Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Review: Blue Gold

Are you pondering what book to read next? Ponder no more. Theresa from Pondering the Myriad Things tends to write well thought out, insightful book reviews about truly interesting green reads. That was why I asked her to be our next guest reviewer. She does not disappoint here with a powerful review of a powerful book.

For some time now I've been concerned about food issues, both personally and globally. A lot of my new learning has taken place in this area, as I figure out how to grow and store at least some of my own food, connect with my local food producers and eat a more localized diet. I'm also struggling to eat more mindfully, in appreciation of the food I am privileged to have available to me.

While I've been learning and doing those things, my husband Gord has been quite interested in things to do with water, and so it was he who bought and read this particular book about a year ago. It's been sitting around the house since then, beckoning me, but it was Green Bean's Be a Bookworm Challenge in May of this year that gave me the final motivation I needed to dive into this book at last. And now I think that water issues just might be my own personal Greenpa-esque "iceberg" to push on, since....well, you can't have food without water. It just doesn't get any more essential than water.

Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water was published in 2002 and it is written by two Canadian authors, Maude Barlow (founder of the Blue Planet Project) and Tony Clarke (Executive Director of the Polaris Institute). It is chock full of both Canadian and international examples of the problems related to the commodification of water. The book's main premise is that since the year 2000, when water was deemed by The Hague's World Water Forum to be a human "need" but not a human "right," water became just another commodity, for sale like anything else.

The authors point out that the travesty of this Forum was that while it was touted to be a global government initiative, in reality it was "convened by big business lobby organizations...and the discussions focused on how companies could benefit from selling water to markets around the world (p.79)." Companies like Vivendi and Suez, the world's biggest private water 'service' organizations, as well as the conglomerates of Nestle and Unilever were in attendance. The conveners of the Forum pushed hard to have water declared a need, not a right, so they could have the authority to provide water 'services' on a for-profit basis, to those who could pay for it. If water had been declared a human right, then governments would have been responsible for ensuring that all people, regardless of the ability to pay, would have access to clean, safe water supplies. The authors point out that, "the story of what happened at the World Water Forum is the story of the separation of water from the land and from 'the commons' to which it belongs (p. 80).

"The book is divided into three large sections: The world's water supply crisis, the politics of water and its sale and distribution, and some principles and ideas as to how citizens can reclaim water as part of the public commons.

World Water Crisis: In the first section, the authors describe the life-giving nature of water and how ancient peoples knew how important water was to their very survival. Water and its symbolism have entered into most religious and spiritual traditions, for good reason. For most of history, humans have been acutely aware of their need for water and have treated it respectfully and conserved it carefully as a result. But in more recent history humans have treated water with the same exploitative attitude as they treat fossil fuels and the soil. We extract more and more water from underground aquifers as we continue to pollute our surface water (rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, etc.). The authors note that "31 countries in the world are currently facing water stress and scarcity (p. 24)." They foresee that by the year 2025, two thirds (!) of the world's population will be "living in conditions of serious water shortage (p. 24)." "Aquifer overdrafts, massive urbanization, and unchecked pollution are withdrawing supplies for the world's water account, just when we need to be saving more (p. 25)." The authors go on to describe the numerous problems with wetland degradation, toxic runoff and other forms environmental damage that are compromising the remaining supplies of fresh water. The Alberta Tar Sands are one example cited of this type of damage; every year the tar sands projects deplete enough fresh water to supply a city of 70 thousand people for 20 years! And the water can't be returned to the watershed where it came from, because "it contains concentrated levels of minerals, as well as pollutants from the oil-drilling process (p. 14)."

The Politics of Water: In the second section, the authors describe in detail how agreements like NAFTA, the upcoming FTAA and other free trade arrangements (some out in the open, some behind the scenes) have set the stage for transnational conglomerates like Vivendi, Suez, Enron and RWE-Thames to obtain government contracts to provide their citizens with 'water services.' These contracts have certain profit margins in them that are guaranteed by the government of the country in question - paid for by citizens' taxes of course. Then, when the government insists that the company meets its contractual obligations (i.e., that water and sewer services be provided to all citizens, not just the ones who can afford it), the companies raise water prices to ensure their profit levels are maintained. Soon, only the rich can afford clean and safe water. The water and sewer services of many people get worse. And to add insult to injury, the water corporations are even enabled, by the free trade agreements, to sue governments of sovereign nations for impeding the free flow of commercial trade! Some governments (e.g., Bolivia), with the help of massive citizen uprisings, have been able to cancel the contracts and boot out the water company, but this hasn't happened very often. The World Trade Organization and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are also large contributors to the problem. These organizations have made it compulsory that countries privatize their water systems in order to comply with 'development' goals set as part of their international aid and debt restructuring processes.

This, the second major section of the book was particularly maddening and disheartening. There was just case after case cited about how multinational corporations and agencies such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank and even the UN "serve to transfer political power from governments to corporations" (p. 175). Everything is for sale. They also talk about the destruction wreaked by international dam projects, George W. Bush's plan for a North American Water Corridor (i.e., redirecting north-flowing water towards the south) and companies like Coke and Pepsi who are repeatedly draining the aquifers of places in the developing world in order to keep making and selling their carbonated beverages. They cite one horrifying example where a mother can't afford enough water to drink, so she has little in the way of breast milk for her child, and the child is instead fed with Coke.

The Way Forward: The third section of the book focuses on how to shift our relationship with water and what collective action we can take. It outlines some of the things citizens and countries have been able to do to stop the privatization of their water supply and what citizens need to demand of their politicians before it is too late. Water is too important to life on the planet to be subordinated to the principles of the marketplace. The authors state, "Water must be declared and understood for all time to be common property. In a world where everything is being privatized, citizens must establish clear perimeters around those areas that are sacred to life or necessary for social and economic justice. Equal access to water is absolutely central to both life and justice." (p. 208)

The authors stress that we humans must renew our ties with nature and once again revere water's sacred place in it. They have developed ten principles on which humanity can proceed toward this new water ethic:
1) Water belongs to the earth and to all species.
2) Water should be left where it is wherever possible.
3) Water must be conserved for all time.
4) Polluted water must be reclaimed.
5) Water is best protected in natural watersheds.
6) Water is a public trust, to be guarded by all levels of
7) Access to an adequate supply of clean water is a basic human
8) The best advocates for water are local communities and citizens.
9) The public must participate as an equal partner with governments to
protect water.
10) Economic globalization policies are not water-sustainable. (p.221)
The authors conclude the book with a chapter on what people can do to move the world and its governments toward acknowledging these ten principles and actually changing how they handle water-related issues. Most of the methods they propose involve communities and countries taking political action in the form of, for example, supporting the anti-dam movement, opposing commercial trade in water, fighting for national water protection acts, and consistently confronting the IMF and the World Bank. The authors have what they call a 'beautiful dream:' that resolution of water issues in the world through the community-based enactment of the ten principles actions will:

become the source of global peace....finally humanity will bow before Nature
and learn to live at peace within the limits Nature gives us and with one
another; and that through our work together, the peoples of the world will
declare that the sacred waters of life are the common property of the earth and
all species, to be preserved for generations to come (p. 250).

I found this book to be densely packed with information -- so densely packed that it took me over two months to work my way through it. The information in the book is very precise and specific, and the authors are clearly dedicated and passionate about their work. They make a powerful case for an urgent and pressing water crisis that could well take most of humanity by surprise if we don't act soon (especially since the world is more focused on oil than on water these days). But a major drawback of the book, as I see it, is that its clarion call for change is getting buried under the overwhelming mounds of information it contains. In reading this book from cover to cover, you can't help but sense the urgency of the problem. But because of its density, I don't think many people will read the book all the way through unless they are specifically researching water issues or are just determined to get through it one way or the other (like anyone who is still reading this review!). Let's just say it didn't take long for me to clue in to why this book was in the bargain bin when Gord bought it. This is too bad, because it is an important book with a vital warning.

A second drawback of the book is its lack of information on what individuals can do to change their relationship with and usage of water. This may be because the authors are focusing on more coordinated community efforts, but I was 'thirsting' for some information on what I could do myself right now other than just stop drinking bottled water altogether, boycotting Coke and Pepsi, and stepping up my overall water conservation efforts. On the other hand, maybe it's up to each one of us to decide how the author's ten principles can best be enacted in our own lives, households and bioregions.

In rating this book, I'd give it a 3 out of 5 for readability, but a 5 out of 5 for comprehensiveness, and I'd recommend it for moderate or heavy duty green reading.

At the risk of waxing on far too long, I leave you with my favorite chapter of the Tao Te Ching in the spirit of rekindling our appreciation for the deep sacredness of water:
The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao
Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing
Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach
(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, as translated by Derek Lin)


Unknown said...

Great review! I'll have to look for this book.

ruchi said...

Wow. That is fascinating and frightening. Thanks so much for the in depth review, Theresa. Seems like a very important book. Let's hope books like these draw more attention to peak water.

Theresa said...

Thanks Bobbi and Arduous - it was quite the wake up call for me. She's written a new book called "Water Covenant" that I will be checking out soon too.

Green Bean said...

Theresa, water is such a major issue. It is interesting how rarely it gets discussed. I appreciate you bringing it to light here. I suspect, as the book is long and dense, some folks will not find time to read the book. That is what I was so thankful that your review was thorough. We can get an understanding of the issues just by reading the review.

Going Crunchy said...

Excellent review! I'm very intrigued and will put this on my list.

I'm quite anti in the whole privitization convo about water.

Kale for Sale said...

Theresa - Great review. Water is no different than the privatization of fish and of seeds. We are having to speak up for all wild stocks of salmon, heirlooms and now water. It's despairing and hopeful in turns. Thanks for bringing light to an area I was kind of trying to ignore. And as local as I am with food I indulge periodically in diet cokes which I am officially stopping. I've lived without them before but have gotten lazy. They also take an inordinate amount of energy calories to produce for bascially no beneficial calories in.