Water resources are polluted, over-extracted and dumped into oceans at an unprecendented rate worldwide, says Maude Barlow. A global water crisis is in the making, affecting particularly poor people in the global south.
Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians/Blue Planet Project, Right Livelihood Award Laureate ("Alternative Nobel Prize")
Fabian Scheidler: Welcome to Kontext TV, Maude Barlow.
Maude Barlow: I'm delighted to be here, thank you.
Fabian Scheidler: Especially in recent years we have seen unprecedented droughts, water shortages, drying up of lakes around the world. Not only in Africa, but also in the U.S., in Asia, even in Southern Europe fresh water supply is going down dramatically. Talk about the drying up of the planet and the causes and consequences of the global water crisis.
Maude Barlow: The world is running out of clean water. We were all taught as children that couldn't happen. We were taught - which is true - that there's a specific exact amount of water in the hydrologic cycle. It's small in comparison with all the water in the world, but we were taught it can't go anywhere; it goes around and around in the hydrologic cycle and you can do whatever you want to it. Our teachers weren't lying but it was not true. We are either polluting it or we are pumping our rivers to death and pumping ground water at a rate that we didn't have the technology to do 30, 40 years ago. And we're either growing food for the global food trade and therefore shipping that water away in what's called the virtual water trade or we're taking that land-based water and we're sending it into megacities and when they're finished with it they're dumping it in the ocean.
A recent study shows that at least a quarter of the reason for the rising oceans is not climate change as we've understood it; it's the actual displacement of land-based water into the ocean through cities, through industry, through industrial agriculture. It is really important for people to understand: Yes that water is still on the planet somewhere, but it's either polluted, in the oceans or embedded in food and other commodities and we can't get it out any more. We are a planet that talks about droughts, they're not cyclical ones, it's a crisis. We've got the demand going straight up and the supply going straight down. It's called exponential extraction. Let me just quickly give you an image that I use: There's a big bathtub with a whole lot of water in it and a whole bunch of people have straws and blindfolds. They're drinking the water, drinking it and drinking it and there's lots of water for everybody until the moment when there's no water for anybody. That's the groundwater story and we haven't come to terms with it. We were raised with this myth of abundance, this myth that it could never run out and if we don't turn our heads around quite quickly around this we're going to see terrible suffering in the future.
David Goessmann: Maude Barlow, you've already touched the issue. In your books you talk a lot about the exploitation of ground water and aquifers. First explain what these aquifers are and why it is so detrimental and dangerous to tap them.
Maude Barlow: Aquifers are ground water sources. They're pools of water under the ground. Sometimes they're closed, sometimes they're open, and sometimes they're part of underground rivers. We have not properly mapped them around the world so we're not quite sure what their sustainability is but we do know in some cases that we are pulling that water up in totally unsustainable ways. A recent study on groundwater around the world found that we are doubling groundwater extraction every 20 years. And that we are literally, physically coming to the bottom of the water table in many parts of the world because we're pulling that water up faster than it can be replenished. If you allow it to be replenished, which it can usually get, than that's OK. But if you don't allow that replenishment it's my bathtub image: You've taken the water, it's gone and won't come back. We also need to understand that we're using borewell technology we didn't have a number of years ago. There are borewells that can go as far down into the ground as skyscrapers go into the sky and they suck the water. The Ogallala aquifer in the U.S. used to be the biggest aquifer in the world - no more. It's down to about half the food production it had in the 1980s. They have 200,000 borewells going 24/7 pumping that water. The famous Aral Sea which wasn't ground water, it was surface water, but it was a lake in the former Soviet Union. It was so big they called it an inland sea. They pumped it for cotton production in the desert - it's gone. Lake Chad in Africa is gone. We can actually destroy massive bodies of water if we relentlessly pump them. And we have got to learn this because we keep repeating it. Even people in the area of development and human rights keep talking about building more pipes into the ground. That's not the answer. Maybe a partial answer for some places but the real answer is to protect source water and stop that overextraction of these water sources.
Fabian Scheidler: You've already talked about virtual water. An average European consumes about 30 times more water through imported goods than through tap water. Explain what virtual water is and what its significance is.
Maude Barlow: Virtual water is the most important concept for us to try to understand. Virtual water is the water embedded in everything that we have. How much water it took to produce our food. If a family of four sits down with a small steak each, they're consuming the equivalent of an Olympic-size swimming pool. We have to get that into our heads. We don't count virtual water when we ask how much water people use every day. We're talking about their use in the home. For at least a decade the United Nations and all the scientists have been saying that we consume 400 litres per person per day. Of course half the world doesn't consume anything like that so the other half or the top third is consuming more. But a recent study adding virtual water, that is all the water for all the goods and services, for energy, for food, for computers and everything found out that our actual consumption is tenfold. The average per capita consumption of water per day is 4000 litres. And again remember that at least half of the population of the world isn't in the consumer market at all so they're not included in that. We are massively overpumping water for our lifestyle. And that's why I make a deep connection with free trade and unregulated trade and growth because the notion is: well, let's just keep growing, more stuff, more trade, more trade agreements that give corporations more rights, fewer protections for governments or abilities for governments to protect, local resources and so on. It's devastating because it's pumping up water in watersheds that goes into let's say a food product that's shipped out of not only the watershed but out of the country. People often say to me: name a place that's taking care of its water pretty well and I often say "at first glance, Europe". It's probably better than anywhere in the sense that Europe has recognized water shortages and has agreed upon and signed a watershed management project in 2000. If countries share a watershed, they have to share responsibility and care for it. However, part of the reason Europe is able to do that is: it's rich enough to import virtual water from food to flowers to computers to everything else from countries that are going to use their scarce water sources to provide it. In fact, Great Britain imports two thirds of its footprint as virtual water. So it's very important for us to stop thinking of water as just what you use on a daily basis. Interestingly an investment analyst said - and it's true - we've got to stop thinking that the water wars of the future will be on a battlefield somewhere, they're going to be on the grain markets, the stock markets and the grain trading as part of the international trading system. It is about the water that has been pulled into this profit-making mostly food production and it's very dangerous.
David Goessmann: What role does global warming play regarding water scarcity?
Maude Barlow: It's really interesting: We all know that global warming from fossil fuels overuse of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions is affecting water because it is warming water - as the air warms the water warms. We have much less ice coverage on our lakes, we have glaciers melting everywhere in the world. Every single glacier in the world is slated for full melt, probably within a century. So we know that it's impacting water. What is less understood is that the way we're treating water is impacting climate. And by that I mean: When you displace water from a watershed you remove the ability of the hydrologic cycle to produce in its normal way. A scientist friend of mine uses slides to show this to people. First he takes a yellow slide. He says that's the sun. And then he takes a blue slide and he puts it over the yellow one and says the blue of the water and the yellow of the sun make the green of vegetation. If you take the blue away it's dry soil; nothing can grow and so the rains move away. If you cut down a rain forest the rain leaves. It is part of the cycle. And if we maintain and restore watersheds we help the hydrologic cycle to be maintained and that helps temper the climate. That's a tempering influence on climate. I'm working with some scientists who believe that our abuse of water is at least as great a cause of climate change as greenhouse gas emissions. And I think it's the missing piece in our analysis.
Fabian Scheidler: How is the water crisis harming people around the world?
Maude Barlow: Well of course as the global demand goes up and the global supply goes down for something you need for life, it's not surprising it is becoming very expensive and it's not surprising that big private companies are in here grabbing at it. Now we have a situation where people unable to pay have to do without. We tend to think of the problem of being in the global south and it mostly is; or the worst crisis is. A new report from the World Health Organisation says that every three and a half seconds a child dies in the global south of water-borne disease. What people need to understand is that this is also beginning to happen in the global North. Particularly of all places the United States. For instance in Detroit, Michigan they've cut the water services off to about 90,000 families because they can't afford water. The water rates went up and they cut their water. They're living in third world conditions. They have to leave their area and go begging for water, go try to find water fountains and fill up their water cans. As we move to a world more and more divided by rich and poor, with a shrinking middle class everywhere and as we move to a world where there's less water and more privatised and more held in corporate hands, we're going to see more and more people denied water. That is why it is so important to assert that water is a human right and a public commons and a public trust.