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The Grand Dame of Water: Maude Barlow is Controversial and Charming

By all accounts, Maude Barlow is one of the preeminent international firebrands championing the rights to water for both humanity and nature.  She sat down with me on March 16 at the Alternative World Water Forum in Marseilles to enjoy some Mariachi and to talk some frank talk about water rights and why the market-based, private-sector argument is wrong-headed. (Audio of the interview available for listening at the bottom of this post.)

Barlow has been called the ‘Ralph Nader of Canada’ and the ‘Al Gore of Water,’ but neither of these titles really seem to do her growing international stature and her undeniable charisma  much justice.  Barlow is a figure in her own right and a dynamo that might leave these American counterparts in the dust at just about any forum of Congressional hearing.  The title of this article proposes an alternative moniker – the Grand Dame of Water. Barlow, one of the driving forces behind the recent UN declaration on the human right to water, turned down the opportunity to debate World Water Council President, Loic Fauchon.  She says that it’s an “old debate and they know where I stand.”  By going to the World Water Forum, she believes she would have legitimized what she denounces as little more than a “trade show” backed by the World Bank.  While Barlow felt the WWF-6 to was hollow and empty, the cross-town Alternative Forum had an undeniably vibrant energy. Barlow, a Canadian, opposes the Keystone-XL Pipeline, which if built, could run from her home country through the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States.  She is even more opposed to the alternate route, which would “punch a hole through Rockies” and bring bitumen from the tar sands to Canada’s western coast for export to Asia.  “There is no pipeline that you can build that isn’t going to leak at some point…the beginning part of the XL Pipeline has already leaked in Michigan,” she said. Barlow believes that pipelines are like arteries to tar sands development, which both feed the development process and require more extraction for infrastructure finance.  She believes that the best solution is to “cut the arteries…and starve the beast.”
She is completely opposed to the idea of market mechanisms playing a role in the development and management of water resources.  “It’s a dangerous development and I think the move to put a price tag on nature is insane,” she says.

International Water Law: Can We Regulate Water on an International Level?

Water is a unique resource because it is both local and global. Water flows over international and state borders, between conflict areas and through cities and industrial areas. Upstream withdrawals and inputs greatly affect downstream users, who may or may not have legal recourse to challenge inappropriate water activity of upstream users. This phenomenon is particularly tricky in international bodies of water which is why international agencies have often attempted to create a body of international water law, to little effect. Water law and policy, both transboundary and national, was covered in several WWF6 panel sessions. International law is a body of law compiled from international agreements such as conventions and treaties, customary international law, general principles of law, and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists.  One of the biggest problems that arises with international law is its lack of enforcing power.  In order to create successful laws, an entity needs to be enabled to enforce the laws and punish those who don’t follow them.