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Environment

'We need justice for access to water'

Recent decades have seen clean water become increasingly scarce in developed and developing countries alike. A renowned Canadian author and activist is calling for a new way to regulate water consumption.

DW: Can you explain the concept of the human right to water?

Maude Barlow: Until recently, it was not an issue because no one could imagine a world without water. We were all raised to believe that water was infinite. So when the [Universal Declaration on] Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, water was left out. It just wasn't on anybody's radar. But in the last few decades, we have seen inequality and poverty, dramatic declines in water stocks, and more private control of water by for-profit companies. This has created a situation where lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights violation in the world. Nothing comes close to it in terms of illness and death which are totally and completely avoidable.

Zimbabweans gather water (Photo: correspondent Columbus Mavhunga)

Water scarcity is highest in the developing world

The issue of the human right to water has become quite contentious. Private sector companies, a lot of powerful governments including Canada, the US, Great Britain, and parts of the United Nations all opposed the right to water as a human right. And companies making money didn't want it to become a right because then it became harder to see water as a commodity. But in July 2010, we had a wonderful win, where the General Assembly of the United Nations voted and adopted the human right to water.

Could you give us some examples of people or communities who do not have access to water?

Near Johannesburg, South Africa there is a township called Orange Farm. This is an area of terrible poverty, with rats in the gutter, kids with no shoes, and little hovels that people live in. But there's a state of the art pipe and a tap coming up to every block of homes.

Between the tap and the pipe is a water meter. And the only way you can access water is to pay for it. Every single drop of water is charged to you. When you're in a community of 80 percent unemployment, you may as well not bother. So the women walk the five to six kilometers to the river that's covered with cholera warning signs, and that's the water they bring home. That's a very common example around the world.

But looking at the developed world, in Detroit, Michigan in the United States, there are between 40,000 and 80,000 people who have had their water cut off because they cannot pay for it. And they're living in third world conditions.

This is not an issue simply of far-away countries and far-away peoples. This is an issue that is coming to a community near all of us. We are a planet running out of clean water. The demand is rising, the population is rising, the consumer classes are rising. We need justice for access to water.

Workers load bottled water in Harbin, China (Photo: AP Photo/Greg Baker)

Barlow insists water is a right, not a commodity

I think we need to talk about how we pay for water and what would be an appropriate service charge. But if we put a market price on water so that companies can make a profit on it, we're going to see more and more people get cut off as they can't pay it.

You were one of the pioneers of the idea of water rights and access to water. Looking back on those days, what were they like?

I didn't start out being what we call a "water warrior." I came out of the women's movement. I wrote what I believe to be the first ever article on the politics of water and who owns it. If you buy a piece of property, do you own the water under it? Can you pump as much as you want? Can you pollute it? Who owns the world's water?

And it resonated. We were getting people from all over the world saying [they were] fighting a big private water utility that's running water for profit or a big mining company that's polluting our water. So I realized I had tapped into something really big. That was in the mid-90s. Over the next two decades we built a global water justice movement [aiming to] get the United Nations to recognize the human right to water.

It really is an issue of power - who has power, who wants it, who gets it, who wants to consolidate it. And if you're looking at a world running out of water, that desperately needs water - we all need it, nobody can live without it - whoever controls water is going to be very powerful.

And sometimes, in a rich country, you are saving your own water by using water in other people's countries. That is a form of water theft. I see that there is going to be more conflict between countries - between superpowers from the global north - coming in and buying water, say in Africa, and then saying, we own that land, we own that water, we're going to use that for crops to export back to our country. That is a new form of colonialism and a new form of invasion.

Maude Barlow is an author, activist and the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians.

Interview: Saroja Coelho and Kate Laycock

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