A Mile Short

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The New Press
The third book of Barlow’s trilogy discusses potential solutions toward a water secure world.

Maude Barlow, the author of Blue Planet, is the chair of the board of Food and Water Watch, founder of the Blue Planet Project, a much honored and tireless human rights activist, and a recipient of the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize”), as well as numerous other commendations. She is also the author of over a dozen books on environmental issues, problems raised by “free trade,” attacks on public education, the depredations of multinational corporations, and the subject of this book: water. Blue Planet is the third and final book of her “Blue Trilogy” on the subject. The first, Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (co-authored with Tony Clarke) drew attention to the growing scarcity of freshwater supplies and foresaw the emergence of both a “water cartel” seeking title to this essential resource as well as a global water justice movement to challenge it.

The second book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right To Water, described the efforts of a handful of powerful corporations to gain control and profit from the scarcity of water as well as the countervailing efforts of environmentalists, human rights activists, small farmers, and local grassroots groups fighting to keep water under democratic control.

Blue Future details both progress and regress in the struggle for water justice. It begins with the adoption, in late July of 2010, by the United Nations General Assembly of a resolution recognizing a human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as “essential for the full employment of the right to life.” To readers of Solutions, such a right is self-evident, but apparently not so for some powerful nations (e.g. Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) whose corporations benefit from the commodification of water. Consequently, rather than being adopted by acclamation, the resolution required a vote which, nonetheless, affirmed a “human right to water” by an overwhelming majority of 122 countries, including China, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, and Brazil (the opposition abstained).

This historic vote was a victory that took decades to achieve, but Barlow points out that it is only a beginning: “Recognizing a right is simply the first step in making it a reality for the millions living in the shadow of the greatest crisis of our era. With our insatiable demand for water, we are creating a perfect storm for an unprecedented world water crisis: a rising population and an unrelenting demand for water by industry, agriculture, and the developed world; over-extraction of water from the world’s finite water stock; climate change, spreading drought; and income disparity between and within countries, with the greatest burden of the race for water falling on the poor.”

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kris krüg
“Water for the people:” a sign celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Cochabamba water wars in Bolivia, when the privatization of local water was reversed by the people and returned to a publicly managed system.

Where the water justice movement has been successful is in bringing attention to the issue in the media, including the mainstream media, in public school and university classrooms (my nine-year-old daughter constantly reminds me to not waste water), local actions groups, and various global institutions. However, while there have been improvements in some locales, the larger picture is not encouraging. The numbers of people whose access is threatened is staggering: water experts estimate that over 3 billion people live within 30 miles of an impaired water source—one that is either polluted or running dry. Moreover, the message has not penetrated many corporate boardrooms nor the executive suites and legislatures of some of the world’s most powerful countries that continue to operate as if water were an infinite resource.

The purpose of this book is to establish the foundation for enacting solutions to the water crisis and securing a path to a water-secure world. Such a foundation requires “principles to guide us and help us create policies, laws, and international agreements to protect water and water justice, now and forever.” Barlow proposes four such principles and Blue Future is laid out in four parts, with one devoted to each principle. These are 1) water is a human right; 2) water is a common heritage; 3) water has rights too; and 4) water can teach us how to live together.

For those interested in movement building, the entire four chapters devoted to the first principle, water is a human right, is well worth consulting. It makes the case for a right to water and details the lengthy struggle that resulted in the UN resolution as well as a subsequent confirmation by the UN Human Rights Council, which went further by declaring that the right to safe drinking water and sanitation are part of international law and “requires that these services be available, accessible, safe, acceptable, and affordable to all, without discrimination.” The chapter on “Implementing the Right to Water” makes the case that these declarations create an affirmative obligation on the part of all governments. There is much material here illustrating how governments have been held accountable, including through the use of litigation in national courts. The last chapter devoted to this principle, “Paying for Water for All,” has many good proposals on funding and maintaining the infrastructure required to get water to all, including licensing and user fees for those who profit from the large scale use of water, such as industry and agriculture, with rates structures that encourage conservation as well as recapture and reuse technologies.

The part devoted to the principle that water is a common heritage makes the case that water resources should be understood as a public trust with each of us as stakeholders, as contrasted with the commodification and privatization of water resources. Of particular interest is the chapter “Reclaiming the Water Commons.” It chronicles dozens of instances in which communities fought back against commodification of water throughout the world, in many instances reversing privatization through “remunicipalization,” the conversion of former municipal systems that were taken private back to being publicly owned and operated. Examples from South America, where privatization was pioneered, include communities such as Cochabamba and La Paz in Bolivia, Buenos Ares and Santa Fe in Argentina, as well as others in Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, and Uruguay. There have been similar battles in Africa, such as in Mali and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and in Asia, where communities have taken back their water services from private operators. In the developed world, Europe has experienced the largest number of privatization reversals. Even in Canada, where the conservative Harper government favors privatization, many local communities have successfully opposed privatization. Likewise documented are examples from the USA, such as the towns of Felton and San Lorenzo, which border the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I teach.

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Andrew Hart
A true water justice movement will require a cultural shift in how people in economically wealthy nations consume water.

In the chapter “Putting Water at the Centre of Our Lives,” Barlow argues for a “new water ethic,” the essence of which is to make the protection of freshwater ecosystems a central goal of all we do. She writes, “The adoption of such an ethic would shift human activity away from the strictly utilitarian approach to water management towards an integrated, holistic approach that views people and water as interconnected parts of a great whole.” There are several short accounts of municipalities restoring watersheds as well as water harvesting projects in China and Brazil.

Despite my overall positive assessment of this book I must mention some of its shortcomings. The success of such a “water justice project” will depend on people from the economically rich societies making significant changes to their lives: what and how much they consume, the nature of the work they do, how much and how they travel, and in numerous other ways as well. To take one example, a transformation from industrial agriculture to small, organic, locally grown production will almost certainly raise prices (I shop a lot at Whole Foods and farmers’ markets and the cost is definitely much higher than at Safeway) and result in changes to our diets (no more blueberries in December or raspberries in January!). They will also have to put the time and energy into rebuilding their democracies in order to take on entrenched business interests who profit from the way the world is now. To think that they can be persuaded to do so because it is the morally right thing to do is to delude one’s self. Neither will predictions of future water shortages motivate more than a fraction to support the necessary changes. Moreover, in the absence of a horrific water catastrophe, most people will succumb to the “availability heuristic”—concern will be washed away with the very next rainstorm.

As a consequence, much thinking has to be applied to the question of how we hold the attention of such citizens and move them to sustainable action. So I think the treatment would have been significantly strengthened if each part ended with several detailed narratives of successful actions, like the recent one in San Juan Bautista, California, where a grassroots campaign overcame a ten-to-one funding disadvantage and was able to pass an initiative banning fracking.

In a statement that I very much endorse, Barlow quotes activist and author Sandra Postel who writes, “Instead of asking how we can further control and manipulate rivers, lakes, and streams to meet every growing demand, we would ask how we can best satisfy human needs while accommodating the ecological requirements of freshwater ecosystems.” However, there is scant attention given to how to actually “satisfy human needs” and a preponderance of ways in which we can restore water systems and recognize the rights of water. This would be a winning approach if rivers, lakes, and aquifers could vote.

In sum, this is an excellent book and should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of water, but hopefully it is not the end of the story. Rather, this reviewer thinks a fourth book is needed, one entitled Strategies and Tactics for Universal Water Justice.