Will the global community define water as a human right, available to all, or as a commodity to be bought, sold, traded, and ultimately out of reach from the poorest people on this earth? Liz Marshall's documentary, Water on the Table, explores this question through a portrait of Maude Barlow and her tireless efforts to define water as a human right. Maude's work as the national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, and her earlier efforts as a leading dissident concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has placed her in the global hot seat when it comes to water. With a grace most of us will never attain, Maude has leveraged this position to make the question of water front-and-center on the agenda of the United Nations, where efforts continue to implement a global water covenant or treaty, much like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing water as a human right, as well as solidifying governments' obligations to provide access.
I'm writing this review in the middle of a New York City blizzard. Looking out the window at the centimetres of snow accumulating, it's hard to picture water scarcity, yet we are seeing the beginnings of what Barlow calls "a crisis of monumental proportions" concerning global water security, resulting in water migration and water refugees around the world. Will Canada protect its ecosystems and watersheds as they are, thus preserving this essential life resource for future generations, or will Canada bend to corporate will and prepare for a future of bulk water exports and water insecurity?
The film, in all of its visual and audio grandeur, follows Barlow in two struggles that bring the water issue home to Canadians -- the Alberta Tar Sands, and a local struggle in Simcoe County, Ontario. It's hard enough to wrap my brain around the environmental catastrophe that is the Alberta Tar Sands, but when you learn that three million barrels of water are destroyed daily to extract oil from that place, the breadth of the devastation is much more clear. For every barrel of oil extracted, three to five barrels of water are destroyed.
The film makes it clear that the water is completely ruined and should not be finding its way back into the local water table. Sadly, it does and we're seeing the resulting blight on the health and wellness of river communities in northern Alberta now.
In the face of what could seem like an insurmountable fight with the Tar Sands, the film follows another story of community and perseverance against corporate dominance in Simcoe County, Ontario -- Stop Site 41. More than 10 years ago now, community members learned that the government had granted permission for a landfill to be built on top of what is considered the aquifer with the cleanest, best water in the world. Barlow supported this community's efforts to retain control of their water. Watching their story of incremental victories unfold, we get the sense that we are united in a global struggle with regular folks around the world to protect and secure the "life blood" of the earth.
Filmmaker Marshall's stunning portrait highlights what, for me, is fundamental about Canada -- opportunity. Canada has the opportunity (and obligation) to lead on many global issues, including water -- the opportunity to set the example, draw the line.
As a new Canadian, I've discussed this point again and again with friends and family in the U.S. and Canada. When asked why I think Canada is so special, and why I want to make it my home, I think of Canada's historic position in the global community as a barometer for human rights, and I'm filled with hope that Canada will once again rise to the occasion and support the United Nations in declaring water an inalienable human right.
Info on future screenings can be found here.
Melanie Redman is a social mission collaborator with more than 10 years of direct experience in strategic, leadership and advisory roles across the social mission sector in the U.S. and Canada. Learn more about her work by clicking here.