August 2014, Vol. 26, No.8

Water Volumes

Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever

Maude Barlow (2013). New Press, 120 Wall Street, 31st Floor New York, NY 10005, 336 pp., $26.95, hardcover, ISBN:978-1-59558-947-7.

This is the final addition to Maude Barlow’s Bluetrilogy. In many ways it is her most hopeful and disturbing book. It is hopeful in that she now sees a growing awareness among populations around the planet of the centrality of water in their lives and the need to have access to water as a natural right. She sees growing resistance to corporate expropriation of water as well as resistance to the pollution of our streams, rivers, and watersheds. As Barlow phrases it in pages dripping with indignation, “the quest to protect water forever is inextricably bound with human rights . . . . The global water crisis can be solved if we move steadily forward to protect water as a public trust and ensure just and equitable access.” 

In this new work, Barlow also reprises many of the approaches to saving water on the planet that she outlined in earlier books. What is disturbing in this book is her assessment of what is happening to water on our planet right now. It is far worse than we would have thought. 

Control of the world’s water supplies has happened at a frightening rate. Countries have given more than their blue resource to private water companies to manage at high rates. Corporate agriculture, especially in America contributes to global pollution through the manufacture of ethanol – 70% of America’s annual corn crop now ends up in gasoline for automobiles. Increasingly we see water being treated by both nations and businesses as a commodity that can be bought, traded, and ruined though the use of “water credits.” The water commons of the world to which we should all have access is being sold off to water-hungry nations. “Privatization of water supplies in the United States is set to explode in the coming year. Water is the new oil and big domestic investors are cashing in on this lucrative market,” she writes. In many places in the future “those who can afford to pay for the water will have the luxury of it.” 

Water has rights, too, outside of human usefulness. If we are to have a fertile “blue” planet rather than a brown one, we must protect nature’s access to water. For water defenders like Barlow, the most difficult obstacle is something less tangible than dripping faucets or hydraulic fracking. It is “modern society’s disconnect from nature and from water’s fundamental role as the basis of life.” 

The book is a passionate well-written explication of the struggle that will affect all of us in this 21st century.    

John R. Wennersten is a consultant on Urban Rivers for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.