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Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis

by Maude Barlow

With 2016 on track to shatter heat and drought records, the crises of climate change and declining freshwater supplies that have long afflicted the global south are increasingly appearing in Canada, where the seemingly unlimited flow of blue gold is under serious threat from a combination of corporate greed, lax government oversight, and a complacent “it can’t happen here” mindset.

NovemberReviews_BoilingPoint_CoverThat’s the well-made argument of Maude Barlow, a long-time advocate and national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, who has also worked as the United Nations’ senior adviser on water. A gadfly who continues to tilt at windmills – often successfully – she carries (like veteran Australian anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott) the unenviable mantle of doomsayer, recounting the ills of the world in the hope that someone will listen.

In this instance, things look pretty grim. Predictions that the Great Lakes could run dry by the end of the century accompany warnings that the country’s remaining lakes and rivers – many fighting oxygen depletion brought on by soaring algal blooms – could be drained in a bottled-water bonanza that will temporarily quench the parched American southwest while fattening the bottom lines of big business. Barlow also documents the decades-long crisis of boil-water advisories in First Nations communities while pointing out the dangers posed by everything from tar sands expansion and leaking oil pipelines to effluent runoff from factory farms and mining operations.

It’s a packed report card that also includes an overview of Canada’s weak environmental laws (much of the nation’s water legislation and infrastructure is approaching the creaking century mark) as well as a damning critique of the country’s role on the international stage, where Ottawa has consistently worked against declaring access to water a human right.

Barlow, who as an activist and writer has long skewered trade agreements (an alphabet soup of acronyms such as NAFTA, TPP, and CETA), reminds us that water is particularly vulnerable under legal clauses that view it as a “good, service, or investment,” thereby opening the door to international corporations suing Canada when water protection laws are deemed an impediment to their profit margins. Her discussions about the commodification of water via public-private partnerships that would restrict access to the highest bidder, and market-based solutions to pollution, are the stuff of dystopian nightmares.

But while her argument for addressing these issues is compelling enough, it is built on a certain amount of political tunnel vision. Barlow condemns the former Harper government (which certainly provided plenty of low-hanging fruit), but tends to go easier on Liberal regimes, even assigning blame to the Conservatives for decisions made in 2002, long before they took the reins in Ottawa. Boiling Point also could have benefitted from a longer-term view exposing the systemic problems under the Chrétien and Martin governments that were well documented by some of the very organizations whose reports she relies on now.

At times, the text feels (perhaps understandably) as if it were written on the run by the globe-trotting Barlow, with some chunks reading like they were pulled from blog posts (rendering certain time-specific references inaccessible). Boiling Point also occasionally suffers from the kind of hustings-style hyperbole that does not survive a good fact check, as well as awkward instances of the author inserting herself into the narrative (the “I was there” moments pull focus away from the matter at hand).

Any work that details a monumental disaster in the making faces the risk of refusing to pull punches. Barlow goes halfway, unafraid to report truly daunting numbers likely to make most readers cringe – Quebec’s bargain-basement price of $70 per million litres allows companies to make a killing from bottled water, while the Toronto Public Library annually collects more overdue fines than Canadian companies have collectively paid for pollution violations over the past two decades. But she does little to address the feeling of powerlessness that may arise when observers simply shrug at the size of the challenges.

Granted, there are some sidebars with refreshing stories of community victories against major odds. But Barlow’s presentation of a series of reasonable policy prescriptions to help stem the tide of water degradation and depletion reads more like an NGO brief to a parliamentary committee than the kind of rallying cry the general public can get behind.

Those problems aside, Barlow’s documentation of the very real threat to the global water supply is important reading as Canada faces key end-of-year deadlines regarding new pipeline development and meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement.