Reviewing Blue Covenant

Giving governments more control of water isn't the answer

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, by Maude Barlow, New York: The New Press, 196 pages, $24.95 (2007).

“Like a comet poised to hit the Earth,” Maude Barlow writes, “The three water crises-dwindling freshwater [sic] supplies, inequitable access to water and the corporate control of water-pose the greatest threat of our time to the planet and to our survival.”

Barlow’s sixteenth book (in nearly as many years) critiquing free trade and globalization, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, is a follow-up on a book Barlow co-authored in 2002, Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. Barlow is, herself, transnational in a sense, as she chairs the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, where she founded the Blue Planet Project, while also serving on the boards of the International Forum on Globalization and Food and Water Watch in San Francisco.

In Blue Covenant, Barlow provides a recent history of global water politics, highlighting in particular the policy conflicts played out at global conventions, beginning in 2000 at the World Water Forum in The Hague, subsequent Forums in Kyoto and Mexico City, the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, and others. The narrative focuses on alleged injustices by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and others who have promoted private infrastructure development, water and sanitation services in the developing world.

The book’s introduction invites the reader to “imagine a world in twenty years in which no substantive progress has been made to provide basic water services in the Third World; or to create laws to protect source water and force industry and industrial agriculture to stop polluting water systems,” where “the rich will drink only bottled water found in the few remaining uncontaminated parts of the world, or sucked from the clouds by corporate-controlled machines, while the poor will die in increasing numbers from a lack of water.” Barlow predicts two-thirds of the world population will face water scarcity by 2025, and, relying on the research of Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravçik, argues that water use is as great a cause of climate change as greenhouse gas emissions are.

Through her earnest attention to the plight of people in the disenfranchised and destitute regions where she has traveled, Barlow successfully balances human and ecological concerns where many of her contemporaries in water and environmental writing fall short. That attention makes her narrow view of human progress and her projections for the future harder to understand.

The ambitious water improvements identified in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals call for halving the proportion of people in the developing world without adequate drinking water and sanitation by 2015. Eastern, South-Eastern and Western Asia, Northern Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean are on track to meet those goals. Though still short of the goal of 68 percent of people in the developing world having access to adequate sanitation, overall that measure has improved from 35 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2004. In important related measures, such as the incidence of cholera, the absolute number of cases has remained stable in the last decade while affected areas have seen rapid population growth. These are no small feats.

The fantastically dystopian future Barlow invokes in Blue Covenant might have more utility in the water policy debate if it weren’t for the unfamiliar and bleak hints she gives to describe her utopian alternative. According to Barlow, irrigated agriculture has done “more harm than good,” technology is “part of the problem,” and private investment in “sophisticated new technologies to recycle our dirty water” is deplorable. These ideals alone should belie any efforts to cast Blue Covenant as a populist creed.

In Blue Covenant, Barlow fails to explore the key dimensions of water scarcity at the heart of her first two premises for alarm: dwindling fresh water supplies and inequitable access to water. The water supplies for most human needs come from precipitation captured in streams and underground aquifers. Except for occasional inputs from ice-filled comets (not to be confused with Barlow’s virtual “comet called the global water crisis”) Earth’s hydrological system is a closed cycle. The total amount of available fresh water is not as relevant as when and where the water occurs. All you have to do is look at a map of average annual precipitation in the United States to see that water equity is not an element of the natural system, a fact which makes both the underlying values in Blue Covenant and Barlow’s ultimate goal harder to justify.

Barlow concludes that the solution to crisis three-corporate control of water-is a binding United Nations mandate asserting water as an inalienable human right, not an economic commodity. It is unfortunate that the divisive depiction of water as either a right or a commodity has proven galvanizing in this debate, because in practice these qualities are far from mutually exclusive. Declaring water a government-controlled resource and a human right in the United States would mean wrenching away existing “water rights,” long-standing legal rights evolved from the days of the pioneers. Similarly, satisfying an inalienable human right to government-controlled water sanitation means drastic changes to current incentives, in which people who invest labor, ingenuity, technology and capital into water purification systems currently have the right to sell that water as a commodity.

Rights of any kind depend on the rule of law, and water and sanitation are certainly not the only problems faced by people living under despotic and unaccountable regimes. Government corruption features so strongly in the concerns of Blue Covenant-in issues relating to national sovereignty, the legal rights of indigenous people, and the misappropriation of public resources-Barlow’s conclusion that water and sanitation should be wholly in the purview of the public sector is utterly unconvincing.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

Her research is part of Reason's New Environmentalism program, launched by Lynn Scarlett, which develops innovative solutions to environmental problems and emphasizes the benefits of local decisions over Washington's command-and-control regulations.

Smith-Heisters is a graduate of the University of California at Davis program in Nature and Culture. Prior to joining Reason, she worked in habitat restoration, endangered species management and natural resources planning with the California State Parks system.

She has been extensively involved in grassroots journalism and political organizing in San Francisco's North Bay area, where she currently lives.