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New Press, The
Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

by Maude BarlowMaude Barlow
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A cautionary account of climate change and the global water supply. “You will not turn on the tap in the same way after reading this book.” —Robert Redford
In a book hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “passionate plea for access-to-water activism,” Blue Covenant addresses an environmental crisis that—together with global warming—poses one of the gravest threats to our survival.
How did the world’s most vital resource become imperiled? And what must we do to pull back from the brink? In “stark and nearly devastating prose”, world-renowned activist and bestselling author Maude Barlow—who is featured in the acclaimed documentary Flow—discusses the state of the world’s water. Barlow examines how water companies are reaping vast profits from declining supplies, and how ordinary people from around the world have banded together to reclaim the public’s right to clean water, creating a grassroots global water justice movement. While tracing the history of international battles for the right to water, she documents the life-and-death stakes involved in the fight and lays out the actions that we as global citizens must take to secure a water-just world for all (Booklist).
“Sounds the water alarm with conviction and authority.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This book proves that water deserves another destiny.” —Eduardo Galeano
Blue Covenant will inspire civil society movements around the world.” —Vandana Shiva

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595584533
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x (d)

About the Author

A recipient of Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel”) and a Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship, Maude Barlow is head of the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and founder of the Blue Planet Project. She is the author of sixteen books, including Blue Gold and last year’s bestselling Too Close for Comfort. She sits on the board of directors of Food and Water Watch and the International Forum on Globalization. She lives in Ottawa.

Read an Excerpt


Where Has All the Water Gone?

The Laws of Ecology

All things are interconnected. Everything goes somewhere. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Nature bats last.

– Ernest Callenbach

Three scenarios collude toward disaster.

Scenario one: The world is running out of freshwater. It is not just a question of finding the money to hook up the two billion people living in water-stressed regions of our world. Humanity is polluting, diverting and depleting the Earth's finite water resources at a dangerous and steadily increasing rate. The abuse and displacement of water is the ground-level equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions, and likely as great a cause of climate change.

Scenario two: Every day more and more people are living without access to clean water. As the ecological crisis deepens, so too does the human crisis. More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents combined. The global water crisis has become a most powerful symbol of the growing inequality in our world. While the wealthy enjoy boutique water at any time, millions of poor people have access only to contaminated water from local rivers and wells.

Scenario three: A powerful corporate water cartel has emerged to seize control of every aspect of water for its own profit. Corporations deliver drinking water and take away wastewater; corporations put massive amounts of water in plastic bottles and sell it to us as at exorbitant prices; corporations are building sophisticated new technologies to recycle our dirty water and sell it back to us; corporations extract and move water by huge pipelines from watersheds and aquifers to sell to big cities and industries; corporations buy, store and trade water on the open market, like running shoes. Most importantly, corporations want governments to deregulate the water sector and allow the market to set water policy. Every day, they get closer to that goal. Scenario three deepens the crises now unfolding in scenarios one and two.

Imagine a world in twenty years in which no substantive progress has been made to provide basic water services in the Third World; or to create laws to protect source water and force industry and industrial agriculture to stop polluting water systems; or to curb the mass movement of water by pipeline, tanker and other diversions, which will have created huge new swaths of desert.

Desalination plants will ring the world's oceans, many of them run by nuclear power; corporate-controlled nanotechnology will clean up sewage water and sell it to private utilities, which will in turn sell it back to us at a huge profit; the rich will drink only bottled water found in the few remaining uncontaminated parts of the world, or sucked from the clouds by corporate-controlled machines, while the poor will die in increasing numbers from a lack of water.

This is not science fiction. This is where the world is headed unless we change course – a moral and ecological imperative.

But first we must come to terms with the dimension of the crisis.

We Are Running Out of Freshwater

In the first seven years of the new millennium, more studies, reports and books on the global water crisis have been published than in all of the preceding century. Almost every country has undertaken research to ascertain its water wealth and threats to its aquatic systems. Universities around the world are setting up departments or cross-departmental disciplines to study the effects of water shortages. Dozens of books have been written on all aspects of the crisis. The WorldWatch Institute has declared: "Water scarcity may be the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time."

From these substantial and recent undertakings, the verdict is in and irrefutable: the world is facing a water crisis due to pollution, climate change and a surging population growth of such magnitude that close to two billion people now live in water-stressed regions of the planet. Further, unless we change our ways, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity. The global population tripled in the twentieth century, but water consumption went up sevenfold. By 2050, after we add another three billion to the population, humans will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where this water is going to come from.

Scientists call them "hot stains" – the parts of the Earth now running out of potable water. They include Northern China, large areas of Asia and Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the Midwestern United States and sections of South America and Mexico.

The worst examples in terms of the effect on people are, of course, those areas of the world with large populations and insufficient resources to provide sanitation. Two-fifths of the world's people lack access to proper sanitation, which has led to massive outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with an easily preventable waterborne disease, and the World Health Organization reports that contaminated water is implicated in 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide. In the last decade, the number of children killed by diarrhea exceeded the number of people killed in all armed conflicts since the Second World War. Every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking dirty water.

Some wealthier countries are just beginning to understand the depth of their own crisis, having adopted a model of unlimited consumer growth based on industrial, trade and farming practices that are wasting precious and irreplaceable water resources. Australia, the driest continent on Earth, is facing a severe shortage of water in all of its major cities, as well as widespread drought in its rural countryside. Annual rainfall is declining; salinity and desertification are spreading rapidly; rivers are being drained at an unsustainable rate; and more than one-quarter of all surface water management areas now exceed sustainable limits. Climate change is accelerating drought and causing freak storms and weather patterns just as the population is set to expand dramatically in the next twenty years. (Ironically, this is, in part, to take in the climate-change refugees such as the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands, who will lose their lands to the rising seas.)

Many parts of the United States are also experiencing severe water shortages. Pressure is mounting on the Great Lakes governors to open up access to the lakes to the burgeoning megacities around the basin. In 2007, Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake, dropped to its lowest level in eighty years and the water has receded more than fifteen meters from the shoreline. Florida is in trouble. The state's burgeoning population, with a net influx of 1,060 people every day, relies almost entirely upon its dwindling groundwater sources for its water supplies. To keep its fast-spreading lawns and golf courses green, the Sunshine State is sucking up groundwater at such a rate that it has created thousands of sinkholes that devour anything – houses, cars and shopping malls – unfortunate enough to be built on them. California has a twenty-year supply of freshwater left. New Mexico has only a ten-year supply. Arizona is out: it now imports all of its drinking water. Lake Powell, the man-made backup for the western water supply, has lost 60 percent of its water. A major June 2004 study by the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Geological Survey found that the parched Interior West is probably the driest it has been in five hundred years. As in Australia, anxious American politicians talk about "drought" as if this is a cyclical situation that will right itself. But scientists and water managers throughout the American Midwest and Southwest are saying that it is more than a drought: major parts of the United States are running out of water. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that if current water use continues unchecked, thirty-six states will suffer water shortages within the next five years.

Because of the wealth of these countries, most of their populations are still not suffering from water shortages. That is not so for those in the global South – hence the term water apartheid. The world's poor who are living without water are either in areas that do not have enough water to begin with (Africa), where surface water has become severely polluted (South America, India) or both (Northern China). Most of the world's megacities – those with ten million or more inhabitants – lie within regions experiencing water stress. These include Mexico City, Calcutta, Cairo, Jakarta, Karachi, Beijing, Lagos and Manila.

In 2006, the number of city dwellers surpassed the number of rural dwellers for the first time in history. The urban populations of the Third World are growing exponentially, creating enormous slums without water services. In the last decade, the number of city dwellers without reliable access to clean water increased by more than sixty million. By 2030, says the UN, more than half the population of these huge urban centers will be slum dwellers with no access to water or sanitation services whatsoever. One report cited a current example of an area in Mumbai, where one toilet serves 5,440 people.

Not surprisingly, there is a huge gulf between the First World and the Third World in water use. The average human needs fifty liters of water per day for drinking, cooking and sanitation. The average North American uses almost six hundred liters a day. The average inhabitant of Africa uses six liters per day. A newborn baby in the global North consumes between forty and seventy times more water than a baby in the global South.

These appalling disparities have rightly created a demand for more water equity and a commitment to providing water for the 1.4 billion people currently living without it. The UN Millennium Development Goals include reducing by half the proportion of people living without safe drinking water by the year 2015. While laudable, this initiative is failing not only because the UN has worked with the World Bank to promote a flawed model for water development (see Chapter 2), but also because it assumes that there is enough water for everyone without seriously addressing the massive pollution of surface waters and the consequent massive overmining of groundwater supplies.

Our Surface Waters Are Polluted

We were all taught certain fundamentals about the Earth's hydrologic cycle in grade school. There is a finite amount of available freshwater on the planet, we learned, and it makes its way through a cycle that ensures its safe return to us for our perpetual use. In the hydrologic cycle, water vapor condenses to form clouds. Winds move the clouds across the globe, spreading the water vapor. When the clouds cannot hold the moisture, they release it in the form of rain or snow, which either seeps into the ground to replenish groundwater or runs off into lakes, streams and rivers. (This is the water – less than one-half of 1 percent of all the water on Earth – available for human use that does not deplete the stock.) As these processes are happening, the power of the sun is causing evaporation, changing liquid water into vapor to renew the cycle. About four hundred billion liters of water are cycled through this process every year. In this scenario, the planet could never "run out" of water.

But this cycle, true for so many millennia, did not take into account modern humans' collective capacity for destruction. In the last half-century, the human species has polluted surface waters at an alarming and accelerating rate. The world may not exactly be running out of water, but it is running out of clean water. Ninety percent of wastewater produced in the Third World is discharged, untreated, into local rivers, streams and coastal waters. As well, humans are now using more than half of accessible runoff water, leaving little for the ecosystem or other species.

In China, 80 percent of the major rivers are so degraded they no longer support aquatic life, and an astonishing 90 percent of all groundwater systems under the major cities are contaminated. China is now home to seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world. The World Health Organization reports that 700 million of the 1.3 billion people of China drink water that doesn't even meet the most basic minimum safety standards set by that world body. In late 2006, the Chinese government reported in a rare admission of failure that, as a result of massive pollution, more than two-thirds of Chinese cities face water shortages, with at least one hundred of them facing immediate depletion. Forty-five billion tons (about forty-one trillion kilograms) of untreated wastewater are pumped directly into lakes and rivers every year, according to a recent article in the China Daily.

This scenario is repeated in many parts of Asia. A 2005 nationwide survey in Pakistan revealed that less than 25 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water due to massive pollution of the country's surface waters. The Indonesian Environment Monitor reports that Indonesia has one of the lowest sanitation rates in the world. Less than 3 percent of Jakarta's residents are connected to a sewer, leading to severe pollution of nearby rivers and lakes and the contamination of 90 percent of the city's shallow wells. Almost 65 percent of Bangladesh's groundwater is contaminated, with at least 1.2 million Bangladeshis exposed to arsenic poisoning.

Seventy-five percent of India's rivers and lakes are so polluted, they should not be used for drinking or bathing. More than 700 million Indians – two-thirds of the population – do not have adequate sanitation, and 2.1 million Indian children under the age of five die every year from dirty water. The fabled Yamuna River is clinically dead, killed as it makes its way through New Delhi's teaming slums. The coasts of Mumbai, Madras and Calcutta are putrid. The sacred Ganges, where millions come to worship, is an open sewer. Thousands of Hindu worshippers boycotted the 2007 religious festivals in which millions plunged into the Ganges to wash away their sins. One Indian government study called the situation in India "an unparalleled water crisis." Against this backdrop of pollution and scarcity, India's urban water demand is expected to double by 2025, and industrial water demand will triple.

The statistics for Russia are hauntingly similar. The U.S. Library of Congress reports on water pollution in Russia – a phenomenon little reported in Russia itself. Seventy-five percent of Russia's inland surface water is polluted and approximately 30 percent of the groundwater available for use is highly polluted. Many rivers are carriers of waterborne killers, and 60 percent of rural residents are drinking water from contaminated wells.

The underground reservoir of the Mountain Aquifer is the most important source of water for Israelis and Palestinians, supplying more good-quality water per year than any source between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But, reports Friends of the Earth Middle East, the sewage of more than two million people who live above the aquifer is discharged untreated into streams and other natural water sources percolating into the groundwater. This amounts to almost sixty-one million cubic meters a year.

According to the European Commission, 20 percent of all surface water in Europe is "seriously threatened," and the UN adds that only five of the fifty-five major rivers in Europe can be considered "pristine" anymore. Belgium's water is singled out as particularly bad, due to heavy pollution by industry. The Rhine, the Sarno and the Danube rivers are all in peril. Recent and regular droughts have European leaders very worried about water availability. Southern Spain, southeastern England and western and southern France are all viewed as chronically vulnerable, while fears are growing in Portugal, Italy and Greece. In May 2007, a state of emergency was declared in the northern and central regions of Italy as the country's largest river, the Po, dried up, devastating the Po Valley, which grows a third of the country's food. In several of these countries, reservoirs are at their lowest levels in recorded history.

Forty percent of U.S. rivers and streams are too dangerous for fishing, swimming or drinking, as are 46 percent of lakes due to massive toxic runoff from industrial farms, intensive livestock operations and the more than one billion pounds of industrial weed killer used throughout the country every year. Two-thirds of U.S. estuaries and bays are moderately or severely degraded. The Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. Every year, one-quarter of the U.S. beaches are under advisories or closed due to water pollution. The U.S. government refuses to ban the herbicide Atrazine, an endocrine disrupter banned in many countries around the world and widely linked to cancer. In Canada, more than one trillion liters of untreated sewage is dumped into waterways each year, a volume that would cover the entire 7,800-kilometer length of the Trans-Canada Highway, six stories high.


Excerpted from "Blue Covenant"
by .
Copyright © 2007 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

Chapter 1: Where Has All the Water Gone?,
Chapter 2: Setting the Stage for Corporate Control of Water,
Chapter 3: The Water Hunters Move In,
Chapter 4: The Water Warriors Fight Back,
Chapter 5: The Future of Water,
Sources and Further Reading,

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