Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Book Review: Blue Covenant

Book Review:
“Blue Covenant, the Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water” By Maude Barlow, 2007.

This book is a handbook for water activists – ‘water warriors’ Barlow calls them. A sequel to Barlow’s 2002 “Blue Gold,” it is the most up-to-date look at the ‘players’ in the war for water. Barlow is a head of the “Council of Canadians”, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and is particularly sensitive to the issue because of the role water plays in Canada.

Lack of water, like peak oil and climate change, threaten the very foundation of 'some' humans existence on this planet. Water is intimately connected to climate. And water is intimately connected to capitalism, which has selected water as perhaps an even more important product than oil. Capitalism, as this book shows, stalks humanity like the black death, as it is one of the main reasons for lack of clean water in country after country.

Let Ms. Barlow count the ways. The main organizations of the capitalist world – the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the World Water Council and parts of the U.N., the main agricultural and water corporations, and most First World governments – all believe in privatization of water. They want to put a price on the most essential element of daily life. And if you cannot pay, you cannot … ‘play.’ Every day more children die of drinking dirty water than any disease in the world, including AIDS.


By 2025, according to Barlow, 2/3rds of the world will be ‘water stressed.’ Climate change is accelerating drought. This is affecting, not just regions far away, but the southern half of the United States and most of Mexico. She asserts 36 U.S. states will have water shortages in the next 5 years. The Colorado and Rio Grande, Nile, Yellow, Indus and the Jordan rivers no longer reach the sea. Inequality is growing, as the average North American uses 600 litres of water a day, while the average African uses 6 litres. Between pollution of surface waters and over-mining of ground-water, there will be little left for everyone. The Dead Sea, the Ural Sea and Lake Chad are all but gone. The fabled Ganges in India is an open sewer. 75% of inland Russia’s water is polluted. Only 10 percent of Mexico City’s water waste is treated. 40% of U.S. rivers are not fit to swim or eat fish out of, even after the Clean Water Act. A tenth of the world’s crops are irrigated by … sewage water.


Irrigation of deserts and desert cities, over-usage of water for oil substitutes like ethanol and tar sands, over-mining of ground water by agribusiness, bottled water – all are leading to shortages. Non-renewable aquifers are being drained in an unregulated way in country after country, including the Ogallala here in the U.S. Due to lack of water, major sandstorms are now affecting parts of China. Glaciers are disappearing due to climate change, and glaciers feed many rivers. Ecuador, Peru & Bolivia all depend on glacier melt as their only source of fresh water. Large scale irrigation, a key component of the “green” revolution, loses up to 50% of water due to seepage or evaporation.

Barlow believes that certain products are really a way to ‘export’ water. Barlow calls this ‘virtual water.’ Vietnam is sucking water out of their country to export coffee beans. Flowers in Africa are sent to England, drying up Lake Navisha in Kenya. While Brazil’s sugar cane bio-fuel has far more energy than U.S. corn ethanol, it uses massive amounts of water to produce as well, and rivers in northern Brazil are drying up. The export model of World Bank capitalism actually results in a water transfer to … the wealthier countries.

Deforestation and urbanization result in interrupting the hydrologic cycle, as less moisture is produced into the atmosphere. Desertification is the most obvious example of what is happening, and this directly contributes to further drought. Rising salt seas are also starting to seep into freshwater marshes and wetlands, like the Everglades. All of these effects could lead to a billion climate change refugees. By 2050, 5 times as much land could be under extreme drought as exists today. Barlow insists that ‘high tech’ solutions favored by international finance, like big dams, desalination plants and water diversions, make the problem worse. Desalinization is very expensive (the Saudis have the most plants in the world, as you would expect…) and energy-intensive, i.e. not sustainable. Desalinization plants result in massive ocean pollution as a black brine is injected back into the ocean – 20 billion litres a day presently. And the desalinization plants only filter out the salt – not other pollutants in the ocean water.


Barlow goes on to address how the First World capitalist concerns like Coke, Pepsi, Nestle and Suez only contribute to the problem, as their main interest is ‘profit’, not clean water or available water for everyone. Northern water aide to other countries is really designed to benefit the leading Western banks and corporations more than the people they are intended to ‘help,’ in spite of the rhetoric. This also agrees with the experience of John Perkins. She details the history of the development of water cartels, not surprisingly initiated by Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal, free-market ideologues, who first privatized Britain’s water supply in the 80s.

Barlow then illustrates the international web of mostly people’s organizations fighting, and sometimes winning against the water cartels. The famous struggle in Cochabamba, Boliva, also mentioned by Perkins, is an example of struggles in Latin America that have helped to turn the tide against U.S. neo-liberal economics across the continent. This war is being waged on every continent. It is a war that will come home to us here in the U.S. very soon.

There are more acronyms in this book than a dictionary. Every single corporate water front and profit-making venture, every governmental and quasi-governmental agency interested in water, national and international, and every people’s organization dedicated to stopping the privatization of water floats in the alphabet soup inside. If you can fight through the initials, like unknown characters in a long novel, you will be able to make sense of the narrative. And in the process, it delivers a roadmap to the players in this play.

And I bought it at May Day books, on recommendation of Craig!
Red Frog, 5/27/2008

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