Whistler Writers Festival’s Alli Vail caught up with Maude Barlow to talk about her book Whose Water Is It, Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands, and this year’s theme of the festival – Discourse. She’ll be appearing in the Saturday Night Gala, with author Omar El Akkad Oct. 19.
Alli: As a writer and an activist, what does discourse, which is the theme of the festival, mean to you?
Maude: When people ask what are you, what do you do, I say activist, rather than writer although I just finished this. This is my 19th book. I’ve also written many reports and op-eds and everything else, so clearly I could say I’m a writer. But I see myself as an activist. And I see the writing, different forms of writing, as being a way to be an activist. For some people, they want to deep dive into a book. Some want pamphlets or a fact sheets. Some people want to come to an event and hear you speak. To me discourse is getting your ideas out as broadly as possible, in as many ways as possible, so that people can be receptive and learn. Some people want to go deep into it so a book is really important. They say “what do you mean by that, show me the proof, where did that come from, that statistic? I’m not sure I believe that, give me some evidence.” It’s just really a case of using all the means that we have to, in this case, promote water and the human right to water.
Maude: We all learned, no matter where you come from in the world, that the planet has a certain amount of water. It’s the same water that was here when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s finite, it goes around and around and we were all taught it can’t go anywhere. And therefore, you shouldn’t worry about it. In particular in a country like Canada, where we seem to have so much. What that doesn’t explain and what we are now understanding is that yes, there is a finite amount of water, but when the demand for it is growing so dramatically, the sharing of it, the use of it, the care of it becomes more essential. And as well, we are polluting and diverting and over-extracting and damming our waterways in a very dangerous way, so that the notion that there’s water forever is not true. The same amount of water is here on the planet, but with the demands and the abuse of water, it’s going to be harder and harder to provide clean, accessible, safe drinking water for everyone. And that’s the theme of the work and the book.
Alli: You’ve been working to improve water rights for years. Why did you decide to write this book now?
Maude: Usually it’s the other way around. I do the book and the work comes from the book, comes from the ideas. But I’d been working on this Blue Communities project for 10 years — literally 10 years ago this fall we launched the Blue Communities project at a big conference in Ottawa — and we didn’t want it to just be about problems [like] fighting water privatization, fighting bottled water, fighting against the abuse of water; we wanted to put a vision forward. So we started working on it. And we now have 27 municipalities, some of them big like Montreal in Canada, and many others around the world that have become Blue Communities. I just woke up one morning and thought ‘it’s time I told that story.’ It’s been 10 years since we launched the project. Anybody who cares about this is going to be interested in how well we’ve done and the kind of changes we’ve made. [The book] really was a chronicling of what we’ve done but also its kind of a handbook for anybody who wants to know what they can do. I can’t tell you how often after a speech or event people will come up and say “I totally agree with you, I’m so moved by what you said, what can I do?” This book and the Blue Communities project is the answer to that. You can make your community a Blue Community — your municipality, your church or your faith based institution … your university, your high school, your library, whatever — a Blue Community. You can take that proactive step and there is something you can do that’s very specific. [The book was] written after 10 years of building and hopefully will lead to an increase in interest. I’m already getting people writing and saying “it’s so exciting, I’m going to do this in my community.”
Alli: I was shocked by some of what I read. For example: “There are no national standards for drinking water, groundwater is largely unregulated and unmapped and there is still too much untreated or semi-treated sewage dumped into our waterways every year.” Why do you think the average Canadian doesn’t realize how much we don’t know about our own water?
Maude: Again, I think it’s that myth of abundance that we grew up being told: that Canada has 20 percent of the world’s water. Now that’s only true if you drain all our rivers and lakes. We have about 6.5 percent of the accessible water; that means water you can use without hurting the source. That’s a big difference, 6.5 versus 20. And if you really start to understand that we in Canada also have water issues, [that] we’re not immune from the issues plaguing the planet, then you start to think differently. But it’s hard because you grew up with abundant water coming out of the tap. People have two, three toilets in their house, and they have three sinks, and they have a couple of bathtubs, and they have … water out front, water out back, water in their laundry room. Water in your kitchen. We don’t even think about it.
When I was first, years ago, first in communities where there was no safe drinking water, people captured what they could from the rain, and some from rivers, even if it was polluted, and kept it in big containers. I came home and I counted the water sources I have in my house. I’m middle class, I’m not rich, and I was appalled at myself, you know? Just the total taking for granted of this wonderful, wonderful gift we’ve been given here. I just think it’s out of sight out of mind. So part of the work that I set out to do, with this book but also the last book, which was called Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse and Canada’s Water Crisis … [was to let people] know that the crises that I’ve been writing about and that they’re reading about in other countries are here too. That’s really important.
We are improving our national waste water standards. That has been a process going on for a number years partly because of the work we’ve all collectively done. But we still don’t have any kind of decent standards on animal waste from factory farms, from hog farms and so on. So you get Lake Winnipeg so sick every year with blue-green algae, largely because of the unregulated hog farm effluent going into it. If you live there you know, but if you don’t live there or you’re not on Lake Erie to see the similar situation there, it’s out of sight out of mind. Most people live in cities. Nice clean water comes out of their tap. We really are starting from a situation where we have to convince people there might be a problem, when they don’t see a problem when they turn on their tap.
Alli: What response have you had from readers? What have they been most surprised or shocked about?
Maude: I think people are excited about the fact that there is something they can do that’s so positive. And that we now have 15 million people living in the world living in official Blue Communities. I was surprised when I counted them up myself. I think people are impressed with the fact that something is growing. Canadians are very excited to hear that it’s growing the way it is in Europe. We have a couple of major cities in Europe that we’re working on as well and a major city in the US that we’ll be announcing soon [as a Blue Community]. So I think that people think of it as a small project but when they realize its size and potential of this, it’s very exciting. And it’s positive. You can do something about it. A lot of our work in the environmental community or the social justice community is fighting against bad things. In this case, you’re putting a vision forward, something that can be positive, something you can be proud of. I really think that makes a huge difference.
Alli: You have several examples of companies continuing to pump water out of countries on expired permits. How do they get away with this?
Maude: They get away with it because corporations get away with a lot in our world. One of the stats in my book is that of the hundred largest economies in the world, 69 are corporations and only 31 are countries. These companies are transnational. They really aren’t located in any one country. They’re located around the world and they’re kind of countries on their own. Very often they set policy; they tell governments what to do. The mining industry in Canada is enormously influential in setting policy, both provincially and federally. They’ve got lots of money. There’s often a revolving door with politicians or political aids who, when they’re finished their time doing that, go on the boards of these corporations. They just have far, far, far too much influence.
It’s just shocking that here in my province [Ontario], Nestle continues to have access to a well where they’re taking 4.7 million litres a day of water on an expired permit. It just boggles my mind. We’ve been protesting and protesting, and the Indigenous community there is protesting because many of them are living in a situation where they don’t have either drinking water in their homes, or toilets. And can you imagine there’s Nestle coming along and taking their water and they don’t even have clean water in their own homes? And yet we can’t stop it. Or haven’t so far. It’s very frustrating and it speaks to this issue of who makes policy in our democracy.
Yes we’re all going to vote in a couple of weeks, but these energy companies, the mining companies, they big bottled water companies, they have a lot of clout. … Eighty-three per cent of all bottled water exports in Canada, are coming from British Columbia. Very recently, at the Union of BC Municipalities … adopted a resolution that came from a number of municipalities, that started with activists, to get the premier of BC and the government of BC to ban commercial bottled water, both for domestic [use, and] export orientation. I really think this is something that people in BC don’t know about. [Water extraction is] happening quietly in a number of communities and that water belongs to the people. That water belongs to the future. That water belongs to the ecosystem. It should not be put in plastic and shipped around the world for the commercial interest of some private companies. I think if people knew how much this was happening they would be upset in BC.
Alli: What is the most important first step Canadians can take to learn more about their water supply and protecting it?
Maude: Just learn as much as you can. Stop being complacent. Stop thinking that there’s this endless supply. Do not drink bottled water unless there is something wrong with the water in your community. Be aware and be alert as to whether privatization is coming to your municipality. Find out if your municipality is a Blue Community and if not, start the process. There’s just tons of things that people can do but it starts with being knowledgeable. It starts with learning as much as possible. And that’s why I thought the book — it’s a small book; it’s compact — would really help people get the basic information they need without huge volumes, huge tomes of information. Learn, stop taking water for granted in this country. That’s really, really important.
Alli: You open the book with a line that reads: “This is a book about hope.” I was actually very grateful you opened the book with that line. My first response to sitting down to read was that I was going to feel depressed and that it was a necessary, educational thing to read, but stressful. Is it hard to get people talking about water, water shortages, the impact of privatized water and the hard work we all need to do to protect water?
Maude: The issue around water for so many people is that they see it as a subset of climate change. The thinking goes, greenhouse gas emission causes climate change and climate warming. And climate warming impacts water negatively. And all that’s true. The glaciers do melt and the lakes do warm up, but separately from that — and this is the part that’s harder to get people to understand — our abuse of water is in and of itself a problem. It’s in and of itself a cause of climate change. If you remove water from a local hydrologic cycle, or you remove vegetation, the rain doesn’t come back and you so you create drought. We’re creating drought in many parts of the world, not because of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change as we understand it, but because of our abuse of water. You could stop every greenhouse gas emission in the world tomorrow, and I wish we would, I’m not arguing that’s not a problem of course, but you’d still have a water crisis. And that’s the part that’s hard to get people’s heads around. That we need, separately, to fight for water.
When we look at these issues, of pipelines, for instance — we fought very hard against the Energy East pipeline, which would have been the biggest one in North America if it had happened, we’ve fought the Northern Gateway, and we’re fighting the Trans Mountain now and the Keystone to the US and so on — you can talk to people in an esoteric way about greenhouse gas emissions but that feels far away. But when you point to their water source and say if this stuff gets into your water source you’re screwed, your drinking water is gone, your water systems will shut down in the city, that’s a really different thing. And I find the issue of water can be very personal once people get that it’s their water being taken over by a private company or it’s their water being taken up by Nestle, when it belongs to them and future generations. Their water, when a mining company decides to dump its toxins in. It becomes a very personal way of getting people involved in issues. In the end it’s a very great way but it’s hard to get people started in the beginning.
Alli: Why are you hopeful about the future of water?
Maude: I’m hopeful because I’m watching what’s happening with the climate discussions and I’m thinking there is a real understanding among young people for the need for us to really change our relationship to nature. To Mother Earth. I was in Halifax … for the Climate March … and I saw this group of little kids … they were so young they all were holding onto a rope with their teachers, and they had their little signs and they were going to the march, and I was so touched by it. I thought, this is the right time for us to really make some changes in our relationship to nature and really stop thinking that we dominate … [That] humans are the top of the chain and everything is there to serve us. In my lifetime, I’ve watched many changes, for instance, in the role of women, women’s rights…. And if that can happen around issues like LBGTQ rights, Indigenous’ rights, women’s rights, we can move mountains around the issue of nature’s rights. And then the need for resource justice. That it shouldn’t just be the rich who get access to clean water, which is the case in many places where they are running out of water. The rich still have their golf courses and their swimming pools and all the water they want for everything they need. Or not need — want — while others go without. To think that couldn’t happen here, I think that’s just putting our heads in the sand. It can happen anywhere.
Alli: It’s really interesting that now there is a lot of fiction coming out about water shortages. It’s interesting to see how it’s starting to pervade our entertainment.
Maude: I agree with that. [Mad Max: Fury Road] starts with my voice … If you listen to the trailer you’ll hear someone saying “the world is running out of clean water.” That was me being filmed in Kenya at the World Social Forum a number of years back. [The film] is about a world without water so there’s no question it’s beginning to seep down into our consciousness. Once your artists, and your film makers, and your fiction writers are writing about it, then yes, it has hit a new level. There’s no question. And that’s good. We need our artists … to help us walk through these things … It’s good that it’s permeating our culture, because for a lot of young people particularly, culture is their first door into issues.
Alli: You provide some great sample letters to send government at the back of the book. Are there any other good resources about water that people should be aware of?
Maude: [People] certainly can go to our website, canadians.org. There’s other good groups. Ecojustice does wonderful work on water. There are lots of sources. Sierra Club does good work. The Greens, the NDP, both have good sources on not so much water, but the environment, on climate … Go the Canadian Union of Public Employees site. They have really good information on water privatization.
Alli: What’s next for you in your work and your writing? I want to get this book out, so no further books planned at the moment. I want to use the book and the project to really move it along. I’m hoping that a bunch more municipalities become Blue Communities. We’re very hopeful that Vancouver will become a Blue Community. I would love Whistler to become a Blue Community. What we’re finding is that because of the book, and because of the project, people are setting up committees and groups in different cities and towns to lobby their municipal governments to become Blue Communities so I think I’ll have my hands busy with that and won’t need to write anything else right away. I tend to write something every three years
Alli: What are you currently reading?
Maude: It’s a wonderful book of poetry by Thomas King. He’s an Ontario writer and Indigenous, and he’s written TV plays and stuff, but it’s his first book of poetry. It’s called 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin. It’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’m always reading about four or five things at a time. I’m reading a biography of James Dean. [Dean] was a movie star in the ‘50s who died too young. I’m eclectic. I’ve got stuff on the go all the time.
Alli: What are you most looking forward to at the Whistler Writers Festival?
Maude: I’ve been to Whistler before and I think it’s a beautiful community. I’m just looking forward to being there because it’s wonderful. I love that [Whose Water is It, Anyway?] is highlighted. I love that my fellow writer [Omar El Akkad, American War] is writing in a different genre, a novel, but we’re both writing in different ways about a crisis and what we can do. And just meeting with people. It’s going to be wonderful.
Maude Barlow will be appearing at the Saturday Night Gala with Omar El Akkad, Oct. 19, 8-10pm.
Alli Vail is a writer living in Vancouver and a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio Online program.