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. But Barlow is quick to point out that this does not mean that she or her colleagues believe that water should be free for all, that “nobody is saying that there is no place for the private sector in helping us come up with solutions to the water crisis.” The private sector brings energy, innovation and good technology to the table; however, water is a public trust, and she is adamant that the private sector has no business setting rates to turn a profit.
Barlow has several predictions for the future of the water sector. She believes that more local communities will start saying ‘no’ to privatization and fighting fiercely if their wishes are ignored. She also foreshadows that she and her colleagues will begin to propagate certain concepts such as the common heritage of water, which will resonate in communities around the globe. Barlow and her colleagues will continue their work in international bodies, especially the U.N., which Barlow identifies as an important contested battleground. Finally, the countries of the world will begin to see endogenous movements calling for constitutional reform to recognize the human right to water and the rights of nature. “We’re going to have to talk about…changing our laws to be more compatible with the laws of nature,” Barlow contends.
“The passion, the energy, the knowledge, the commitment–” they are all on the right(s) side, that is, the side advocating the right to water and the rights of nature–Barlow is convinced of a hopeful future. Maude Barlow is as charming and controversial as ever.
Listen to the audio interview here: