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Blue Covenant: “An Ecological Imperative”

Maude Barlow

In the fertile fields surrounding Kenya’s Lake Naivasha—in perhaps the most unexpected of places—a flower industry prospers. Nearly 25 percent of the roses shipped to Europe are grown here, one of Kenya’s prime agricultural regions.

Europe, facing its own water crisis, has long since exported its flower industry to foreign lands like Kenya where, for years, freshwater resources seemed plenty. Unfortunately, European industry may have exported its water crisis as well.

Records show that Lake Naivasha, Africa’s third largest freshwater lake, is rapidly changing, a likely byproduct of intense land use that the region was never intended to support. Chemicals are polluting whatever water is left, and within five to ten years, the lake may be unable to support local communities and wildlife.

Lake Naivasha is just one of the African continent’s 677 lakes, all of which are in crisis and disappearing at an alarming rate.

Half a world away, in the United States, over one trillion gallons of water is being pumped out of the Great Lakes every day—never to be replaced. The flow of water has actually reversed in Lake Michigan, where bore wells the size of Chicago skyscrapers reach far into the ground to tap into the region’s already-unbalanced water table.

Lake Mead, the largest manmade lake in the country and the backup reservoir for southwest urban centers like Los Angeles and Phoenix, is in more dire straits and may be completely dried up by 2021.

In countries rich and poor, environmental activists like Maude Barlow are telling whoever will listen—and even to those who won’t—of an impending manmade water crisis the likes of which have never been seen. It’s the subject of her latest book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, which she discussed Monday evening at Lehigh University.

“We are now creating an area of desert the size of Rhode Island every single year just in China alone,” says Barlow, who spoke emphatically about virtual water trade—or using water to grow or produce something that the country then exports. In these cases, profits are overshadowed by the long-term destruction of the region’s natural resources and, more importantly, its drinkable water.

“I feel very strongly that we need to start asking questions about our human impact on water systems around the world,” she says, “and how that’s turning back on us to create what scientists are calling ‘hot states.’ These are parts of the world that are actually running out of water.”

Barlow, often referred to as “the Ralph Nader of Canada,” is the founder of the Blue Planet Project and the national chairperson of The Council of Canadians, the largest public advocacy group in Canada. For her commitment to water justice, Barlow received the 2005 Right Livelihood Award—otherwise known as “The Alternative Nobel.”

Her lecture, attended by nearly 250 people, was co-sponsored by Lehigh’s Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise, the Canadian Studies Institute, and the economics department.

“Maude Barlow has long been a vocal and passionate advocate for water justice, and her arguments against private ownership of water resources is a timely and incredibly important call to action,” says Judy McDonald, associate professor of economics and director of the Canadian Studies Institute.

It’s the growing presence of a “water cartel” that has activists like Barlow concerned.

“A lot of corporations, a lot of private sector interests, have figured out that the world is running out of water,” says Barlow. “It’s one thing to take control of something of which you have lots and lots … But as we speak, people are being denied water in many, many parts of the world simply because they cannot afford it.”

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, February 26, 2008

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