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March 3, 2011

Right to water, what water?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Maude Barlow is a woman of many causes, but water is the one that is perhaps closest to her heart.

She, and the Council of Canadians which she heads, have advocated for the principle of water as a human right.  She has fought the water battle in Canada and abroad, and it was therefore no surprise when she showed up on February 20 to speak in the small community of Wakefield, Quebec. She was there to support the efforts of Peter Andrée’s SOS Wakefield to defend the local spring against inadequate plans for a road extension that might pose a threat to the water supply.

While Barlow spoke in support of the cause of protecting Wakefield’s water, her remarks were more far-reaching.  She connected the local efforts to the issue of water security and access to water across Canada and around the world.  “We are a planet running out of water,” she declared.

In the past, we thought of water as inexhaustible.  It was said that it was cyclical.  What was used would simply find its way back into a water source ready for use again. Unfortunately, she told the audience, it just is not the case.  We pollute the water, on a retail level in the countryside but wholesale in cities, and when cities discharge their waste water, it pollutes the oceans. 

Well, say some, the oceans have an immense supply of water.  All we need is to remove the salt.  However, Barlow pointed out that the process of desalinization is expensive and leaves us with the problem of the left-over brine to get rid of.  Where?  Back in the ocean?

With the added problem of global warming, she is concerned that Alberta will turn into a dust bowl, the first province to suffer from the water crisis.  It has “only two per cent of the country’s fresh water and 65 per cent of its food production is dependent on irrigation.”  Then there is the problem of the massive use and pollution of the water used in the tar sands. 

And it is not just Alberta that is in trouble. 

According to Barlow, at the current rate of pumping water, the Great Lakes will go dry by 2080, and even by 2030 the demand for water is expected to outpace supply by 40 per cent. 

Internationally, she has battled to make water a public heritage and a public trust, never a commodity to be privately owned.  The lack of adequate clean water is “the biggest killer of children,” worse than malaria, AIDS, malnutrition, and any of the other causes in the world today.

Because of her expertise and her activism in the field of water accessibility and sustainability, Father Miguel d’Escoto, the then-president of the UN General Assembly, recruited her to be his Senior Water Advisor.  After his term ended, she worked with Pablo Solón, UN representative from Bolivia, on a UN resolution proclaiming water to be a human right.  Last year, it passed by a vote of 122 in favor and 41 abstentions, with no negative votes. 

However, Canada was, according to Barlow, actively lobbying against the resolution. 

Following the General Assembly’s declaration of the right to water, last year on September 30 the UN Human Rights Council affirmed this right.  This action had an immediate impact on the conditions for the Kalahari Bushmen. 

In 2002, Botswana evicted the Bushmen from their homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  It also capped their well.  Survival International aided the Bushmen in contesting the eviction, and in 2006 they won in the courts, which found the eviction to be illegal.  However, the government continued to refuse their access to the well water. 

When they took the refusal of water to court, the judge ruled that the government had the right to refuse access.  Survival International to the rescue once again.  The issue was appealed to a higher court, which ruled unanimously that the Bushmen had a right to water.  The action of the Human Rights Council played a role in that decision.

While the water rights for the Botswana Aboriginals have been successfully affirmed, Barlow sadly noted that access to safe drinking water is lacking for many of Canada’s Aboriginal reserves.

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