When she was 11 years old, Robyn Hamlyn of Kingston watched a film at school about the world’s dire water situation and announced to her mother that she wanted to do something to fix it. Her mother suggested she write to the mayor. She did, he invited her to a meeting, and Kingston soon became a Blue Community.
“A water commons framework treats water as a common good that is shared by everyone and the responsibility of all. Because water is essential for human life, it must be governed by principles that allow for reasonable use, equal distribution and reasonable treatment in order to preserve water for nature and future generations.”
- Recognizing water and sanitation as human rights
- Banning/phasing out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events
- Promoting publicly financed, owned and operated water and wastewater systems
These may seem like modest actions in the face of the global water crisis, but as I listened to Maude Barlow speak during her recent visit to Kingston, I was persuaded of their value.
The myth of abundance
Most of us in this country have grown up taking for granted access to all the clean water we could ever want.
Most of us, that is, who don’t live on reserves: at least 56 reserves across the country, excluding those in British Columbia and the territories, have had long-term (meaning more than one year) boil water advisories in place. On other reserves, people live with “do not consume” or “do not use” advisories. There are teenagers on reserves who have lived their entire lives without being able to drink or bathe in water coming from the taps in their houses.
This myth of abundance has led to the reckless use of water as well as government policies enabling the privatization of water. Bottled water is a classic illustration of this.
Near Guelph, for instance, bottled water giant Nestle is paying just over $500 for every million litres of water it pulls out of the ground. While this is an increase over the $3/million litres companies had been paying, it still amounts to a mere $.0005 per litre. Under current regulations, Nestle (and other bottled water companies) can pull up to 7.6 million litres of water a day at the Guelph site, so not only is it getting virtually free access to water, it is getting virtually unlimited access.
The previous Liberal government had begun to take cautious steps to rein in the bottled water industry, imposing a moratorium on new and expanded permits. Scheduled to end in January 2020, the present Ford government has committed to extending the moratorium until September of next year.
Like Dave Meslin, Maude Barlow believes it is grassroots, community-based activism – projects like Blue Communities – that will drive politicians to do the right thing:
“While I deeply believe that we need good and strong law at all levels of government to protect both ecosystems and humans from the coming global water crisis, the most powerful actions we can take personally are at the local level.”
There is plenty of inspiration and hope to be found in Barlow’s message.
Think of Kingston’s Robyn Hamlyn. After convincing Kingston’s city council that their city should become a Blue Community, she wrote letters to 50 mayors in Ontario and met with 31 of them, many of whose municipalities eventually joined the project; all before she finished high school. Now that she is a university student, her activism and speaking out about the water crisis continue.
Or consider Oscar Olivera. Barlow met him when she was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, during the water wars there in the late 1990s. The people were fighting Bechtel, a private water company that the government had contracted with in exchange for World Bank funding. Bechtel priced water so high that the people – mostly Indigenous – could not afford it, but it also claimed the contract gave it control over water falling from the sky and prohibited people from collecting and using rain water. When the citizens formed a coalition to fight Bechtel, the government sent in the army to control the demonstrations. The people were eventually successful, but many were beaten and one was killed.
Olivera, a shoemaker by trade, was a leader of the resistance. When Barlow asked him how he had the courage to stand up to the army, he replied: “I would rather die of a bullet than thirst.”
Finally, from Maude Barlow once again:
“I have never discovered any more powerful truth than this: the world will only be transformed from the bottom up; from people fighting in their own communities because they care. . . . No one knows the local situation like the people who live in and love their community, and it is to them we must turn to save the world’s water. . . coming together to protect water forms bonds that cut across distance, age, upbringing and diverse backgrounds and presents a new opportunity for collaboration and solidarity.”