workers in the process. Sample water resolutions are provided to help citizens get involved.

The time is now.

If you are interested in helping to make your community a Blue Community, contact the Council of Canadians at bluecommunities@canadians.org or call toll-free 1-800-387-7177.