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Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle For the Right to Water by Maude Barlow
McClelland & Stewart 2007
Trade Paperback
208 pages
Non-Fiction: Environmentalism; Global Current Affairs

I want to warn you: this review turned into a bit of a personal rant, ’cause while Barlow might keep a cool calm head about it, I am a different matter entirely!

Growing up in little ol’ Tassie, the state that the rest of Australia considers to be cold and wet (but isn’t really), during the 80s, the big things I was always hearing about were drought, greenhouse gases and the hole in the ozone layer. I always figured, since I absorbed these pressing concerns as a child, that everyone was concerned about them. Not so. I also grew up on a farm in the country, with a giant rain water tank. That water was a precious resource, not to be wasted, was a fact of life. And maybe it’s thanks to my parents, but – like the Aborigines – I’ve always considered humans to be caretakers of the land, not owners and exploiters of it. Again, I grew up to learn that I was in the minority.

The truth is, I honestly believe that human beings are just one organism among billions, not actually that important to Life (in fact, can be seen to be its enemy), but that with our state of consciousness, we actually owe the planet more – not it owes us. I find it a typically arrogant human trait to think that we are the most important species on the planet, that the planet is our due and we can do what we like with it, and that when it all turns to shit, it’ll be okay because by then our scientists will have figured out either a) a way to fix things or b) a new planet to live on (and, in turn, exploit).

To say that this bothers me would be the biggest under-statement of my personality. The truth is, there isn’t a single living thing on this planet that needs us – whereas we need everything else. Even the mites that live off our dead skin cells would be able to find new hosts. Even the tape worms! Our pets would certainly have no problems surviving without us, and in fact the entire world would breathe a sigh of relief.

The thing is, not only are we hell-bent on destroying the planet, but we’re also hell-bent on destroying ourselves. It sounds melodramatic I know, but if we kill the planet, we kill ourselves. If we pollute the skies, we pollute ourselves. If we clear all the trees, there’ll be no more fresh water, and nothing left to drink. If we remove the salt from salt water with desalination plants, we will unbalance the ecosystem with the poisonous by-products to the point where we will kill everything in the ocean. Which we’re already doing a pretty damn good job of anyway.

And for what? For money. For ownership. For impressive stock options. For the moment.

Reading Blue Covenant, I didn’t read anything that changed the way I think or the way I cringe when I see people waste water in public bathrooms. I read it because I was interested in what was happening on a global scale, to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of the shit that we’re in. Because it all comes down to water. It truly is the stuff of life, and there really isn’t that much left of it.

Barlow is a highly-regarded activist and writer, and founder of the Blue Planet Project. This book, a follow-up to her previous book on the plight of the world’s water, Blue Gold, was published in 2007 and so in some ways is out-of-date already. A lot can happen in a year, let alone three. But a lot of it is still highly relevant, as well as giving great background on the last couple of decades. There are, naturally, two sides: the side that wants to own water and make as much quick cash off it as possible; and the side that wants to protect what’s left, and make it a human right – and a government responsibility to deliver it.

The first chapter and the last chapter, which is on Canada’s particular predicament, are the scariest. Like, terrifying. The middle chapters are more about the politics involved on a world scale, the global players on either side, and the progress made by both sides. Barlow paints an oft-times bleak picture, but not one entirely without hope. Reading about Canada, though, was all new to me – I’ve been living here for nearly five years, and it is a common myth that Canada has lots of fresh water and will do alright during the peak of climate change. Barlow tackles head-on this myth and several others, including the myth that we have laws in Canada that protect the water here. The truth is, there are no laws, and water is on the table as a good. The federal government, thanks to NAFTA, has its hands tide – it’s only the provinces that are standing in the way between public water and corporate water, and there have been some close shaves already.

The way Barlow explains it (and I can’t hope to summarise it very well, but I’ll try), is that if any one province grants any one company the license to sell water from any Canadian river, lake, etc., then there’s absolutely nothing to stop America – and several other countries eyeing the water here – from buying it all up. They see all the lakes and think, “Look at all this water, just sitting there, going to waste! While we have people in dire need of water in all those cities we built in the desert!” No body of water that is “just sitting there” is wasted water. The land needs it. The plants and animals and microscopic organisms need it. The weather system needs it. The f***ing PLANET needs it! But a whole host of companies – and countries – waits, salivating, eager for the first slip-up when Canada’s water becomes a tradable good forever.

And Canada is just one country of many with similar problems. Either they don’t have enough water because they screwed up the water table so bad, or they have “too much” and are having to fend off the would-be-looters with pitchforks. No country has it right, no country is NOT facing severe water shortages – including Canada. We are all in the pooh. And we are all so stupid. Companies like Nestle and Coka Cola are laughing so hard, watching us buy our own tap water at inflated prices, in cheap plastic bottles that leach toxins into the water (which, though they haven’t proven it yet, no doubt leads to the proliferation of cancer cells – that and the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical dishwashing detergent and so on. Seriously, there’s a reason for the dramatic spike in cancer since the advent of commercial farming and plastic containers).

It’s a complicated issue, for sure, which is why there are books like this on it. It’s a short book, but not an easy read for the simple fact that it’s either gut-churning or a bit dull – that’s those middle chapters, which read like a backgrounder. Useful, yes, and helpful, but it’d be hard to make it interesting reading. The first and last chapters, the ones I said were the scariest, aren’t written in a ranting style or an angry one – Barlow writes in a way that shows deep commitment, sound judgement, expert knowledge in the area, and calm charisma. Her passion is evident but she is not impassioned. She also writes on politics, especially that between Canada and the U.S., and the depth of her understanding and knowledge definitely impresses me. I know not many people will read this book, or many like it. It’s not a comfortable read by any means. But water should never have been considered a tradable good – what next, air?

If you don’t want to read this kind of non-fiction, you don’t have to. There are other media forms for learning about current issues that we should be taking seriously – for example, James Bond movies. Don’t laugh – have you never noticed that the films always take on a major issue of the day? The last one, Quantum of Solace, was all about a consortium of rich bastards, making a deal to buy the water hidden under Bolivia, while the people die of thirst. The issue hasn’t gone away, and while we assume our duly elected governments are watching out for us, they’re quietly allowing companies to buy and sell our own water to us.

Blue Covenant presents a broad, global picture of the current water crisis, and considering the elements at play in the tug-of-war over water, there’s really only one thing you can do to contribute: speak up. No little change of a lightbulb is going to make a difference here – Barlow is no sensationalist, and that’s not going to make this book popular either – it’s too dry and factual. It comes down to the will of the people speaking up to their elected representatives (we tend to forget what “democracy” actually means), and forcing them to make a stand, to take action, to draft legislation, to regulate industry. And we have to change the way we think and approach water: we have to stop thinking of it as a renewable resource. And we really need to stop shitting in our – and the planet’s – drinking water. Literally.


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4 comments to Review: Blue Covenant

  • WOW. Excellent review, but also your thoughts were well expressed and as you say, it’s evident that this is something you’re passionate about. You and I are much alike in our ideas of being stewards of the earth and all in it, that we are doing a shite job of that, as well.

    I’m not certain all our pets could live without us, but that’s not of their own accord; we’ve made animals dependent on us, both domestic and wild, and that is having some serious repercussions as well. What is it they say in national parks: “A fed animal is a dead animal”? I can’t say that if my dog were in the house and we never came home she would survive. She might, but she might not. Perish that thought.

    Without having read this book I can’t say much, but I can suggest another. There is a book out, The World Without Us, that you might be interested in, too, if you haven’t already read it:


    Shannon Reply:

    @Steph, Y’know, I had originally written “my pet cats” and then thought it could be other pets too, and so changed it – then last night I saw a bit of something on telly that pointed out that we’ve domesticated dogs to the point where they really can’t survive on their own, not like wild dogs or wolves.

    Are you kidding? I LOVE that book! (My review: I recently sent it to my dad to read, he enjoys these kinds of books too.


  • The Did You Know page on the site is particularly interesting:


    Shannon Reply:

    @Steph, Thanks!


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