Maude Barlow, author, scholar, and activist, spoke at UCSB about one of the most unseen and unthought-of global crises: that of clean water access. Within 20 years, it is estimated that the demand for water will outstrip the supply by 40 percent.

Yet Barlow said the 2010 Water Bond, also known as the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act, will give $11.4 billion to “promote wasteful technologies, such as dams and desalination.” She echoed opponents’ claimed that the bond issue is loaded with pork: Besides asking taxpayers to foot the bill for projects that the water users would otherwise have to pay for, the bond also tends to privatize the water supply. Calling access to water a human right, Barlow asked the rhetorical question, “Should we let the markets decide?”

Around the globe, 3.5 million people perish annually from a lack of clean water, Barlow said. In Africa, every major lake is endangered by pollution or over-extraction, while 80 percent of water in China and India is contaminated. And the issue is not just beyond U.S. borders: 36 states are projected to run into shortages within five to 10 years. Just a few years ago, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, briefly ran out of water. And yet, Barlow continued, we aren’t doing enough, if anything at all, politically or otherwise, to alter the trajectory.

Why are we not? Barlow claimed that the human species has placed itself above nature and used the land as a pocket and a purse, becoming a somewhat abusive master of the world. She said that these tendencies must be restricted if human life is to be sustained.

How? Barlow said it will take a joint effort between systems and the grassroots. To begin with, she said, we should recognize that our economy is based on infinite growth in a finite space—which is impossible to sustain.

Barlow went on to say that we should “leave water where nature puts it.” She recommended that we part with lawns and pick up more resourceful habits, such as gardens. But most importantly, she said, we need to make water a public trust, protecting it from private interests which have polluted much of the world’s supply and which direct it haphazardly. One example Barlow gave of environmental carelessness as practiced by commercial interests is one company’s project to create the world’s biggest water park—in Arizona. While that will certainly be cool, the bottom line is that water’s got to come from somewhere. Many agricultural endeavors grow crops inappropriate to the region, and by flood irrigation.

Global trade takes a major toll on the balance of water, she said, pointing to Australia, which exports a large portion of its water and has found itself in severe shortages as a result. She said that whether we like it or not, the future economy will be more local, simply because we won’t be able to sustain it any other way.

Barlow said she was glad to see that consumption of bottled water dropped this past year. For one thing, it’s an example of being complicit with the idea of privately owned water, and for another, the amount of bottles used could stretch to the moon and back 65 times.


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