First International Congress
The Future of Water in Mercosur
Florianópolis, Brazil, November 9, 2011


It is a very great honour to present at the founding conference on the future of water in the Mercosur countries. I will turn to this region shortly, but first want to remind us of the global situation regarding water, as no country or region exists in a vacuum.

Quite simply, the planet is running out of available fresh water, something we were all taught, as children, could never happen. Water use has grown at twice the rate of population in the last century and unless we change our ways, water demand will continue to dramatically outpace population, now expected to reach 10 billion by 2021.i If properly managed, there would be sufficient water for all. However, humans are polluting, mismanaging and displacing water all over the world.

Using giant dams and deep bore well technology we didn’t have 50 years ago, we are extracting rivers and pumping ancient aquifer water at a relentless rate. Much of this water gets exported out of local watersheds and even countries in the form of “virtual water” – water used to grow commodities (like biofuels) that are then exported along with the water it took to produce them. The global food trade is relentlessly exhausting water supplies; by 2050, the world will deplete 2.6 billion cubic miles of freshwater for agriculture production alone.ii

A recent global study of groundwater takings found that the rate of extraction has doubled in the last few decades, causing massive disruptions in communities where water supplies are running out. As well, land based water, having been used to quench the thirst of mega-cities, gets dumped into the oceans as waste, accounting for as much as one quarter of the rising seas.iii

Perhaps the most frightening study is one done by the extractive industries themselves. Unless something dramatically changes, by 2030, global demand for fresh water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent.iv Demand for water is going straight up. Supply, straight down.

It can come as no surprise then that conflicts around water sources are growing.

Perhaps the most startling conflict is between those who have access to all the water they want and those who do not have access to clean water at all. A child born in the global North will use 40 to 70 times more water in his or her lifetime than one born in the global South. Today in the global South, every three-and-a-half seconds, a child will die of water borne disease.v Lack of access to clean water is by far the greatest killer of children and it is totally preventable.

As well, there is growing conflict between large urban centres that have depleted their water sources and rural communities that are finding their water supplies used to meet the demands of the larger population areas. Hardest hit are indigenous, peasant and tribal peoples whose water sources are directly confiscated or stolen, often forcibly, or whose waters are being destroyed as their territories are invaded for monoculture crop production.

Then there are the geopolitical realities of superpowers looking outside their borders to secure new sources of water as their own decline. China is taking the waters of the Himalayan glaciers – waters that feed the great rivers of Asia – by pipelines and dams to replace its own water sources, so much of it exported away in trade. Wealthy countries and hedge funds have bought up land twice the size of Great Britain in Africa alone, seeking to secure future cropland and water supplies as both run out.

But perhaps the most intense struggle – and the one in which I have been most involved – is political. Is water a commodity to be put on the open market for sale like oil and gas and used to make profit for some, or a common heritage of humanity to be shared equitably for the good of all?

The private sector knew before anyone that a global water crisis was coming. One investment analyst told a business conference on the world’s water that the crisis would yield “buckets and buckets” of money to smart investors.

Private control of water comes in several forms. Large utilities such as Suez and Veolia run municipal water services on a for-profit basis, denying water to those who cannot pay their high water rates. Some countries have converted water licences to water rights, promoting a market where water shares are bought, sold and traded. Others are putting whole watersheds up for sale to corporate buyers. Some corporations are gaining control of water through technology such as desalination or recycling, while others control food production and therefore the water used in that industry. Others bottle massive amounts of water and ship it in plastic all over the world.

All of these issues are present here in the Mercosur countries, even though you are blessed with two very important water sources: the Plata river system and the Guarani aquifer. In fact because of these water sources in an increasingly thirsty world, I would argue that your region is fast becoming one of geo-political interest to the whole world and it is time to make an assessment of the state of guardianship of these waters.

I see six major concerns regarding the waters of the Plata and Guarani.

1) Over-extraction

Brazilians like Canadians, have grown up with what I call the “myth of abundance.” We think we have so much water that we can never run out. This is simply wrong. That’s what they thought about the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, once the world’s fourth largest lake, and Lake Chad in Africa, once the world’s sixth largest, both almost gone now from over-extraction. The Ogallala Aquifer in the United States, once thought to be the largest in the world, has been pumped so mercilessly, scientists say it is only a matter of time before it is dried up

And the same study on global groundwater takings said that if the Great Lakes of North America are being pumped at the same rate as groundwater around the world, they might be bone dry in 80 years!

So even the mighty Guarani is not safe from abuse. Already, water is being extracted from the aquifer faster than it can be recharged with the resulting problems of high salt levels and reduced water pressure, which could render the extraction process very difficult in the future.

2) Pollution

While it is commonly known that there is a lot of pollution in the water systems of this region, it must be stated again. Heavy metals, toxins from the mining and forestry industry, urban sprawl, poorly treated sewage, phosphorus, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, and multi-point contamination combine to spill a witch’s brew of poison into the water sources of the Mercosur countries. About 30 million people in Brazil’s two major cities alone are affected by contaminated water. The Guarani is under threat from contamination and the situation is urgent.

3) Biofuel production

The growth of sugarcane biofuels production in Brazil has steadily risen and Brazil is now the word’s leading exporter of biofuels. But this industry is set to explode. Brazil currently produces 28 billion litres of sugarcane ethanol (20% of it for export) but will be producing 64 billion litres by 2018.vii

It takes a great deal of water to produce biofuels. For every litre of sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil, at least 1,000 litres of water are used if we count the water that was used to grow the sugarcane as well as the water used in the production process.viii Currently, 7 trillion litres of water are extracted every year to produce ethanol in Brazil. Within less than a decade, 65 trillion litres of water will be extracted every year to produce ethanol in Brazil. This is a huge drain on your region’s water supply and one that I bet is not factored in when governments make their economic plans. All of that water is lost to your watersheds.

Biofuel production is also threatening the Amazon and the savannahs of the area, which may, in turn, reduce the amount of rainfall, as we now know beyond doubt that rainforests bring rain and maintain a healthy hydrologic cycle.

4) Inequitable access

This deliberate push to be the world’s leading exporter of biofuels has led to a situation where the big agro-companies are given preferential access to the waters of the region over local needs. Potable water and sanitation services are not reaching at least 25% of the people of the region and, as elsewhere, it is the indigenous, the poor and the Favela dwellers who are left behind in the rush to use the region’s water resources for export and profit.

While there has been some improvement in services to the rural poor, governments of the region, like the UN, often count the number of pipes that have been installed instead of actual access to water. Private water companies are delivering water now in many communities in the region and the poor are often not able to pay their rates. “Access” to unaffordable water is not real access at all.

5) Government neglect

Although the governments of the Mercosur have a treaty to protect the Rio Plata and have assumed full and shared responsibility for the Guarani, they are not putting high enough priority on protecting these water resources or making sure they are equitably shared by all. Similar to governments everywhere, they have other priorities. Watershed protection and pollution prevention is terribly underfunded. Laws are routinely broken. Competing visions promote economic projects that will further damage the ecosystems and watersheds.

The Hydrovia Project, which calls for the transformation of the Paraguay, Parana, and Uruguay, river systems, which are all part of the La Plata River system, into a 3,400 kilometre long shipping canal, is a perfect example and will have a profound negative effect on the environment, biodiversity and water levels and quality of the entire region. Local planners should take a long look at the St Lawrence Seaway, which was built in 1959, opening up the interior of North America for shipping and trading, but has had serious environmental consequences for the Great Lakes.

Says Karin Kemper, a senior water resources specialist with the World Bank, “The Guarani is a striking example of an international water body that is threatened by environmental degradation. Without better management, the aquifer is likely to suffer from pollution and rapid depletion. Uncontrolled exploitation could reduce it from a strategic water reserve to a degraded resource that is the focus of conflict in the region.”

6) Corporate control

So this leads me to my biggest concern and that is the potential for the Guarani to become controlled by private interests. Already, corporations have preferential access to these waters.

Here is the argument I hear all over the world, from the World Bank, some parts of the UN, and from neo-liberal politicians:

Local governments, especially in the global South, are too poor or too weak to care for their water resources and are squandering the local water systems. Only the “efficiency” of the private sector can save them. Corporations have the money governments do not have and form a necessary partnership to governments.

Alas, there is little in the way of partnerships when corporations move in to control water. Global energy giants such as Royal Dutch Shell and BP are piling into Brazil in anticipation of huge growth in the biofuels industry. They are vying to control the sugarcane fields and will need access to massive amounts of water. Even the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which conducted an in-depth research project on the Guarani and worked with the four governments to come up with a framework for joint action, openly promotes private sector involvement in water projects it funds through the World Bank. The GEF claims to be discussing mechanisms with the Brazilian government to ensure that private companies can participate in future projects it funds in the region.

These corporations include engineering, food and water giants such as Bechtel, Monsanto, Suez and Veolia, which seek to gain control of these water resources for their own profit. If these and the energy companies gain control and privileged access to the waters of the Guarani, these waters will become a private commodity like oil and will be lost to any greater public good forever.

Adolfo Esquival, the Argentinian Nobel Prize Laureate, says the corporate interest in the waters of the Guarani Aquifer is just the latest in a history of resource exploitation in Latin America.

And, a warning: under most trade agreements, corporations from other countries have the right to sue for compensation if governments try to impose stricter environmental rules. Some are now even claiming ownership of the water resources they use in their business operations. Canada recently paid an American pulp and paper company $130 million for the “water rights” the company claimed they had to leave behind when they abandoned their Canadian operations. This has set a dangerous precedent, whereby transnational corporations are claiming ownership of domestic water sources.

Many of these companies are also gaining access to run local water services in the Mercosur countries. And recently, the Brazilian government opened the door to land and water grabs by foreign investors. This is a dangerous development.

So in case I have not been clear:

You are sitting atop a vast reserve of water in a very thirsty world, a reserve that is not only vital to the health and future of this region but to all of humanity. It is a treasure that must be protected by governments on behalf of the people and the ecosystems of the region.

I suggest here the need to call for a Mercosur Watershed Covenant based on the following three principles.

1) The waters of the Rio Plata and the Guarani Aquifer are a “Common Heritage” that belong to all the people of the region and to future generations and must be managed by governments for the wise use of all.

These waters cannot be owned. They belong to the people and must be shared, protected, carefully managed and enjoyed by all. They must be governed as a public trust to ensure that the primary function of these waters is to serve the public good, not the interests of a privileged few. While there is a role for the private sector in solving the water crisis, and while we know that industry needs water, all water activity, public and private, must come under strict public oversight and operate within a mandate whose goals are the restoration and preservation of the waters of the region and water justice for all members of the community.

2) The waters of the Rio Plata and the Guarani Aquifer are a human right and priority must be given to providing water services to those currently without them.

The United Nations has recently recognized the human right to water and sanitation, and this has been a huge breakthrough in the struggle for water justice. In July 2010, the General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution put forward by the Bolivian Mission; the vote was 122 countries in favour and 41 abstentions. No country voted against the resolution even though many (such as Canada and the U.S.) were strongly opposed. Brazil voted in favour. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a similar resolution, this one spelling out the obligations of governments. What this means is that the countries of the world have agreed that no one has the right to appropriate water for personal gain while others go without.

All governments are now required to come up with a plan of action based on three obligations: the right to respect, whereby this right cannot be removed once given, such as cut-offs for people who cannot pay for privatized water; the right to protect, whereby governments must protect people and communities from third party destruction of their water, such as industrial or extractive industry pollution; and the right to fulfil, whereby governments are obligated to start the process of delivering safe water and sanitation services to people and communities not presently served.

3) The waters of the Rio Plata and the Guarani Aquifer have rights in and of themselves beyond their use to humans and must be respected and protected.

These precious waters should be named a Protected Bioregion and strictly defended by law. We have seen water as a resource for human convenience, pleasure and profit, not as part of a living ecosystem that gives us life. It is time to change our attitude or we will not survive. We must fiercely protect water from those who would pollute or steal it. Martin Luther King said, “Legislation may not change the heart but it will restrain the heartless.” Conservation, rainwater harvesting, watershed restoration, forest and wetland protection, these are the steps to a water secure future.

We must also recognize the right of other living beings – plants and animals – to survive and thrive. Recently, climate justice activists have created the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (Pachamama) and hope to see it enshrined alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the founding covenants of our time.ix To ensure there will be adequate supplies of clean accessible water for all, we will have to create a body of law for the natural world and adopt laws, as Ecuador has done, asserting that natural communities and ecosystems possess the inalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve.

A Mercosur Watershed Covenant would require watershed-wide, consistent laws, regulations and definitions if it is to work. This is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge the Mercosur countries have ever faced. But let me say it once again:

You must take steps to protect the jewel that is the Guarani Aquifer from plunder, for if you do not, plunder is coming.

Maude Barlow is a Canadian writer and water justice activist and served as Senior Adviser on Water to the 63rd President of the UN General Assembly.

i Water Unit, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
ii International Water Management Institute
iii American Geophysical Union, Groundwater Depletion Rate Accelerating Worldwide
iv McKinsey and Company, World Bank, Charting our Water future, 2009
v World Health Organization
vi Dr. David Brauer, Ogallala Research Service, US Agriculture Department
vii Constanza Valdes et al, US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service Division
viii Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis
ix The Rights of Nature, The Case for a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, available at

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. She is also an executive member of the San Francisco–based...