I am an activist first and foremost, a social justice and environmental activist. I came out of the women’s and human right’s movements and founded a large Canadian social and environmental advocacy group called the Council of Canadians over 30 years ago to address how economic globalization is affecting both human rights and the environment.
I personally zeroed in on the global water crisis and how the economic model of unlimited growth and unfettered free trade many of our governments supported were impacting the endangered water resources of the planet. I was stunned to learn, for instance, that in all modern free trade agreements such as NAFTA, water is considered a “tradable good” and “investment,” setting the stage for private control of water. This worried me as I believe water must be considered a “public trust” in order to protect ecosystems and the common good.
I discovered that the planet is running out of accessible clean water and that by 2030, the global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40%. I also learned that at least 2 billion people drink contaminated water every day because they cannot affair to buy clean water and that 2.5 billion have no access to sanitation. Within 50 years, as many as 7 billion people will be living in areas of severe water stress!
I came to strongly believe that the environmental protection of water and the promotion of its just distribution – in other words, the right of all humans to clean, safe water – were inextricably linked. That led to a global campaign to get the United Nations to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation, which it did formally on July 28, 2010. I was there that day up in the balcony of the Great Hall of the UN General Assembly and so proud and happy I thought I might burst!
Another major campaign of mine both here at home with the Council of Canadians and around the world is to fight bottled water. We humans drink an enormous amount of bottled water; the bottled water industry now produces close to 465 billion – yes billion – single use bottles of water every year, mostly using plastic. As you can imagine, this plastic adds to the climate impact of the fossil fuel industry as it takes a lot of energy to produce, and it is polluting our lakes, rivers and oceans at a terrible rate.
Where it is understandable that people who live in countries and communities without clean tap water, most of us in North America have very clean, safe and regularly tested tap water and can easily carry this water around in reusable metal bottles. Many schools, universities and cities across North America have pledged to do their part in dealing with the plastics crisis by limiting or banning bottled water sales on their premises.
My activism takes many forms. I chair the board of the Council of Canadians, which has a staff both in our national office in the Canadian capital city Ottawa, and across the country. We also have dozens of activist chapters across the country and they work 1 on areas of water protection, climate justice and protection of local wetlands and forests.
We organize local, national, and international groups to protect water and promote better laws. I travel to faraway places, especially areas of the world where the poor have no access to water or sanitation, and I bring their story to others. Education is terribly important and so I have written many reports, books, articles and newspaper editorials to inform the general public and our political leaders. I work with other organizations outside my country. I am proud to sit on the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. I also am a “Councilor” with the Hamburg-based World Future Council, which works to promote “best practices” for the environment and human rights and good government policies around the world.
I also serve on the international excretive of the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature, which seeks to change laws and practices in a way that recognizes that water, forests, soil, air and other living beings also need legal protection in their own right.
I have been honored with many awards, including the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award, called the “Alternative Nobel,” and many honorary doctorates. Usually I do not talk about these but it is important to know that more and more, those who give their lives to fighting for social and environmental justice are being recognized for their work.
I would say to you that no matter what area of work you choose, we need you to have a consciousness of the earth and of our responsibility to protect it. Whether you go into teaching, health care, business, arts, urban planning, just to name a few, there is a place for you to care about and express your deep commitment to protecting nature. We humans have taken the natural world for granted, seeing it as a resource for us. But really, we are as dependent on nature as all living things, and we must start seeing ourselves as stewards of the earth.
About the Author
Maude Barlow is the Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and
chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. She serves on
the executive of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and is a Councillor
with the Hamburg-based World Future Council.
Maude is the recipient of fourteen honorary doctorates as well as many
awards, including the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative
Nobel”), the 2005 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship
Award, the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the 2008 Canadian Environment
Awards, the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental
Achievement Award, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco Hero Award, and the
2011 EarthCare Award, the highest international honour of the Sierra Club
In 2008/2009, she served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of
the United Nations General Assembly and was a leader in the campaign to
have water recognized as a human right by the UN. She is also the author of
dozens of reports, as well as 18 books, including her latest, Blue Future:
Protecting Water For People And The Planet Forever and Boiling Point,
Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse and Canada’s Water Crisis.