It could have been a scene synopses for a post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie.
The film opens in a dire, dusty shanty-town full of burning tires and garbage, kids with no shoes, rats in the gutter and no running water anywhere for as far as the eye can see.
The camera pans to see juxtaposed in the middle of such incredible poverty, a state-of-the-art water dispenser where one need only place a chip-encrypted card into the shiny machine and crisp clean water pours out, providing one has paid to have the card charged up.
The vast majority of the villagers, however, cannot afford to do so and so they are forced to walk to the river, past the cholera warning signs and fetch their water from the polluted tributary risking disease and death.
Of course, the scene that author, activist and national chairperson of the Council of Canadians Maude Barlow described Thursday evening to over 300 people at the Shatford Centre was not fiction, but the reality privatization of water has brought to Orange Farm, a township located about 45 kilometres out of Johannesburg, South Africa.
The keynote speaker at the Meadowlark Festival’s The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, Barlow said the planet is running out of accessible clean water.
“The human species has mismanaged, polluted and most importantly diverted water from where we can access it to where we cannot,” said Barlow.
“We are over extracting our rivers — in many cases to death, as today most major rivers in the world don’t reach the ocean. We are over pumping groundwater so fast with technology that we didn’t have 50 years ago that there are places in the world where they are coming to the bottom of the water table.”
Barlow said a recent study conducted by Coca-Cola and some other large beverage companies, through the World Bank, concluded that by 2030 the demand in the world for water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent.
But that is in 2030. The lack of access to water, she said, is the greatest killer of children in the world today.
The problem is aggravated by poverty.
“Rich countries and rich hedge-funds are coming in and buying up water rights or actual physical water in places like Chile or Africa,” reported Barlow.
But it is not just a Third World problem, she stressed.
“In Detroit, Michigan they have officially cut the water to about 45,000 residences,” Barlow said. “It is mostly African-Americans, older people and single mothers. And what is happening is that once the water is shut off, social services come in and take their children away.”
In Australia, the government started allowing water trading in 1993, converting water licences to water rights. Soon, Barlow said, big companies were buying up the little companies and small farms.
“The price of water shot up from two dollars a mega-litre to $2,400 a mega-litre,” Barlow said to gasps.
And despite all the rain, Barlow warned, it could happen here in Canada too, as water is already on the market through: privatization of water and wastewater systems; bottled water; and through water trading in Alberta — a practice Barlow said British Columbians should pressure their government to not allow.
“There are still concerns that if any province starts to export water commercially, under the terms of NAFTA, water will become a commercial good,” said Barlow, noting that both Liberal and Conservative federal governments have refused to recognize the right to water and sanitation as a basic human right.
Asserting that at 41 years old Canada’s water act is “outdated,” Barlow said Canada needs to develop a 50-year water plan while restoring and protecting rivers and watersheds.
“Water must be a common and a public trust,” she concluded. “We need water for life and there is no substitute. No one should be able to appropriate water for personal profit while others are going without.
“Local water systems belong to the people who live and have their livelihoods around them … We need to save the world’s water and make sure it is distributed fairly and equitably.”