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Blue Covenant

The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

by Maude Barlow

New Press, 2007, Paperback

Tells the story of the global fight for the right to water. Barlow lays out the actions that we as global citizens must take to secure a water-just world — a “blue covenant” for all.

Praise for Blue Covenant

"Canadian antiglobalization activist Barlow calls for a "blue covenant" among nations to define the world's fresh water as "a human right and a public trust" rather than a commercial product. Barlow marshals facts and figures with admirable (if often dry) comprehensiveness, noting that as many as 36 U.S. states could reach a water crisis in five years; that once vast freshwater resources like Lake Chad and the Aral Sea are becoming briny puddles; and a handful of multinational water companies, abetted by World Bank monetary policies and United Nations political timidity, are bidding for the "complete commodification" of formerly public water resources. Her passionate plea for access-to-water activism is buttressed with some breakthroughs; Uruguay has enshrined public water rights in its constitution (the only nation to do so), and "water warriors" are fighting back in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, where activists have forced private water companies to cede control of municipal water systems. There's a noble tilting-at-windmills quality to the author's call for private citizens and nongovernmental organizations to challenge corporate control of water delivery, agitate for equitable access to clean water and confront the reality that freshwater supplies are dwindling." -- Publishers Weekly

“Maude Barlow makes a most compelling argument about what will be the greatest environmental and human crisis of the 21st Century - the global water crisis and access to safe drinking water being a basic human right. You will not turn on the tap in the same way after reading this book.” –Robert Redford, July 29, 2008

"The first three chapters of the book tell a grim, depressing and frightening story, but chapters four and five dispel the gloom (at least partly) and offer a degree of hope through their accounts of the battles fought by the water warriors, some of them remarkably successful, and of the progress of the idea of the right to water. " -- The Hindu

"Blue Covenant will inspire civil society movements around the world." -- Vandana Shiva, author of Water Wars, Biopiracy and Stolen Harvest

Quotes from Blue Covenant

Humanity is polluting, diverting and depleting the Earth’s finite water resources at a dangerous and steadily increasing rate.. . . .

While the wealthy enjoy boutique water at any time, millions of poor people have access only to contaminated water from local rivers and wells. . .

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.

. . .

The Right to Water: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

[T]he global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to settle once and for all the question of who controls water. It must be connnonly understood that water is not a commercial good, although of course it has an economic dimension, but rather a human right and a public trust. What is needed now is binding law to codify that states have the obligation to deliver sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water to their citizens as a public service. While "water for all, everywhere and always" may appear to be self-evident, the fact is that the powers moving in to take corporate control of water have resisted this notion fiercely. So have many governments, either because, in the case of rich governments, their corporations benefit from the commodification of water or, in the case of poor governments, because they fear they would not be able to honor this commitment. So groups around the world are mobilizing in their connnunities and countries for constitutional recognition of the right to water within their borders and at the United Nations for a full treaty that recognizes the right to water internationally.

. . .

A UN covenant would set the framework for water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity. As well, it would establish the indispensable legal groundwork for a just system of distribution. It would serve as a connnon, coherent body of rules for all nations, rich and poor, and clarify that it is the role of the state to provide clean, affordable water to all of its citizens. Such a covenant would also safeguard already accepted human rights and environmental principles in other treaties and conventions.

. . .

As stated in a 2003 manifesto on the right to water by Friends of the Earth Paraguay; "An inseparable part of the right is control and sovereignty of local communities over their natural heritage and therefore over the management of their sources of water and over the use of the territories producing this water, the watersheds and aquifer recharge areas." Aright-to-water covenant would also set principles and priorities for water use in a world destroying its water heritage. The covenant we envisage would include language to protect water rights for the Earth and other species and would address the urgent need for reclamation of polluted waters and an end to practices destructive of the world's water sources. As Friends of the Earth Paraguay put it, "The very mention of this supposed conflict, water for human use versus water for nature, reflects a lack of consciousness of the essential fact that the very existence of water depends on the sustainable management and conservation of ecosystems."

. . .

On October 31, 2004, the citizens of Uruguay became the first in the world to vote for the right to water. Led by Adriana Marquisio and Maria Selva Ortiz of the National Commission for the Defence of Water and Life and Alberto Villarreal of Friends of the Earth Uruguay; the groups first had to obtain almost three hundred thousand signatures on a plebiscite (which they delivered to Parliament as a "human river"), in order to get a referendum placed on the ballot of the national election calling for a constitutional amendment on the right to water. They won the vote by an almost two-thirds majority, an extraordinary feat considering the fear-mongering that opponents mounted. The language of the amendment is very important. Not only is water now a fundamental human right in Uruguay; but also social considerations must now take precedence over economic considerations when the government makes water policy. As well, the constitution now reflects that "the public service of water supply for human consumption will be served exclusively and directly by state legal persons" that is to say, not by corporations.

Several other countries have also passed right-to-water legislation. When apartheid was defeated in South Africa, Nelson Mandela created a new constitution that defined water as a human right. However, the amendment was silent on the issue of delivery and soon after, the World Bank convinced the new government to privatize many of its water services. Several other developing countries such as Ecuador, Ethiopia and Kenya also have references in their constitutions that describe water as a human right, but they, too, do not specify the need for public delivery. The Belgium Parliament passed a resolution in April 2005 seeking a constitutional amendment to recognize water as a human right, and in September 2006, the French Senate adopted an amendment to its water bill that says that each person has the right to access to clean water. But neither country makes reference to delivery. The only other country besides Uruguay to specify in its constitution that water must be publicly delivered is Netherlands, which passed a law in 2003 restricting the delivery of drinking water to utilities that are entirely public. But Netherlands did not affirm the right to water in this amendment. Only the Uruguayan constitutional amendment guarantees both the right to water and the need to deliver it publicly and is therefore, a model for other countries. Suez was forced to leave the country as a direct result of this amendment.

Table of Contents of Blue Covenant

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1 Where Has All the Water Gone?
  3. Chapter 2 Setting the Stage for Corporate Control of Water
  4. Chapter 3 The Water Hunters Move In
  5. Chapter 4 The Water Warriors Fight Back
  6. Chapter 5 The Future of Water
  7. Sources and Further Reading
  8. Index

About Maude Barlow

Dubbed “Canada’s best-known voice of dissent” by the CBC, Maude Barlow has proven herself again and again to be on the leading edge of issues Canadians care deeply about. A recipient of Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel”) and a Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship, 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: Canada's Future within Fortress North America. Barlow sits on the board of directors of Food and Water Watch and the International Forum on Globalization. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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