Maude Barlow wants to blow the whistle on bottled-water exports from B.C.
The honorary chair of the Council of Canadians recently talked about this issue over the phone with the Georgia Straight in advance of her appearance tonight at a Vancouver Writers Fest event.
"There's been a 1,500 percent increase in the last decade in bottled-water exports in your province," Barlow said on the line from Ottawa. "It's really something people don't know about.
"The majority of them go to the U.S., but increasingly they're going to Asia," she continued. "Agriculture Canada touts the fact that China is in such water crisis."
The best known, Nestle Waters Canada, is a subsidiary of the Swiss multinational Nestle. It has a plant in Hope, B.C, which is bottling 265 million litres per year. But Barlow pointed out that many other corporations are also eyeing B.C. water resources.
"They’re going into small communities like Canal Flats, like Golden and Hope, and taking massive amounts of water, putting it in bottles and containers, and shipping it away," she said. "This is not charity. This is not good deeds to people who need it. This is profit for companies who then are selling it to those who can afford it in those countries."
Barlow's new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway? Taking Water Into Public Hands, details the history of the private sector trying to get its mitts on publicly owned water resources—and how this is being countered by the "Blue Communities" movement.
Burnaby was the first city in the world to become a Blue Community in 2011. According to Barlow's book, there are now 27 municipalities in Canada that have issued these declarations.
The Blue Communities Project, which Barlow founded in 2009, promotes access to clean, drinkable water as a human right. It also declares that municipal and community water systems will remain publicly owned, and that single-use plastic water bottles will not be available in public spaces in Blue Communities.
Barlow emphasized that this does not prohibit people from carrying bottles of water onto public property. It just wouldn't be offered through vending machines and other means by institutions that are Blue Communities.
The movement has taken off around the world, with five cities in Germany, Paris, Brussels, and Bern all signing on.
It's also attracted the interest of faith-based groups and schools.
"The World Council of Churches decided to become a Blue Community," Barlow noted. "They represent churches all over the world and 500 million Christians."
She added that a large American city is about to declare itself a Blue Community. And she's met with officials at Metro Vancouver to discuss this happening in the Lower Mainland.
"I think the reason it's so inviting to people is it's positive," Barlow said. "We who fight for economic and social justice are often fighting against something. When we're promoting Blue Communities, we're fighting for something."
She was pleased to see the Union of B.C. Municipalities approve a resolution last month calling on the provincial government to stop issuing water licenses to commercial water-bottling operations in B.C.
Barlow pointed out that Canada's trade deals with the United States and China offer investors an opportunity to seek damages from governments under the investor-state provisions.
So once a deal is locked in, the corporations can push hard to retain access to public water even if circumstances change and governments want to cancel these contracts.
"We really need to put a stop to this," Barlow said. "When people in B.C. find out about this, they’re going to be very agitated. And both China and the United States have agreements—investment agreements with Canada—to give these companies the right to sue for compensation."