Maude Barlow knows water.
And she cares about it, passionately. The national chair of the Council of Canadians has been actively working on global and regional water issues for more than two decades. She also played a central role in the international movement to push the United Nations to recognize water as a human right, which they did in 2010.
Barlow, 66, has been awarded 11 honourary doctorates, and authored or co-authored 17 books. Her latest book, Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, is the third in a trilogy examining what Barlow calls “the global water crisis.” A week after its release, Blue Future has already splashed onto The Globe And Mail’s bestseller list.
Barlow, who is based in Ottawa, visited Vancouver for a Blue Future book launch Monday. She sat down with The Province to explain why British Columbians should be paying attention to water issues right now, starting in our own backyard.
“I have to say, I have a real sense of urgency about this,” Barlow said. “Water is already the oil of the 21st century in some places.”
Q: This book looks at water issues on a global level — what makes it timely for British Columbians right now?
A: It’s very timely because the (B.C.) government is preparing some new legislation on water. And it’s really important that this happen, and it’s important that it’s high-profile and gets lots of public debate and lots of public input. This is the only province, I believe, that has absolutely no protection for groundwater. Companies can come in and just suck that water up, and sell it, use it to make money, do whatever they want with it and there’s no protection, which is really, really unbelievable in 2013. We have opportunity here for British Columbia to lead the way and have some of the best water law in the country.
Some British Columbians might say that because we are fortunate enough to have such a wealth of fresh water resources here, we don’t need to worry about water issues.
People in B.C., and it’s very common across the country, have what I call “the myth of abundance.” But we need to understand that there’s no such thing as a place anywhere on Earth that isn’t going to find itself in some kind of danger. We have melting glaciers, we have lakes that are endangered in this province and across the country. We need now to say, ‘Yes, we are more lucky than some, yes we have more of an abundance. But we don’t have all the water in the world, and we really must take care of what we have.’
As our government works on modernizing the Water Act, what should B.C.ers be concerned about?
We’re hearing via the grapevine, that the government here may be looking at small steps to water trading, converting licenses to water rights, which they’re looking at next door in Alberta, and which Australia has gone to, and which Chile has gone to, which would be a terrible mistake.
Can you explain water trading and water markets? How does that work? In your book, you look at some examples where such systems have caused problems in the past.
Water trading and water markets is where a government converts water licenses, which companies pay to have access to water, and converts them basically into private property … These companies, agri-business or whatever, it’s supposed to make them more efficient. The idea is if you can make money selling your extra, you’re going to be more efficient with the water you use. Then you’re able to hoard, buy, sell, trade those water rights, that property with other water users … But in fact, where it’s been tried around the world, most particularly Australia and Chile, what’s happened is that the big users come in and gobbled up the small users because they have more money And then the big investors come in and start buying up those water rights, and then the international investors come in. And in Australia, the price of water went through the roof. And when the government, years later tried to buy back those water rights, they couldn’t afford it.
Maybe the (B.C.) government won’t introduce water license trading. I think probably they will, because I think that’s where Christy Clark’s thinking will go. I really want British Columbians to realize this would be a terrible mistake. It’s a slippery slope. We’ll be very sorry if we start water trading in Western Canada.
The B.C. government has said they will introduce the new Water Sustainability Act into the legislature next year. What would you like to see in B.C.’s new water legislation?
Because of the good work of many people here, it has become exposed that the government of British Columbia does not protect the groundwater here. I think that was a shocking reality to many people who just assumed that they did. In Ontario, it’s bad enough we give away our water for $3.71 a million litres, but at least you’re getting $3.71. Here, it’s nothing. So my expectation is that the government is going to speak to this. However, how they do that, whether it will be through markets or whether it will be through public trust is really up in the air. So we need to wait for it and see. What we’re really needing, here in British Columbia, is for groundwater and surface water to be protected as a public trust for all time.