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Life, freedom, water

Life, freedom, water

By Maude Barlow *

As climate change and food shortages loom around the world, will people fight for water or unite to protect it? A global movement for water justice is demanding a change in international law to guarantee the universal right to safe drinking water for all.


It is a colossal failure of political foresight that water has not emerged as a major issue in the US Presidential campaign. The links between oil, war, and US foreign policy are well known. But water — whether we treat it as a public good or as a commodity that can be bought and sold — will largely determine whether our future will be peaceful or dangerous.

Americans waste water much more than oil. The United States depends on non-renewable groundwater for 50 percent of its daily use, and 36 states now face significant water shortages, some nearing crisis.

Meanwhile, declining water supplies around the world, unequal access to water, and corporate control of water, coupled with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, have created a life or death situation. across the planet.

Both Democrats and Republicans have emphasized easing America's dependence on nonrenewable energy resources on their platforms, but neither party generates meaningful public debate about the threats posed by water scarcity.

That does not mean that no one is paying attention. In fact, water has become a strategic security key and a foreign policy priority for the United States government.

Dangerous aquatic agreements

Corporate interests have pursued plans to privatize, market, and export water for decades. We have seen how this plays out in Canada. For example, in the late 1990s, Sun Belt Water Inc. sued the Canadian government under NAFTA because British Columbia banned the export of water, preventing a deal that would have shipped water from British Columbia to California. The corporations have also made attempts to send Canadian water as far as Asia and the Middle East, proposals that failed after strong opposition from citizens who were beginning to understand the dangers of the permanent removal of water from local ecosystems and its placed under corporate control.

Now the Pentagon, as well as various US security think tanks, have decided that water supplies, like energy supplies, must be secured if the United States is to maintain its current economic and military power in the world. world. And the United States is pushing for access to Canadian water, despite Canada's own shortage.

Under the name “North America Future Project 2025,” the United States Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) brought together high-ranking government officials and corporate executives from Canada, the United States, and Mexico for a series of six meetings with The object of discussing a wide range of issues related to the Security and Prosperity Association, a controversial series of heavily guarded negotiations to expand NAFTA.

“As… globalization continues and the balance of power potentially shifts, and dangers to global security evolve, it is prudent for Canadian, Mexican and American politicians to contemplate a North American security architecture that can effectively deal with security threats. that can be predicted in 2025, "said a leaked copy of the CSIS document.

On the agenda of one of the two meetings in Calgary there was "consumption, transfer and artificial diversion of bodies of water" with the purpose of achieving "an optimal common use of the available water."

The connection between water and security is deepened by the fact that Sandia National Laboratories, a vital partner with CSIS in its Future Global Water Project, also plays an important role in military security in the United States. While Sandia is technically owned by the United States government, and reports to the Security Administration of the National Department of Nuclear Energy, its management is outsourced to Lockheed Martin, the world's largest arms manufacturer.

Ralph Pentland, water advisor and principal architect of the Canadian government's Federal Water Policy in 1987, believes that the purpose of this multilateral discussion is to secure enough water for Alberta's tar sands production to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water. oil to the United States. Energy extraction would be much more attractive if a new source of water — potentially from northern Canada — could be brought into the tar sands through pipes or other diversions. As long as the water does not cross the international border, Alberta has the power to do so.

These plans to move water from one ecosystem to another in service of corporate profits are an environmental problem for the entire planet, which is another reason why water should be a crucial part of any progressive discussion around America's dependence on foreign energy resources.

Corporate interests understand the connection and are using it to advocate for private solutions to the water crisis. In language that will be familiar to critics who argued that the United States invaded Iraq not for democracy, but for access to oil and corporate profits, a 2005 report from the CSIS Global Future Water Project had this to say about Water:

“Water issues are critical to the national security of the United States and are an integral part of maintaining American values ​​of humanitarianism and democratic growth. On the other hand, the commitment to international water issues guarantees commercial opportunities for the private sector of the United States, which is well positioned to contribute to development and obtain an economic reward ”.

Water for everybody

Obviously, authorities in the United States have decided that water is not a public good but a private resource that must be secured in any way.

But there are alternatives.


Americans must learn to live within our means, conserving water in agriculture and in the home. We can learn from the many examples here and beyond our borders: from New Mexico's ditch system, which uses an old traditional irrigation ditch to distribute water in arid lands, to the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance in Geneva, which works globally to promote sustainable rainwater harvesting programs.

Conservation strategies will detract from the massive investment now flowing into corporate infrastructure and technology solutions, such as desalination projects, wastewater reuse, and water transfer. And conservation would be many times cheaper, a boon to the public but not to the corporate interests that are currently pushing for international water agreements.

At the grassroots, a global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to resolve once and for all the question of who controls water, and whether responses to the water crisis will guarantee water for the public. or the benefits for companies. Ricardo Petrella has spearheaded a movement in Italy to recognize access to water as a basic human right, which has the support of politicians at every level. The Coalition in Defense of Public Water in Ecuador is demanding that the government reform the constitution to recognize the right to water. The Public Water Advocacy Coalition in South Africa is challenging the practice of water metering before the Johannesburg High Court on the grounds that it violates the human rights of Soweto citizens. Dozens of groups in Mexico have joined COMDA, the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, a national campaign for a constitutional guarantee of water for the public.

The United States and Canada are the only two countries that actively block international attempts to recognize water as a human right. But movements in both countries are working to change that. In Canada, a broad network of human, religious, labor and environmental rights groups have formed Canadian Friends for the Right to Water to get the Canadian government to support a United Nations treaty on the right to water. And a network in the United States led by Food and Water Custody calls for a national water trust to ensure the security of the nation's water assets and a change in government policy on water rights.

These campaigns may have a fight ahead of them, but the vision is within our grasp: a United Nations treaty that recognizes the right of the Earth and other species to safe drinking water, commits to protect and conserve the world's water supplies, and forms an agreement between those countries that have water and those that do not to work for local, not corporate, control of water. We must admit that water is a fundamental human right for everyone.

* Maude Barlow wrote this article for A Fair Foreign Policy, the summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Maude is the national president of the Council of Canadians and the author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. by Guillermo Wendorff.


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