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Watchdog For The World’s Water

Neither the private sector, nor the market, should be determining water policy.


Canadian activist Maude Barlow is a senior advisor on water issues to the president of the United Nations General Assembly and author of the 2007 book Blue Covenant detailing the world’s deepening water crisis. She is national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a group that opposes global privatization and deregulation. Barlow recently spoke with contributing editor Joann Gonchar about protecting our dwindling water resources.

Maude Barlow
Photo © Lorraine Brand
Maude Barlow
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GreenSource: Of the many statistics you cite in Blue Covenant, one is particularly sobering—while global population has tripled in the last century, water consumption has increased by seven fold. By 2050 population is expected to grow another 3 billion and demand for water is projected to jump 80 percent. Given that so much of the globe’s surface waters are polluted, and that cities around the world are already turning to ground water, is it even possible to meet this demand in a sustainable manner?

Barlow: Some people attribute the growth in demand to population alone. But it is due to both population and lifestyle. The more industrialized a society gets, the more consumer-oriented it becomes, and the more water it uses. To solve the problem we need to change our relationship with water. With every single action, we should ask: Is that a wise use of water? Is that a conserving use of water? Are we protecting source water? If we don’t start asking those questions, not just as individuals, but as whole societies, backed by governments and laws, then it isn’t sustainable and people will die. People are dying now and many more will die if we don’t manage water better.

GS: In your book you make a persuasive argument against the privatization of water resources. Is there any scenario where it makes sense?

MB: I’m not against the private sector helping us find ways out of this crisis. Companies, universities, and scientists are doing exciting work on innovative technologies. And I welcome it. But the private sector, or the market, should not be determining water policy. Nor do we need private companies to run public water systems. Delivering water for life and treating wastewater can be done efficiently and properly by the public sector. Control of water should remain in the public trust.

GS: What effect will the global economic downturn have on efforts to protect the environment and deliver clean water to people who need it?

MB: There are positives and negatives. The first positive is that consumer levels have dropped all over the world. It’s probably done more for greenhouse-gas emissions than all of the Kyoto accords put together. Consequently, it’s the same with water consumption. If people aren’t buying there’s no point in producing as much, and the less stuff we make, the easier we are on the world’s water. But, there is a danger that wealthy countries will cut back on foreign aid for water projects. I also worry that the recession will stall infrastructure investment in the developed world. It looks like the U.S. will move forward with such projects. However, in Canada we need about $CN31 billion in water infrastructure and we’re not going to get it.

GS: Can members of the green building community play a role in helping solve the water crisis?

MB: Absolutely. Every part of the chain matters and anyone building, or retrofitting, old buildings can play a role. From codes that incorporate water-saving appliances, to landscaping appropriate for a building’s location, to rainwater harvesting, all of this is so important. Just as GreenSource readers are thinking about their carbon footprint, they have to think about their water footprint.

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This article appeared in the May 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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