Expert: Europe ‘unaware’ of its water footprint

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This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

While Europe may take better care of its water resources than other continents, it in fact uses larger quantities via imports of goods such as cotton, beans or wood, which often come from regions that already suffer from water scarcity, argues a UN expert in an interview with EURACTIV. 

Maude Barlow is a special adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here .

Will it ever be possible to establish water as a human right and guarantee access to water for all, as called for by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Peace with Water conference? And how does this go together with the need to price water?

It is possible to begin the process toward the notion that no-one should be denied water because they can't pay for it. I'll be very clear: we are talking about the right to life and a right to local sustainable food production – we are not talking about the right to fill your swimming pool. So water as human right applies to water for your daily needs.

Many people think that because I'm against privatisation and for water as human right. They think I don't support pricing, but that is not true. The pricing would need to be done in a particular way if you are going to guarantee the right to water and I'd say there are three conditions.

First of all, that the water is public and it is a public trust, delivered by government agencies so that any money that you are collecting from this pricing is not going for for-profit corporations but is going back into protecting source water, infrastructure rebuilding, and so on. 

Secondly, you are not buying the water but you are paying for the service, because there are lot of discussion about water trading and people owning water rights and so on, and we need to be clear that we are not talking about that. 

Thirdly, that there would be what we call bloc funding, bloc pricing, so that no-one is denied water for their basic needs. Thus in some places, the price may need to be very low or there can't be any price, because it is so poor. So a certain amount of water for free or very inexpensively, and then it goes up. So if you want to fill in your swimming pool, you need to pay for it. Japan, for example, has a three-level bloc pricing system, and many communities are already starting this system – so it is possible. We just need to make sure that pricing is not done at the expense of the poor.

But I think we do have to put a price on water so that people will conserve it – either a price or a combination of price – and capping water use, like in Australia, where there is not enough water, so they just need to limit the amount of water everyone can access. So it depends on the country's water resources whether it is about pricing or restrictions. 

This is not a market issue, but a conservation tool used by governments to run the service for the public in a public trust. In my world, water is deemed to be a public trust, and a human right. 

Do you see any role for private operators regarding water?

There is a commercial role for water but it would have to be done by permit, always, and with the ability for the governments to re-control the water if, for example, a permit has been given and they are taking too much water and it is not sustainable. 

The priority is water for life: water for local food production and commercial use comes third.

I don't think we need private companies to run water services, water delivery and waste water, because governments can do that perfectly well on a not-for profit basis. So I'm opposed to companies like Suez and Veolia running water services. Where I think there is a good place for businesses is in infrastructure creation and upgrading, and all the hardware the governments don't have the capacity to do – as well as expertise, consulting and innovation. 

There are now companies coming up with innovations on how to help industry to cut their footprint and applying biological science to technology to invent water cleaning techniques. So I'm not against companies creating these innovations. It's just that I don't think they should be making decisions about water allocation – and that is the issue. 

Right now, the big water companies actually work with the World Bank to decide which communities are going to get water infrastructure on a global scale and if it is such a poor community that they can't make money on it at all, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, they say to the World Bank that they don't want to go in there at all. They have too much of a say in something that is about life and death. 

The private sector needs to work within larger goals of water for life, water for all, conservation and source protection, and the notion that there is a greater good than their profit. If there is a profit to be made, it needs to be in this larger framework. 

We don't want to end up in a situation like in Australia, where the government sold the water rights to the Murray-Darling river to big conglomerates, like the big cotton manufacturers who have over-extracted the river, and the government is suddenly desperate to buy that water back because they need to leave it in the river. 

The country used to be the biggest exporter of commodities – wheat, wine, cotton – and they've just been putting all that water into products and selling it outside the country, but now the country is drying up. Murray-Darling could die this summer or the next – and what then will happen to the country that depends on its exports? Australia's rice exports, for example, dropped 60% last year. No water, no exports. 

So they are desperate to retain water in the system and return it, so they've said to the big conglomerates that we need that water back – but they are saying that you owe us billions of dollars for it. 

In Chile, they are selling whole rivers, and in Turkey, large parts of them. Next month's World Water Forum in Istanbul will have a message for the Turkish people: don't let your government do that. 

What are the obstacles to introducing water as a human right?

Countries have different reasons to oppose it. My country [Canada] opposes it partly because it says that it will be forced to share its resources with the US, although that is not true. The real reason is that we have a water crisis in our indigenous reserves and the government does not want to face any litigation – and the same goes for the US. Poor countries say our people will use it as a tool against us to embarrass us or to sue us. 

But all new rights have gone through the same issues and barriers as they've been added to the 1948 Declaration, as people are afraid of not being able to deliver the rights promised. My answer is that there is no expectation that tomorrow all these rights will be realised. But there is an expectation that you will start a new path and come up with a plan and richer countries are expected to work with you to help you realise it – not by giving you water, but by helping financially, and the world is going to start to move towards recognising this new right. It does not mean it will happen overnight. 

The Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture, but that doesn't mean there is no torture in the world.

It is a declared common goal of a human species that is trying to improve, and this one is very specific, because there is this debate about whether water is a market commodity or a right and a public trust. If the UN was to choose the public trust side, it would be a huge boost for us. It would not mean that all problems would disappear, but it would be an ethical and moral statement about how the world sees the issue.

I think it will happen. 

What is your message for Europe on water?

When I'm asked what's the country or part of the world that treats its water the best, then I always say Europe. Europeans, the EU, have done it the best so far in terms of integrated water management across boundaries – even if a river goes through five countries, it is still seen as a whole system in terms of conservation and pollution. 

But – the way Europe gets to do that is that it imports a whole bunch of its water footprint from other countries. A water footprint is the total amount of water a country needs for its goods and services. Then you ask yourself that how much of the water footprint that we have and use comes from the water in our territory and how much is imported in the form of cotton, beans, wood, etc. Great Britain imports two thirds of its water footprint. And it imports it from Africa, Latin America and from places which don't have any water. 

Most of the roses sold here in Europe, and in Great Britain in particular, are grown around the Lake of Naivasha in Kenya, which is dying, it only has five to ten years of life left, because it is totally surrounded by big European and British agribusiness rose companies, because it takes a lot of water to grow roses. It's called 'virtual water' because it is embedded in a commodity or a product. So, they suck up the water, grow the roses and ship them to Europe so that Europe does not have to use its own water – and on Valentine's Day, everybody can feel very good about their roses. 

And there are so many lakes like that around which strawberries or raspberries, for example, or whatever we want to have during the winter, are grown using someone else's water and the poor countries are desperate for any kind of jobs, just desperate for anything, and allow the destruction of their water resources. So this notion of virtual water and your own water footprint has not had nearly enough media coverage.

So where on one hand I praise Europe for taking better care of its water resources than most parts of the world and Europeans are more water conscious – part of it is because you are using water from other places. One has to look at one's total water footprint, like the carbon print, so it is not necessarily only about what you are doing in your own community, but also about what you are doing thousands of kilometres away.

So how can we change this by reducing Europe's water footprint?

Becoming conscious as a consumer is one thing. To an extent, we really need to go back to more cyclical foods – in the winter, ask where the strawberries come from. 

Partly it is about no longer thinking that we can have any food, whenever, throughout the year, because we are at the top of the food chain – and that because we want it, we are going to get it. 

I think it is important to write about and find out about each country's footprint, how much of your water comes from outside the country and what was the energy needed to bring that water here? Do we really need to live quite the way we live? I guess that is part of the question. Our consumer society, Europe, North America and Australia, wants anything at any time and we don't ask where it comes from and under what conditions it was made. It is a bit like asking whether the toys you buy were made in a sweatshop. Part of it is just finding out where the food you eat and the goods you have come from and who else's land, water and children were exploited to make it.

I don't think people think about water. For instance, there is now drive to grow biofuels to combat CO2 emissions, but we don't stop and ask what biofuels might do to other parts of nature. They are water guzzlers – biofuels and corn ethanol use a huge amount of water. In California, the planned biofuel expansion subsidised by the government would need another third of the Colorado river just to grow. Well, they don't have another third and the river is already running out. But they are planning this growth in biofuels without asking, do we have the water resources to go with it? 

You are going to hear about this virtual water trade a lot more in the next few years. 

What are the chances of introducing a World Water Protocol as part of the Copenhagen negotiations, as called for by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Peace with Water conference?

The chances are probably slim. Because Copenhagen is already so contentious. There are so many issues, and we are late in trying to get it in there. However, I think we should try. And even if we don't succeed in getting it officially recognised in Copenhagen, it can be there as part of the next round of post-Copenhagen talks.

We need to get water as a factor in climate change into the climate change debate. Climate change people are so fixated on greenhouse gas emissions and I understand why. I'm in no way diminishing that. 

But the other half of the equation – which is that when you take water out of the watershed, you reduce the amount of rain in the cycle, it heats the land up, cities become urban heat islands – we need to restore water to watersheds, we need healthy ecosystems and water is crucial for healthy ecosystems to combat climate change. We also need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it's not like an 'either-or'. But you got to get the analysis right if you are going to get the answer right. 

For me it is amazing – stunning – that water is being ignored in the climate change debate. 

I think the water crisis is where climate change was five years ago. It is just starting to get into the media and people's heads in a really important way, and in five years it will be what people talk about. 

Five years ago, there were sceptics about climate change, so we are just five years behind in catching up that train, saying you can't look at this alone. You have to look at it with what we are doing to water because it is not only part of the problem, but it is also part of the solution, and we have got to stop seeing the water crisis as a result of climate change, but rather as a part of the cause of climate change and really transform the way we look at this. 

I'm convinced it will happen, but I don't know how quickly. People dealing with Copenhagen have their hands full already, and while I've had people telling me I'm right, they say they couldn't deal with this thing added to it right now. 

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