“Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands”

December 11, 2019

BookShelf: “Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands”

By Maude Barlow
ECW Press, $14.50

Reviewed by Gary Wilson

Legendary Canadian water rights activist Maude Barlow says in the introduction of her latest book, “Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands,” that she has a dream that involves “a world going blue, one community at a time.” 

The “blue” refers to taking progressive action to conserve, restore, protect and maintain public control of waters great and small. And Barlow lays out a prescription in the book for how that’s done, calling for communities to become blue by having “everyday people defending their water resources.”

To be a “blue community” under Barlow’s formula means adopting three basic principles: A promise to protect and promote water and sanitation as human rights, to protect water as a public trust and keep it out of the control of for-profit companies, and to phase out bottled water in municipal facilities.

To date, Barlow says, 27 Canadian municipalities “have taken the Blue Communities pledge,” and the movement has started to take root internationally with Paris, France, and Bern, Switzerland signing on.


Taking on the ‘chief cheerleaders’ of globalization

Barlow is not so naive to believe that community action alone will save the day. She says good and strong laws at all levels of government will still be needed to protect ecosystems.

Those familiar themes have marked Barlow’s 34-year career, one that began in 1985 when then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became the “chief cheerleaders of economic globalization, deregulation and free trade,” as Barlow refers to them.

Canada’s prime minister at the time, Brian Mulroney, became a political ally of U.S. and British leaders, and — with Reagan — started negotiating a free trade deal that would be the precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement.


'Alarm bells went off 

in my head and 

[in] my heart.' 


While reading the text of the agreement, Barlow learned that export of water was part of the deal and that Canada couldn’t do anything about it. That’s when “alarm bells went off in my head and [in] my heart,” she writes.

Barlow’s next step was to co-found the Council of Canadians, a not-for-profit designed through social action to counter the Reagan-Thatcher agenda.

She began building alliances and traveling the world to fight the privatization of water movement, culminating in a 2000 “crashing of their party” intervention of the World Water Council’s conference. The council’s agenda promotes the interests of private water companies, Barlow argues.

She describes the intervention as her first big personal confrontation with the “lords of water” but not the last. There would be subsequent encounters with those “lords” in Kyoto and Mexico City.


International activist at ease in local fights

By 2010, she was successfully advising the United Nations on passing a resolution that said access to clean water and sanitation are human rights.

Barlow, a luncheon keynote at SEJ’s 2009 conference in Madison, Wisc., may be comfortable on the world stage. 

But she is equally at ease engaging at the local level — on issues such as bottled water, with Nestlé as her favorite target, or when supporting activists in Detroit who are protesting water shutoffs.

Perhaps her most visible fight is over bottled water. In her book, Barlow describes in detail how water-giant Nestlé works to oppose her Blue Community organizing efforts.

Barlow has publicly disagreed with United States not-for-profit groups which only see bottled water as a plastic pollution issue. To Barlow, that’s a narrow perspective as bottled water is one more link in a water privatization chain.


By 2010, she was successfully advising 

the United Nations on passing a resolution 

that said access to clean water and 

sanitation are human rights.


This is Barlow’s 19th book. Her writing is at its best when she describes her work as above, like “crashing their party.”

Too often, modern-day environmental activists lead with process and talk about visioning, collaborating, partnering and metrics.

But you won’t hear that sanitized language from Barlow, who described the Detroit water shutoffs as a “dreadful practice of environmental racism.”

Gary Wilson is an independent journalist who focuses on the Great Lakes and related environmental, economic and social issues.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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