November 15, 2019

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Barlow's thirst for water justice rewarding

It’s difficult to fathom that a water crisis exists in Canada. As a hyper-privileged person on this planet, the lack of this public good and basic necessity for life seems like a problem that other people have. Think Flint, Mich.; Cape Town, South Africa; Chile; Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. Many Canadians live under the illusion that clean drinking water is in abundance, that it is somehow protected from the greedy reach of corporations and that we have designed a system of governance to ensure that we all have access to this most basic need.

But we couldn’t be more wrong. And thanks to Maude Barlow, a hero in the Canadian and global progressive movement and a founding member of the Council of Canadians, the battle to ensure our global thirst is quenched is ratcheting up. In Whose Water Is It, Anyway?: Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands, Barlow passionately describes the history of how water, on a global scale, has been systematically transformed from a public good to an economic commodity — right under our noses.

Through the development of international trade deals and the neoliberal forces that brought in waves of privatization in the 1980s and ’90s, Barlow succinctly connects the dots as to how powerful global entities such as the World Bank and the World Water Forum began to push a global agenda that saw even the UN support the ideological position that water should be bought and sold like any other product. The old story that the free market will somehow manage to produce just and efficient pathways of distribution of resources pervaded and persists.

Barlow describes the global movement of resistance that took place during the ’90s and early 2000s that sought (and continues to seek) to ensure that water is protected and that it is viewed as a fundamental human right. Through the leadership and determination of humans across the planet, Barlow notes that the UN General Assembly finally, in 2015, "recognized water and sanitation as two distinct rights in yet another unanimously adopted resolution."

But as we all know, talk is cheap, and UN resolutions often can be devalued and become inflationary. This is not lost on Barlow, who argues that "there will always be a need for the grassroots to bridge political debates into everyday reality." This is the essence of democracy, global citizenship and cosmopolitanism.

And for Barlow, this democratic and grassroots engagement has manifested itself in the Blue Communities movement — a social justice movement designed to ensure that all humans have universal access to clean drinking water and that giant water corporations (like Nestlé, which pumps 4.7 million litres per day out of the aquifers surrounding Guelph for chump change) are denied access to our water. You only have to recall (or Google) the eerie interview with Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe to understand what is at stake in terms of the sinister intentions of multinational corporations who salivate at the scarcity of water.

And it is through the grassroots Blue Communities movement that resistance to the privatization of water is achieved. Barlow describes the powerful examples throughout the world of how communities have stomped on the private control of water and taken back their right to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. Through positive activism, many community groups, schools, churches, youth, seniors and concerned citizens are engaged in this fight to ensure a sustainable and ethical source of drinking water for everyone on planet Earth.

Fortunately, Barlow provides a blueprint for the work and pathway for hope. She carves out a starting point for Manitobans and Canadians who care deeply about the fate of all our neighbours, our waterways and all species and systems on planet Earth. Time is of the essence, and the time for moral courage is nigh. As Bolivian activist and shoemaker Oscar Olivera asserts, "I would rather die of a bullet than thirst."

Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.

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