Book Review: Blue Covenant

Peter Mann reviews Maude Barlow’s book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.

By Peter Mann

Headlines announce rising oil prices, a global food crisis and threats from climate change, but perhaps the most insidious and still overlooked danger facing us concerns water. The threat is threefold: water scarcity, water pollution and the corporate takeover of the world’s water supplies. These threats are a major part of Maude Barlow’s book Blue Covenant, yet even more important is her description of a global movement to fight these threats – the water warriors around the globe dedicated to water conservation, water justice and water democracy.

Water Scarcity
The threats to our water supply are real. As Barlow discusses in her book, “Hot stains” – parts of the earth that are running out of clean, drinkable (potable) water – include “…Northern China, large areas of Asia and Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the Midwestern United States and sections of South America and Mexico.” In the United States, Florida, California and New Mexico will run out of freshwater supplies in one or two decades, and Arizona already imports all of its drinking water. In the Global South, the threat is more immediate; Barlow uses the term “water apartheid.” She explains, “The world’s poor who are living without water are either in areas that do not have enough water to begin with (Africa), where surface water has become severely polluted (South America, India) or both (Northern China).” Most of the world’s megacities are in regions experiencing water stress, and according to the UN, “by 2030 more than half the population of these huge urban centers will be slum dwellers with no access to water or sanitation services whatsoever.”

Water Pollution
Blue Covenant describes the increasing pollution of surface waters in the last fifty years: “In China, 80 percent of the major rivers are so degraded they no longer support aquatic life, and an astonishing 90 percent of all groundwater systems under the major cities are contaminated.” Other Asian countries – Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh – face water pollution and scarcity even as urban and industrial water demand rises. Surface water in Europe is also threatened by pollution, as are rivers, streams and lakes in the U.S. due to “massive toxic runoff from industrial farms, intensive livestock operations and the more than one billion pounds of industrial weed killer used throughout the country every year.”

Corporate Takeover
Blue Covenant describes the recent corporate takeover of the world’s water resources in which private, for-profit water companies provide municipal water services; sell us freshwater in plastic bottles; control water used in industrial farming, mining and energy; and operate many of the technologies such as dams, pipelines and desalination plants which are put forward as solutions to the water crisis. Barlow describes how water privatization is forced on the global South by high-income countries with the power of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and this mission is helped along by U.N. partnerships with businesses. These advances in corporate control of water have created a powerful backlash, which Barlow describes in the second half of her book.

The Water Warriors Fight Back
Blue Covenant chronicles the growth of fierce resistance to the corporate takeover of water in every corner of the globe, building a powerful and remarkably successful global water justice movement. In Latin America, Asia-Pacific, Africa, North America and Europe, communities are fighting to protect their local water supplies from pollution, destruction by dams and theft by governments and corporations. The fundamental struggle is between those “forces and institutions that see water as a commodity, to be put on the open market and sold to the highest bidder, and those who see water as a public trust, a common heritage of people and nature and a human right.” Since without water there is no life, issues of hunger, health and survival are at stake. The danger is a future of water conflicts, water refugees, sickness and death.

Barlow’s alternative is a global covenant on water, which she calls a “Blue Covenant.” This would have three components: “a water conservation covenant from people and their governments that recognizes the rights of the Earth and of other species to clean water, and pledges to protect and conserve the world’s water supplies; a water justice covenant between those in the global North who have water and resources and those in the global South who do not, to work in solidarity for water justice, water for all and local control of water; and a water democracy covenant among all governments acknowledging that water is a fundamental human right for all.”

Water Conservation
A fascinating section of Blue Covenant describes an ecological rather than a technological strategy toward water conservation. Barlow recommends that communities restore watersheds, water resources, wetlands and forests, replenish underground reservoirs, and halt surface and groundwater pollution. It would mean a blue revolution in agriculture by replacing wasteful flood irrigation with drip irrigation. The effect of a massive conservation strategy would be to employ millions and alleviate poverty in the global South. Many water harvesting models, ancient and modern, exist to retain water within the hydrological cycle.

Water Justice
Water justice – not charity – is a response to the crisis of inequitable access to clean water. Water privatization is a new form of colonization, masked by the propaganda that this is the only economic model available. Women are the primary collectors of water throughout the world, and therefore should be central to the decision-making process. Indigenous peoples are primary victims of water theft and appropriation, and their sovereign rights to land and water must be protected.

Water Democracy
The alternative to corporate control of water is public control. Blue Covenant describes many examples of public-public partnerships between water authorities in cities of the North and South, making cooperation over water “a uniting force for humanity.” Government water policy should be directed to the public good rather than to private profit. Movements against privatized bottled water such as “Take Back the Tap!” are examples of successful water democracy, but they need strong government support. Other water advocates are working through the United Nations for a right-to-water convention.

I finished reading Blue Covenant while attending a U.N. conference on water. Many of the actors mentioned in the book were present, including U.N. Water, the European Water Partnership (EWP), and Global Water Futures from the U.S. The links between governments and water technology companies were omnipresent, along with universities, government research institutes and legal firms. While assuring everyone of their desires to meet the world’s water needs, the United States and the European Union are seeking to promote the interests of their water companies in the race to create a global water cartel. I was unsure where the various U.N. agencies stood in regard to this strategy. Blue Covenant, however, left me with feelings of hope and solidarity with the world’s water warriors.

Peter Mann is Director Emeritus of WhyHunger’s Global Movements Program.


Updated 05/2014