I was one of the 1200 participants from all over the world who attended the 19th Annual Soroptimist International Convention last week in Montreal. The plenary speakers were amazing. From the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson (former Governor General of Canada) to Dr. Samantha Nutt (founder of War Child Canada) the speakers challenged all in attendance to increase their awareness of global issues and respond to the call for action in creating a civil society.
Included in the roundup of speakers was the highly impressive Maude Barlow – the National chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy group, and the cofounder of Blue Planet Project, working internationally for the right to water. Barlow has written over 16 books, and has received eight honorary doctorates; she also serves as a Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the United Nations General Assembly.
As someone who lives in the perpetually rainy province of BC, I confess to not being that aware of water issues globally; I rarely have army showers, we water our lawn occasionally (although we haven’t needed to this year), I drink as much water as I like and our drinking water in BC is known to be the best in the world. I don’t buy bottled water and try to turn off the taps when I brush my teeth, but other than that, I admit to being a heavy water user.
Maude Barlow opened my eyes and forced me to think about the world’s use of water. Many leading scientists predict that if globally we continue our current usage pattern and we continue to pollute our water sources, by the year 2030, our demand for water will outstrip the supply. This is the biggest ecological crisis of our time.
We are polluting at such a rate, and engaging in such heavy groundwater mining without letting the groundwater naturally replenish itself that overall water sources are declining. We are displacing land-based water, funnelling it to the cities for usage, and then dumping the refuse back into the ocean – essentially changing the ecological balance of water.
In the global south, 1 in 3 people doesn’t have access to clean water. The greatest killer of small children in the world is unhealthy water.
Water is fast becoming a geopolitical issue as countries compete for other countries’ water. It has become a fight between large urban centers versus rural indigenous communities. Corporations are buying up water and the rights to water, essentially resulting in the destruction of local communities. Barlow cited the example of a village in Africa she visited where massive pipes were in the community but with stop valves on them. Only if the villagers paid a price well beyond their means, could they access the corporately owned water. Instead, they were forced to walk for kilometres to the nearest river that had an outbreak of cholera. We must work to ensure that water does not become privatized. If you can drink tap water, do it. There is no need for bottled water. If you laid out the plastic bottles consumed each year, it would go to the moon and back 65 times!
Canada currently has what she calls the “myth of abundance”; while we certainly have more water than most, we are destroying much of our water. Work being done on the tar sands in Alberta is destroying the water table. and the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg are very heavily polluted, resulting in lack of usability. All across the world, we are experiencing shortage of water; Mediterranean water tables are depleting, the southwest US has ongoing issues, even in the North, like the City of Detroit, there are almost 45,000 families without regular access to water.
Fracking – while touted by some as a source of alternate energy – involves extracting natural gas from rock formations with heavy blasts of water. It takes TONS of water and the water becomes toxic. Water is not finite and water advocacy groups have called for a full moratorium on fracking.
She advocates for 3 fundamental principles:
- Respect water itself; it must be protected.
Water has rights outside its use to humans. Conserve source water. Stop polluting the water supply. Industry, individuals and nature must co-exist. Take a stand if water is being privatized or “owned” by others. “Legislation may not change the heart, but it will restrain the heartless.” Martin Luther King.
- Water is a commons and a public trust.
Like roads, and parks, it is meant to be shared and protected. She gave a powerful example of “the Friends of the Middle East”, where the people put aside their religious and cultural differences to save the Jordan River.
- Water is a fundamental human right.
122 Countries voted for this at the UN (Canada abstained; she didn’t comment further). We all have the right to water and sanitation.
She finished to a standing ovation and then questions from the global audience who all face significantly different challenges with respect to water. The Zimbabwe women talked about basic survival and getting clean drinking water without paying for it. A group of women from Las Vegas wanted to know if their petition against fracking was effective. The Israelis present talked amount the really expensive, energy consuming process of desalination and how it was polluting their bodies of water.
As with all seminars, Maude Barlow’s talk made me aware of how much I don’t know. I’m going to read some of her books, and I hope more of us become informed:
- Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water
- Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
- Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools
Soroptimist is an international organization for women who work to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world. Almost 95,000 Soroptimists in about 120 countries and territories contribute time and financial support to community–based and international projects that benefit women and girls.