Canadian Environment Awards 2008 Canadian Environment Awards Network

Canadian Geographic
Hewlett Packard

Canadian Environment Awards
Citation of Lifetime Achievement 2008

Maude Barlow

‘Poisoning water is like poisoning your blood. It comes back to us. There is a price to be paid for thinking we’re above nature.’
When researching her book Blue Gold, Maude Barlow travelled the world to gather different perspectives on the importance of water. One stop was at a small Mexican town north of Tijuana. The town was without running water, and only a fetid stream ran through its centre. Barlow was urged by a member of the group to dip a pencil into the water. When she pulled it out, the pencil’s paint had been stripped away by the waterway’s putrid mix of raw sewage and chemical waste, by-products from a maquiladora.

Without its own source of clean water, the community was forced to survive on water deliveries every two weeks. “Not a drop was wasted,” recalls Barlow. “They used it first for food, then washing and laundry, then for watering the animals and the garden. I live in an average Canadian house, and there are seven water outlets. It’s something we all take for granted.”

Too true. With our every water wish satisfied at the twist of a handle, most Canadians rarely think about the status of our most fundamental resource. But, says Barlow, “as I learned how developing countries have to negotiate for water, I realized it was not too much of a stretch to see that happening here.” In 2002, to help all Canadians understand the fragile state of the world’s water resources — and to motivate her fellow citizens to take action on behalf of their own — Barlow published her best-selling, widely translated mission statement on water, Blue Gold. This year, she followed up with Blue Covenant to let Canadians know that the water crisis is upon us.

For nearly 25 years, Barlow has toiled on the front lines as an advocate for the rights of Canadians and for Canadian sovereignty. A founding board member of The Council of Canadians, she has served as its chair since 1988. She’s been called “Canada’s Ralph Nader,” and most of the country will recognize her as an outspoken critic of free trade in the late 1980s. Not everyone, however, appreciates the deep connection between the environment and each of Barlow’s causes, whether economic, social or cultural. “The environment has always been a lens for understanding the issues that affect Canadians,” she says. “It was natural to find common ground with environmentalists.”

Barlow has worked as both an activist and an advocate for issues ranging from pesticide use and food safety and security to energy policy. She has been a vocal defender of the rights of marginalized Sydney, N.S., families in their fight to clean up the toxic legacy of Cape Breton’s coke ovens, and she led a victorious campaign against the introduction of bovine growth hormone into Canada’s dairy herds. She is the author or co-author of 16 books on public policy and the founder of the Blue Planet Project, an international civil society movement that seeks to protect the world’s fresh water from the growing threats of trade and privatization.

A compassionate soul with a hard-won insight into Canada, Barlow has political sensibilities that were shaped by her work in the women’s movement. In the early 1980s, she ran the City of Ottawa’s Office of Equal Opportunity for Women and was later called upon by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to develop federal platforms on women’s equality issues. “That work gave me a global perspective,” she says. “I learned the responsibilities women had and how shortages of basic resources, like water, affected their lives. In a sense, I have come full circle.”

Some environmentalists work boldly on the ground in the name of conservation, while Barlow fearlessly protects our resources in both the political and the corporate arenas. “NAFTA is an environmental issue,” she says without hesitation. “International trade agreements happen behind the scenes as quiet treaties that are enforceable with lawsuits. They open up trade to the fewest barriers and restrictions, all in the name of creating a level playing field — but it’s one that is geared to the lowest common denominator.”

Once the playing field is levelled, Barlow believes, there is increased pressure on participating countries to accept questionable technologies and products into the food chain, such as genetically modified organisms. Standards for pesticide use go down, while limits for greenhouse-gas emissions rise. With nafta, precedents have been set for continued and expanded transactions, even as resources dwindle, and there is no mechanism to ensure that Canadians have priority access to their own resources. “Suddenly, that demand threatens our energy security and our environment,” she says. “We look in unconventional places, such as the North, fishing grounds in the East and the tar sands. What we see happening with energy can also apply to water.” The lack of strong policy, Barlow fears, might eventually drain Canada dry. As corporations push to privatize local sources and bottling companies turn a life-sustaining resource into a commodity, water could easily follow the rest of Canada’s resources south.

Indeed, the threats to water are many. Surface water has been famously at risk for years, with as many as 1,500 boil alerts in effect each day in Canada. In Blue Covenant, Barlow notes that the amount of raw sewage discharged annually into Canadian waterways would cover the length of the Trans-Canada Highway to a height of six storeys. “Poisoning water is like poisoning your blood,” she says. “Around the world, two million people die of water-borne diseases every year. It comes back to us. There is a price to be paid for thinking we’re above nature.”

Imprudently, humankind has dealt with surface-water contamination by draining groundwater, but the pace of consumption is outstripping the hydrologic cycle’s restorative capacity. In addition to the massive volumes of water used to produce goods sold across our borders, climate change is causing glaciers to dry up, and droughts and water shortages are regular events. The water crisis, according to Barlow, has already hit parts of the United States and the developing world: at current declining rates of snowfall and snowmelt, Lake Mead, the largest manmade lake and reservoir in the United States, will be gone in less than a decade, and the Colorado River is in drastic decline. “In India, there are 23 million bore wells,” she says. “You think you’ve got enough water, but because of exponential pumping, you go to bed at night, and when you wake up, all the water is gone.”

In order to create a water-secure future, Barlow believes that we must relinquish our myth of abundance. “There’s a notion that we can use and abuse water — wash our cars, leave half-empty bottles of water in meeting rooms, flush the toilet every time — and it’s wrong,” she explains. “You have to conserve water resources, fight for clean water and against the privatization of local sources.”

Every human action must take water into consideration. Individual conservation is critical, but the greatest abuses are by agribusiness and manufacturing and the energy sector. “Everything we grow, produce and buy needs to be measured,” says Barlow. “Business as usual is not sustainable. I would challenge corporations that care to help build regulatory regimes with standards.”

But at the heart of it all is the question, Who owns and controls this vital resource? Canada’s water legislation is more than 20 years old. “We need a water act in Canada that will protect what we have and recognize water as a human right,” says Barlow. “We have to think. We have to care. We have to say, ‘It matters to me.’ It is the difference between life and death.”

About the Citation of Lifetime Achievement


The Citation of Lifetime Achievement is sponsored by Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co.