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Water has rights too: Barlow

“Omnibus bills have killed every single bit of environmental protection,” said Maude Barlow. “The last Act killed 6,000 environmental assessments that were already underway. Lac Megantic was one of the lake de-listed under the Navigable Waters Act.”

Barlow is in Calgary as part of the book tour for Blue Futures, the third in her non-fiction trilogy about water as a human right. Best known as National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, she also serves on the World Future Council and World Food and Water Watch, and has served as Senior Adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly, bringing forward a successful motion to have the UN recognize water as a human right.

“Our world is running out of water,” she said. “Half the rivers in China are gone. Lake Aral in Russia is basically dry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stated that the massive Ogallala underground aquifer that sustains the U.S. Midwest will be gone within our lifetimes.  Big Agriculture expects the demand for water to outstrip the supply by 2040.”

The world needs a new ethic of water, she said, putting water at the centre of our lives. We have to ask, for every policy and practice, what will be the impact on water. She suggested four major points:

1. Water is a human right.

2. Water is a public trust and a common heritage. No one has the right to appropriate it for private profit when others do without.

3. Water has rights too, like the right not to be polluted. We need to bring our laws more in line with nature.

4. Water can teach us how to live together, because otherwise water shortages are likely to cause social and international conflicts.

“All industries need water,” she said, “and it behooves us to work with them to get them to clean up their act, not to give them control over who gets access to water. Household use of water, even here in the Western world, is about 9 per cent of all use. The rest is all corporate and agricultural use.”

Speaking of which, she said, the new CETA deal is much less to Canada’s advantage than it seems. “CETA would let Canada send more beef to Europe than Alberta’s water can supply.” Put in context, CETA seems less than benign. “CETA means that European corporations can now sue governments for environmental regulations that they claim hurt their bottom line,” which doesn’t sound so bad, she agreed, except that, “the next agreement would give China the same rights.” CETA also removes protections against foreign ownership of uranium mines, and locks Canada into an economic model of unlimited extractive industry growth.

Most of all, she said, all the Harper government’s policies treat the planet Earth as a personal gift and an unlimited resource, rather than as a living entity that supports seven billion humans and that can die from human mistreatment. Water is a key case in point. After repeated omnibus bills, and after several visits to the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq nation of New Brunswick who are blockading fracking operations there, she said sadly that in Canada, “At this stage, only First Nations treaty rights offer any environmental protections for water.” And they’re up for discussion at this week’s Conservative policy convention.

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