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Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever

Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever

by Maude Barlow

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Water is a human right: “A rousing case for what will be one of the key environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.” —Booklist 
The United Nations has recognized access to water as a basic human right—but there is still much work to be done to stem this growing environmental crisis. In this book, water activist Maude Barlow draws on her extensive experience to lay out a set of key principles that show the way forward to what she calls a “water-secure and water-just world.”
Not only does she reveal the powerful players even now impeding the recognition of the human right to water, she argues that water must not become a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. Focusing on solutions, she includes stories of struggle and resistance from marginalized communities, as well as government policies that work for both people and the planet.
At a time when climate change has moved to the top of the national agenda and the stage is being set for unprecedented drought, mass starvation, and the migration of millions of refugees in search of water, Blue Future is an urgent call to preserve our most valuable resource for generations to come.
“In a book as clear as a pristine mountain stream, Maude Barlow lays out a practical and inspiring vision for how we can defend water—the source of all life—from the forces of death.” —Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595589484
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 972,023
File size: 466 KB

About the Author

A recipient of Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award and a Lannan­ Cultural Freedom Fellowship, Maude Barlow is head of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project. The author of sixteen books, including Blue Gold and Blue Covenant (both available from The New Press), she is on the boards of Food and Water Watch and the International Forum on Globalization. She lives in Ottawa.

Read an Excerpt



Small battles are being won around the world, but I think people are losing. I do see the present and the future of our children as very dark. But I trust the people's capacity for reflection, rage and rebellion. — Oscar Olivera, leader of the Cochabamba water revolution

EVERY YEAR, MORE PEOPLE die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war.

Some 3.6 million people, 1.5 million of whom are children, die every year from water-related diseases, including diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. One billion people still defecate in the open, and 2.5 billion live without basic sanitation services. By 2030 more than 5 billion people — nearly 70 percent of the world's population — may be without adequate sanitation.

Living without clean water and sanitation has enormous ramifications for both families and societies. It is always hardest on the women and children. The United Nations reports that women spend about 40 billion hours collecting water every year. In many countries, women spend as much as five or six hours a day fetching water, and their female children accompany them, thereby losing the opportunity to go to school. According to the 2012 UN report on the Millennium Development Goals, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend a collective average of 200 million hours per day gathering water, and more than two-thirds of the burden for water and sanitation falls on women and girls.

Many girls also do not attend school because there are no private toilet facilities for them to use. Amnesty International says that the right to sanitation means that people should not be left with no option but to defecate in the open, or into a bucket or a plastic bag. Women and girls should not have to choose between going to a public toilet or risking sexual violence. They should not — due to lack of toilets in schools — be forced to choose between education and dignity. Children should not be in a situation where lack of an adequate toilet or lack of information about safe hygiene puts them at risk of death from diarrhoea.


In every case, if these families had the means, their children would not be dying and would be attending school. The lack of access to clean water and sanitation, in terms of sheer numbers affected, is arguably the single most urgent human rights issue of our time.

Most in danger are those living in slums or impoverished rural communities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Peri-urban slums ring most of the developing world's cities, where climate and food refugees are arriving in relentless numbers. Unable to access their traditional sources of water because they have disappeared or been polluted, and unable to afford the high rates set by newly privatized water services, these refugees must rely on drinking water sources contaminated by their own untreated human waste as well as industrial poisons.

The growing commodification of the world's water has made it increasingly inaccessible to those without money. Many poor countries have been strongly encouraged by the World Bank to contract water services to private for-profit utilities, a practice that has spawned fierce resistance by the millions left out because of poverty. Other struggles are taking place with bottled-water companies that drain local water supplies. There are "land grabs" in which countries and investment funds buy up massive amounts of land in the Global South for access to the water and soil at a future time.

Some countries actually auction off water to global interests such as mining companies, which now literally own the water that used to belong to everyone. And many countries are introducing water markets and water trading, whereby water licences — often owned by private companies or industrial agribusiness — are allowed to be hoarded, bought, sold, and traded, sometimes on the international open market, to those that can afford to buy it. In all of these cases, water becomes the private property of those with the means to buy it and is increasingly denied to those without. All over the world, private citizens, small farmers, peasants, indigenous people, and the poor have found themselves unable to stand up to these corporate interests.

The victims are more likely to come from developing countries. By every measurement, global income disparities are the severest they have been in almost a century, with a small percentage of the world's elite owning the vast majority of its assets. In a January 2013 report, Oxfam International says that the explosion in extreme wealth and income is exacerbating inequality and hindering the world's ability to tackle poverty. The $240 billion net 2012 income of the hundred richest billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over. The richest 1 percent has increased its income by 60 percent in the past twenty years, reports Oxfam, with the financial crisis accelerating rather than slowing the process.

Oxfam warns that extreme wealth and income are economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive, and environmentally destructive. "Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else — particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder," says executive director Jeremy Hobbs. "In a world where even basic resources such as land and water are increasingly scarce, we cannot afford to concentrate assets in the hands of a few and leave the many to struggle over what's left," he adds.

And yet asset concentration is real. Billions around the world live in poverty amongst great wealth, and this negatively affects their access to water. A child born in the northern hemisphere consumes thirty to fifty times as much water as one in the southern. Per capita daily water use in North America and Japan is 350 litres, in Europe it is 200 litres, and in sub-Saharan Africa it is 10 to 20 litres. An estimated 90 percent of the three billion people expected to be added to the population by 2050 will be from the developing world.

But the crisis is not limited to people who live in the Global South. As we see deepening income inequality in the countries of the First World, water cut-offs are now happening to the poor there too. Tens of thousands of inner-city residents in Detroit, Michigan, have no running water because they cannot afford the rising tariffs. Unemployment in the affected communities runs at about 50 percent. Residents are forced to run hoses from neighbouring homes or take water canisters to public washrooms for fill-ups. Social services have removed children from some homes, citing lack of running water. Cut-offs are also taking place in Europe, where recent austerity measures are driving the cost of basic necessities beyond the ability of many to pay.

Nor is all the water wealth in the rich countries of the North. Renowned Indian movie director Shekhar Kapur fears for the future of his beloved country, in which such extremes of wealth and poverty coexist. He writes:

In Mumbai. Just across the road from Juhu Vile Parle Scheme, all the beautiful people and film stars live opposite a slum called Nehru Nagar. Once a day, or maybe even less, water arrives in tankers run by the local "water mafia" and their goons. Women and children wait in line for a bucket of water, and fights break out as the tankers begin to run dry.

Yet, literally across the road, the "stars" after their workouts in the gym or a day on a film set can stay in the shower for hours. The water will not stop flowing. Often at less than half the cost that the slum dwellers pay for a single bucket of water.

In many countries the rich can access all the water that money can buy, while the poor — usually women and children — walk kilometres to find water that may or may not be clean enough to drink. In many poor countries, tourists and the wealthy have preferential access to clean water for resorts, golf courses, and spas while local slums have no running water. Millions live in "informal settlements" unrecognized by governments, which consequently do not provide basic services to their inhabitants.


As a rule, poverty and class divisions are at the root of lack of access to clean water. But increasingly the crisis is due as well to a decline in local water sources that in turn forces people to become refugees. Over-extraction of water for industrial food production, so-called economic development, and water-reliant natural resource extraction is taking a terrible toll on the world's finite freshwater supplies.

The lesson we all learned as children — that we cannot run out of water because of the endless workings of the hydrologic cycle — is simply not true. While the water is still on the planet somewhere, because of our engineering of the world's water supplies to promote industrial development, it is not drinkable or in the right place. As a result, many communities are running out of accessible clean water. We humans are polluting, mismanaging, and displacing water at an alarming rate.

Global water withdrawals have risen 50 percent in the past several decades and are still increasing dramatically. Using bore-well technology that did not exist a hundred years ago, humans are now relentlessly mining groundwater. Worldwide pumping of groundwater more than doubled between 1960 and 2000 and is responsible for about 25 percent of the rise in sea levels. By 2030 it is expected that demand will outstrip supply by 40 percent and almost half the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress. By 2075 the number affected could be as high as seven billion.

This increase in demand is due to a combination of industrialization, exponential population growth, and more people leading a water-intensive consumer lifestyle. The demand for water is insatiable on a planet whose population is approaching 9 or 10 billion people by 2050. To house its population, in the next two decades China alone is planning to build 500 new cities with more than 100,000 people each. India will add 600 million people to its population by 2050, giving it the highest population in the world. Pakistan will be approaching 300 million, Nigeria 290 million, and Uganda 93 million. Malawi even now cannot feed its population of 13 million; by 2050 an estimated 32 million people will be living there.

Peter Gleick, an American scientist who founded the Pacific Institute, which does pioneering research on water and climate, reminds us that, while the population is growing, the amount of accessible water is finite. In 1950 the population of the United States was 150 million; it is more than 315 million today. Jordan had a million people in 1960; it has 6 million today. Iraq had around 7 million in 1960, and today its population exceeds 31 million. All these new populations must share finite water supplies that were being consumed by much smaller populations decades ago.

In their book Out of Water, Colin Chartres and Samyuktha Varma estimate the growth in our per capita use of water globally in relation to population growth. If we include the water used to grow our food (known as virtual water), then a person who consumes 2,500 calories per day will consume 2,500 litres of water. Multiplied by 365 days per year, this totals almost 100 million litres — one megalitre — per person. If the population grows to 9 billion by 2050 (most figures predict it will be higher), the water needed will equal the capacity of at least another twenty-five to fifty enormous dams similar to the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River in Egypt. The authors point out that these vast amounts of water are simply not available, or at least not available in the areas where we need them to produce food.

A study from the University of Twente in the Netherlands puts the average global footprint much higher. Virtual water expert Professor Arjen Hoekstra reports that if all the water used for our daily lives is factored in, the average per person daily water consumption is 4,000 litres.

Of course, the way we live determines how much water we use and abuse. Almost half the world's population is still living on the land, much as in previous generations, sustainably using and caring for local water sources. That means the rest are using far more than their share. For instance, global meat production is predicted to double by 2050, using 70 percent of all agricultural land and consuming one-third of the world's grain. The rich consume most of this: people in the wealthy North consume three times as much meat and four times as much milk as people in the South.

Writer and journalist George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that the economy is growing much faster than the rate of population and that economic growth is the real threat. Global consumption will increase so much that by the end of the twenty-first century we will have used sixteen times more economic resources than humans have consumed since we "came down from the trees," says Monbiot. Yet it is the mantra of governments almost everywhere to "grow" their way to prosperity, putting the world's water supplies at grave risk.

Already we are seeing the results of overexploitation. The world's rivers — the single largest renewable water resource and a crucible of aquatic biodiversity — are in crisis from pollution and over- extraction. About 1.4 billion people live in river basins where all the blue water (fresh surface and groundwater) is already committed or overcommitted. The journal Nature reports that nearly 80 percent of the world's human population lives in areas where river waters are highly threatened, posing a major threat to human water activity.

Desertification is advancing rapidly in more than a hundred countries, through over-extraction of rivers and groundwater and the advance of climate change, sending millions of refugees in search of safe haven. The Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, an influential American writer and environmentalist who founded the Worldwatch Institute, reports that the Sahara Desert is expanding in every direction, squeezing the populations of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. The Sahelian swath of savannah that separates the southern Sahara from the tropical rainforests of central Africa is shrinking and the desert is moving south, invading populous Nigeria. Lake Chad, once the sixth largest lake in the world, is 90 percent gone, putting the lives and livelihoods of 30 million West Africans in danger.

Some 600,000 square kilometres of land are now desert in Brazil, and Mexico is forced to abandon 250,000 square kilometres of farmland to desert every year. Their rural refugees gravitate to the slums of Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Mexico City. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, who is with the World Climate Research Programme of the United Nations, projects that by 2055, between 80 and 170 million people in Latin America will likely have insufficient water for their basic needs.

Hundreds of thousands of "environmental refugees" have had to flee their homes in central Asia as the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, dies because of massive cotton irrigation during the years of the Soviet Union. Iran's Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the Middle East and the third largest salt lake in the world, is 60 percent gone and may dry up completely. The lake used to provide crop irrigation and fish for the tens of millions who live within a few hundred kilometres of the lake, but drought has increased its salinity to levels too high to provide either anymore.

Over the past half-century, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been abandoned entirely or partially because of desert expansion. (An additional 450 "cancer villages" have been identified for evacuation.) Lester Brown says that China is heading for a "dust bowl" that could force migration that might number in the tens of millions.

These conditions are not limited to countries in the south. During the heat-scorched summer of 2012 in eastern Canada and the United States, a new study by a group of American scientists, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, stated that the drought experienced by western North America during the past decade is the worst in eight hundred years. The situation will decline steadily, say the authors, and the droughts we are experiencing now will likely be seen as the "wet" end of a drier hydroclimate predicted for the rest of the twenty-first century.

The Ogallala Aquifer, the once mighty underground lake that runs from the eastern slope of the Rockies to the Texas Panhandle and has provided water for America's breadbasket, is running out. "The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm," says David Brauer of the Ogallala Research Service, an agency of the U.S. government's agriculture department. "That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That's all we can do."

If water takings from the Great Lakes of North America are similar to those of global groundwater takings, the Great Lakes could be bone-dry in eighty years, says Marc Bierkens, professor of hydrology at Utrecht University and principal author of a groundbreaking 2010 global study on groundwater takings. He says the size of the global groundwater footprint — the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater- dependent ecosystem services — is currently 3.5 times the actual area of aquifers, and that about 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater resources and/or groundwater-dependent ecosystems are under threat.


Excerpted from "Blue Future"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Maude Barlow.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The Case for the Right to Water,
2. The Fight for the Right to Water,
3. Implementing the Right to Water,
4. Paying for Water for All,
5. Water – Commons or Commodity?,
6. Targeting Public Water Services,
7. The Loss of the Water Commons Devastates Communities,
8. Reclaiming the Water Commons,
9. The Trouble with "Modern Water",
10. Corporate Control of Farming Is Extinguishing Water,
11. Energy Demands Place an Unsustainable Burden on Water,
12. Putting Water at the Centre of Our Lives,
13. Confronting the Tyranny of the One Percent,
14. Creating a Just Economy,
15. Protecting Land, Protecting Water,
16. A Road Map to Conflict or to Peace?,
Further Reading,

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