Maude Barlow – Activist, not engineer

Last week I had an opportunity to hear Maude Barlow speak at the 2012 International Symposium “Our Thirsty Planet” sponsored by the Wang Center for International Education at Pacific Lutheran University.

I am not a stranger to Maude Barlow’s thoughts on water, particularly her views on “water as a right”, that water should not be bought and sold, and that corporations are (almost) universally evil, especially where water is concerned.

Though she is a strong advocate for elevating water issues to the top of international discussions, I disagree with many of the black & white distinctions she makes regarding the best policies for managing, distributing, and supplying water resources. To characterize her viewpoint, I’m borrowing her words from the December 2008 issue of the Progressive:

“There is a wonderful water justice movement here in the United States and around the world. We call ourselves Water Warriors. And we’ve taken the time to create a set of principles upon which we agree. We basically agree, for instance, that if you ask the question who owns water, we will say, “Nobody owns it. It belongs to the Earth, it belongs to all species, it belongs to future generations. It’s a fundamental human right and a public service and a public trust.”

I have struggled with the concept of water as a human right and that nobody owns it, primarily because I think of water in terms of the engineering (pipes, pumps, distribution networks), planning (long-term drought forecasts, flood forecasts, water supply forecasts), and service provision (rate structures, payment for service, willingness to pay).  Likewise, in many cases, there is a need to have corporate involvement in the planning of engineered water systems, because governments lack the expertise.

Another passage by Maude Barlow is the following (from the same interview):

“The more water costs and the rarer it becomes and the more it’s owned by corporations, the more it’s going to be an issue of equity in our countries.”

I think the problem for me is that corporate ownership of water is perhaps not right, but corporate ownership of certain aspects of water supply systems does not preclude water as a human right.

However, I’m digressing. The point I wanted to make in this post was that Maude Barlow is an activist, through and through. At her talk the other night, she gloried in her recent arrest at a Canadian shale gas protest. This was the turning point for me. I realized that of course she can talk about this topic from a perspective of stark contrasts. She doesn’t have to do any real water resources planning, engineering, or problem solving – she just rallies people to care about equitable access to clean water.

Let me be clear that this is not a judgement, certainly not everyone should be an engineer, its just she doesn’t have to deal with the practical applications of her statements. During the brief question time at the end of her talk, she responded to my inquiries about how to deal with the complicated issue of financing water delivery in urban slums, with the response that “its a really tough issue, and there are no easy answers.”

Indeed, there are not. Now I understand though that I shouldn’t expect practical water supply solutions to come from her quarter. Nor will I trust her stark statements of which organizations are corrupt, evil, etc. since with very little digging one realizes that they are rarely so. I will however listen to Maude Barlow when I need to hear what the progressive, activist wing of the water world has to say.


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