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A Word To The Water Wise

Well known in Canada for a variety of causes, Maude Barlow has become the Al Gore of the water world

by Vivian Song

Maude Barlow is a surprisingly soft-spoken, humble presence.

After reading her book Blue Covenant -- 218 pages of water scarcity stats that will scare the beejeezus out of you -- I'm half expecting to meet a Joan of Arc-hetype crusader, riding high atop a ridge on horseback, eyes darting wildly below for aquatic injustices.

Instead, I meet a woman whose written words speak louder than their author and whose maternal warmth comes from a wellspring of sincerity that can't be feigned.

Barlow is described as the Al Gore of water, an internationally renowned water champion who, this month, was invited by the driest continent on earth, Australia, to address their water crisis. Last year, a man was killed in an incident of water rage in that country -- the first known water murder in the developed world -- after a passerby rebuked him for watering his lawn.

Like Gore, Barlow is welcomed both as a Canadian hero -- gracing the pages of Australia's foremost daily newspaper The Age in a lengthy, flattering profile piece -- and a left-wing idealogue, dismissed as an anti-business dissenter.

For five days last week, Sun Media dispelled some commonly held liquid myths in the Canadian psyche, namely the myth of water abundance in Canada. It's a crusade that has besotted the leader of the country's biggest advocacy group, the Council of Canadians, since stumbling upon it "by accident" while trying to take Canada's water off the table in U.S.-Canada free trade negotiations.

"It started to become an obsession," she tells me in an interview.

It's an obsession that has filled hundreds of pages of some of her 16 books, written to rouse readers out of their complacency. The world is running out of clean water.

Every eight seconds, for example, a child dies from drinking dirty water. Every year, a new desert the size of Rhode Island is created in China because of drought. In the developing world, 90% of wastewater is discharged untreated into local rivers. By 2050, 1.7 billion people will live in "dire water poverty" and be forced to relocate.

Water conflicts are already taking shape: Indonesian farmers armed with axes and hammers are fighting for dwindling water supplies. Russia is livid at China for its plans to build an irrigation canal that would siphon off 450 million cubic metres of water from the Irtysh River which they share.

And while she's been sounding the alarm for almost 20 years, her work is now starting to make timely waves.

"We are building a great water movement," she says after a screening of the documentary FLOW, For Love of Water, in which her commentary threads the film together. Much like Barlow's book, FLOW, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, has been described alternately as "the scariest film in the festival," and "a passionate call to arms." Both outline the dwindling freshwater supplies, inequitable water access and corporate control of water, three water crises Barlow has identified as the future of water.

Filmmaker Irena Salina credits Barlow's work for inspiring her to make the documentary that was four years in the making and spanned Africa, South America, India and France. Both film and book rail against the privatization of water in developing countries and corporate giants.

"The ultimate goal of private companies is to make a profit, not to fulfil socially responsible objectives such as universal access to water," Barlow writes. This must remain the role of governments, she says.

Barlow is the recipient of the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the Canadian Environment Awards, six honorary degrees and Sweden's Rigent Livelihood Award, known as the "alternate Nobel Prize."

Below are some points from Maude Barlow's book, compelling evidence the world is heading into a dry storm.

- The European Water Network wants to build a pipeline that would divert water from the Austrian Alps to thirsty areas of south Europe.

- Libya's Great Man-Made River Project is currently the biggest in the world at 5,000-km but draws water from the same aquifer source as Chad, Egypt, Sudan and could lead to conflict.

- Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with waterborne diseases; the World Health Organization says contaminated water is implicated in 80% of all sickness and disease worldwide.

- Newborns in the global north consume 40 to 70 times more water than in the global south.

- In China, 80% of its major rivers are so degraded they don't support aquatic life; it's also home to seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world.

- Women of South Africa collectively walk the equivalent distance to the moon and back, 16 times a day for water.

 © 2008, Canoe Inc

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