Maude Barlow talked about the issue of global fresh water shortages and water privatization at a lecture at UTM last Saturday.

Barlow was the keynote speaker at the Sierra Youth Coalition’s national Sustainable Campuses conference, currently in its 14th year. The theme of this year’s conference, hosted at UTM from October 11 to 14, was the “healthy campus”, with a focus on how our environment affects our health.

“What we are doing as a human species is polluting, diverting, mismanaging, [and] displacing water so quickly that we are actually physically running out,” Barlow said in her presentation. “A recent study done by the large food and beverage companies […] is saying that by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent.”

Barlow is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, the recipient of Right Livelihood Award, the former senior advisor on water to the 63rd president of the United Nations General Assembly, and the author of several books, including the international bestseller Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. Barlow cited studies that suggest that our groundwater use doubles every 20 years, and talked about the issue of virtual water trade. Virtual water is the amount of water consumed in the production of goods.

“We commissioned a study in my organization […] on virtual water in Canada, and we are the second-largest net virtual water exporter in the world, only after Australia,” said Barlow. “That means we are shipping way more water out of our watersheds and out of our country than what we are bringing in.”

Barlow explained that virtual water trade disconnects consumers from the impact that their purchases have on freshwater sources. She gave the example of the damage done to the Lake Naivasha watershed in Kenya when Europeans buy imported roses, which require a large amount of water to grow.

Barlow drew attention to the dangerous lack of environmental protection policies in Canada, criticizing the current federal government’s environmental deregulation policies and muzzling of scientific research.

“We have a 42-year-old Natural Water Act. We have no national water standards. We have not mapped our groundwater; we don’t know if we’re destroying it very quickly or not,” said Barlow. “And along comes Stephen Harper […] He has gutted the Fisheries Act, he has gutted the Environmental Assessment Program, [and] he has killed the [Experimental] Lakes Area—which is the area [in the] north of Ontario where decades of groundbreaking research has been done on what hurts water and how to prevent that.”

During her 2010 UN appointment as senior advisor on water, Barlow helped to redefine access to clean water and sanitation as a human right.

Barlow quoted the popular scientist and author Carl Sagan in her closing remarks: “ ‘Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are, by accident of fate, alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.’ ” Afterwards, she took questions from audience members and conference delegates.

Environmentally active undergraduate and graduate students representing universities from across Canada attended the conference. They hailed from the University of Victoria, the University of Winnipeg, Queen’s University, McGill University, Dalhousie University, and all three U of T campuses. The conference had 30 registrants and a total of 50 active participants, including representatives, volunteers, and workshop presenters.

“One of the main goals [of the conference] was networking, and to make contacts with like-minded people who are facing the same challenges that they are, and brainstorm with them: ‘How did you get past that challenge? How can we get past that challenge?’ ” said Zena Wright, the coordinator of the Sustainable Campuses conference, in an interview. “So that’s really inspirational. You’re hearing from someone here who’s in a different location, but there is a commonality. So I think that is one of the best things they get out of it.”

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