Water expert and author Maude Barlow links water desalination to climate change

As the international community works to reach a consensus on how to best approach a post-Kyoto climate strategy, author Maude Barlow says the world is neglecting a key element of global emissions—water. During today's OnPoint, Maude Barlow, author of "Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water", explains why she believes water desalination efforts are having a direct impact on climate change. Barlow says the world is at a critical juncture and needs to begin cutting down on water usage, as well as improve desalination technologies. Barlow discusses the United States’ water supply situation, and explains which policies she believes the U.S. should implement to minimize future issues with water.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Maude Barlow, author of "Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water." Maude, thanks for coming on the show.

Maude Barlow: A pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Maude, your new book takes a look at the politics of water and you say we're in a water crisis. Paint the picture for us. How did we get to this point and why are things so dire?

Maude Barlow: Well, it's really important to know that what we learned in grade six, about there, that there's a finite amount of water, it goes through the hydrologic cycle and can never go anywhere, was actually not true. Our teachers were not lying, but they didn't know what humanity is capable of. And this is the most important thing to say about the ecological crisis that we're facing, water, the way we are treating, polluting, abusing, diverting, displacing, mismanaging water is the other half of the climate change equation. We always hear about water as being a victim of climate change. It's induced by greenhouse gas emissions. But, in fact, the way we are taking water from the ground, the way we are polluting surface water so we can no longer use it, particularly in the global South, pumping up groundwater way faster than it can be replenished by nature, pulling water out of watersheds, river systems and so on to ship to megacities that then dump it in the ocean so it doesn't get returned or traded away in what's called virtual trade, where you use your water to grow things that you then export, or to water deserts and when the water is gone from the oasis for the desert you've got two deserts, or just massive urbanization, where we're losing water retentive landscapes. So that all of these ways in which we are treating and abusing and displacing water from where nature put it to where we wanted is actually a part of the equation of climate change. I call it the inconvenient truth of water. It's the other half. And I don't think we're going to get the climate change argument right until we get the analysis right about water. The most important thing to say then is that these are not cyclical droughts that we're experiencing in places like Australia, northern China, 22 countries in Africa, all of the Middle East, Mexico City, many parts of the United States. It's not cyclical drought. We're actually using up the water resources and we're not going to be able to access those water resources again. And we have an enormous population explosion with industrialization, which means that our demand on water is growing exponentially. And we don't know where we're going to get it.

Monica Trauzzi: So, this is not something that we hear a tremendous amount about.

Maude Barlow: I know.

Monica Trauzzi: Especially in the mainstream media. Should this be getting the same amount of coverage as our energy crisis and climate change in general? And why isn't it getting as much coverage?

Maude Barlow: I think we, in the north, have this myth of abundance, that we just can't imagine running out of water. And as I say, we all learned back there somewhere in school that we couldn't run out. So there's just this notion that, well, it's gone somewhere. I used it, but it comes back into the cycle. So it just hasn't permeated. But I think that it's more important than the energy crisis. Nobody is going to die from a lack of energy. It might slow the economy down incredibly. It may change our way of life, but you're not going to die. And even climate change is going to be slow compared to the onslaught of water now. More children die every day already, in our world, of dirty water than HIV AIDS, car accidents, war, and malaria put together. It's the No. 1 killer. There are 2 million children a year that are dying of waterborne disease. In every case preventable if their parents or their families had money to buy water. So the crisis is already with us in the global south. And it's just beginning to permeate the media and the consciousness of the global north. But if we don't get it right, I can't say this strongly enough, we don't have time to panic now. We have got to understand that the global water crisis is like a comet that's coming at the earth and suddenly everything else doesn't mean a whole lot until we stop and understand that we have to reverse the destruction, we have to stop polluting, we have to conserve massively, we have to change our relationship to water. We're going to have to change our agricultural policies to be much more water sustainable. It's going to have to be considered a crime against the future and humanity and the earth to pollute water and we're going to have to bring back water-retentive landscapes by rebuilding green stuff so that that water can come back to where we need it. China, just one example, is creating an area of desert the size of Rhode Island every single year because they have diverted their water instead of keeping it in watersheds so that all the toys and running shoes are made there. This is a very, very, very important story for the world and you're going to be hearing about almost nothing else in the next five years.

Monica Trauzzi: And last year the issue really seemed to hit home in the U.S. when we heard about Georgia and the drought conditions that they were facing. And the mainstream media did really pick up on that story and people were shocked.

Maude Barlow: I was stunned. And, you see what's stunning for people like me who have been working in this for years, is like, why didn't in your politicians tell you? Why didn't you know? I mean this is an Environmental Protection Agency study that says that there are 36 states in the United States that will experience, and I quote, "serious to severe water crisis within the next 5 to 10 years." Seven of them are pretty well at their limit right now. There are sinkholes opening up in Florida. Florida is pumping its groundwater so fast that it's actually swallowing up houses and sometimes even shopping malls. We keep thinking, and I think it's because we live in a very privileged world and we think that, well, if we run out of something we can import it or some company will figure out an alternative. Well, there's no alternative to water. And this is what we have to understand. Yes, there's recycling and cleaning it up, but it's never as pure in the long run at the water that we dirtied in the first place. And in any case, we're not recycling fast enough to catch up with the water abuse and the mismanagement and displacement of water. It is going to hit home as people understand that this isn't a drought. Lake Mead's study last week, it may be gone within 13 years, at 2021. Lake Mead feeds all of Phoenix and Las Vegas with its water. I mean think of when the water source is dried up and the Colorado is in, and I quote, "catastrophic decline," to quote a prominent scientist. And then you have the backups, Lake Mead and Lake Powell running out. I blame the politicians for not…I mean, where is this issue in this election in the United States? Why isn't everybody talking about this crisis? I find it stunning that there's silence on the issue of water when 36 states in this country alone are facing this kind of crisis.

Monica Trauzzi: It's not being completely ignored. There are some members of Congress that ...

Maude Barlow: Yes, there are.

Monica Trauzzi: ... do realize the gravity of the situation. And the president and some members of Congress have suggested that water systems and water utilities in the U.S. should be privatized.

Maude Barlow: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: Would that work?

Maude Barlow: No.

Monica Trauzzi: I know that you have some opinions about that.

Maude Barlow: And I'm glad that you asked.

Monica Trauzzi: Why is that not going to help solve the problem?

Maude Barlow: There is a very important place for the private sector in the whole water story. I'm not saying that, and that's going to include recycling and waste water treatment and the laying of pipes and that kind of thing. But it is extraordinarily important that we understand that water is not like Coca-Cola or running shoes. We need it for life. You're going to live two to three days without water and that's it. We need it for life. And what's happening is that as we're running out in the world and as it's becoming so much more precious it's becoming a commodity. And there's a big water cartel, I call it a global water cartel that's being set up to run water for everything, from delivering water on a for-profit basis, therefore denying it to people who can't pay, to the huge growing bottled water industry, which is an insanity, to desalination plants wringing the oceans. Some of them, they're going to be nuclear powered because we just can't stop abusing water. And I think it's very important that we understand that we need public control. We need to say that water is part of the commons. It's a public trust that belongs to everyone. And I don't believe anyone has the right to make profit from something that is denied to other people who are now dying from it. And I think we have to carve water out of the marketplace equation.

Monica Trauzzi: So, everyone has the right to water, but you're saying no one necessarily owns it?

Maude Barlow: That's right. We all own it and the earth owns it.

Monica Trauzzi: But in the terms that we do think of things, especially in this country, do we maybe need to determine some form of ownership in order to fix this problem?

Maude Barlow: I'm not in any way opposed to pricing water on two conditions. One is that everyone has had a basic amount of water for life, so that no one is denied it because they can't pay. And don't think this is just in the global south. Three years ago in Detroit they cut off 42,000 families from water because they couldn't pay their water bills. And then the social services came in and took away their kids. So the crisis is here right now as these prices go up. But, no, it's terribly important that we see water as a fundamental human right and that if we're going to price, everyone has some. The other thing is that it has to be publicly control because if a big corporation is charging you money for water, for conservation or whatever, they're taking that money and giving it to an investor. If it's your government or government agency it goes into an infrastructure program. I chair the board of Food and Water Watch, which is an important organization here in the U.S. And we're calling for a national water infrastructure fund that would be administered and collected at the federal level because it used to be that the federal government provided a great deal of funding for infrastructure repair and rebuilding. Now it's down to about five percent of it. It's just been handed down the line to the other levels of government and municipalities are desperate for some money. And so we're wasting a lot of water and we're polluting a lot of water through these ancient systems. So there's so much we could be doing rather than jumping into the next level, which is these massive desal plants.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, let's talk about desalination because you do point this out and talk about it a bit and you say it provides an opportunity for private companies to own and sell water like you were just saying. Elaborate on that a bit. Why is this practice - because it seems like it will probably be vital in the future in order for us to have enough water. So why is this practice not good and how can we fix it?

Maude Barlow: Yeah, not opposed to small desal plants to clean brackish water or to protect groundwater and I think there's going to have to be some of that. It's kind of like small dams, the difference between these great big mega-dams and small dams. So we want to talk the size of the technology. And there are parts of the world now dependent on desalination. But we're nowhere near that here in North America. And even in California, where they're planning 25 to 30 of them, they could find far more water from conservation than from these desal plants. Desalination, the big technology, is dirty. It's polluting. It takes in a lot of aquatic life and then it puts it through this osmosis process with chemicals, spits out this chewed up aquatic life, chemicals, and salt brine back into the ocean and it kills everything for miles around. I mean you'd have to see a photo from the air of these desal plants. It looks like an octopus that's just let its ink out, right? They're very, very energy intensive, so they create more global warming because of the need for fossil fuels. They're very expensive. And in the end, they're a technology that basically says, well, we can master nature instead of saying, well, if we had fewer of the big dams, if we let the rivers flow, if we adapted, if we conserved, if we saw ourselves, frankly, as a species like other species that have to adapt to some extent, we wouldn't need to go to these technologies. There's a place for technology, but I am worried, particularly in the United States and China, these are the two places governments who are both superpowers, who are both looking for new sources of water are asserting technological superiority over a natural, conserving way of life. And I think these ...

Monica Trauzzi: Is conserving going to be enough though?

Maude Barlow: It's only a piece of it. Conserving, cleaning up, but we have to reintroduce water into our watersheds. And where there is a place for technology it must be overseen by government, public oversight, public accountability. Because if Coca-Cola can own the water it sells to you in a bottle, why wouldn't Suez or General Electric or Dow Chemical be able to say to you, "I own the water that I just cleaned. And I'm going to charge you whatever I like." And the less clean water there is in the world the better for a big corporation because they're making so much money from it. That's my worry, is that we're going to put the emphasis on this high-tech answer instead of protecting our precious water sources. And in the end we need that water for our lives and the earth needs it to survive.

Monica Trauzzi: So, this is scary stuff. Some people have alleged that you're running a scare campaign. Do you think there's any merit to those claims?

Maude Barlow: You know what, Monica, I'd love to be wrong. I would love to feel or to be proven wrong in that somehow there's a miracle out there, but there isn't another planet with water that we know about. There's nowhere to go. We're going to add 3 billion people, at a modest estimate, to this planet by 2050 and many of those are in countries where they're developing and so their consumer patterns are dramatically rising. There's going to be a demand, and this is a U.N. statistic, not my statistic, for an 80% increase, just for food production, in water to feed those people. Nobody has any idea where it's going to come from.

Monica Trauzzi: So this isn't a doomsday scenario?

Maude Barlow: I'm actually very helpful, but I think there's sort of Pollyanna-ish hope that says, oh, we'll just march along and somebody will take care of it and then there's realistic hope. And realistic hope says look the issue in the eye, take the actions we need to take. We owe it to our kids and our grandkids and to the earth that gave us life.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Maude Barlow: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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