Maude Barlow: Leader in the Struggle for Water as a Human Right

Give a drink of water to all who ask, whether they be plant, /creature, human or helpful spirit; / May you always have clean, fresh water
(Joy Harjo, from poem “For a Girl Becoming”)

Driving recently from Courtenay B.C. to Cumberland B.C., I passed a hand painted sign with blue lettering nailed on a hydro pole exclaiming, “Water is Life!” We take water for granted: you turn on the tap, clean water flows out; you turn on the shower or run a bath, clean water flows; you do laundry, water your herb garden and flowerbeds and cook your meals with clean water.  But, for many persons and communities clean water and sanitation can’t be taken for granted.

“Every day, more than two billion people around the world are forced to drink contaminated water. Diarrhea caused by contaminated water and poor sanitation kills a child under five every two minutes” (Barlow 2022, p. 129).

Maude Barlow has led a remarkable life engaging in a wide variety of social justice struggles and she continues to live an exceptional, fascinating, and exemplary life. For a description of Barlow’s decades of activism and social justice struggles on numerous fronts see The Fight of My Life: Confessions of an Unrepentant Canadian (1998) and her autobiography, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism (2022).

In that autobiography she writes, “I come from a family dedicated to social justice” (2022, p. ix), noting her father was active in the early 60’s against the death penalty and capital punishment in Canada. She is the author or coauthor of at least twenty books, as well as dozens of reports and has been a keynote speaker at numerous conferences, including the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Mumbai. Barlow is an ardent feminist, and is described by the subtitle of one of her books (Barlow, 1998), as an “unrepentant Canadian” nationalist. She collaborated over the years alongside union leaders including Bob White of the Canadian Auto Workers, and other Canadian nationalists in resisting   “…the threat to Canada’s sovereignty represented by Brian Mulroney’s free trade flirtation with the United States “ (p. 93) and she played a leadership role in organizing resistance to and ultimately defeating the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), in addition to participating in resistance to the World Trade Organization and their neoliberal free trade intentions.

Active on the front lines of the feminist movement in Canada, Maude Barlow works in the struggle against violence against women and the exploitation of children in the pornography industry. Additionally, she has been involved in various protracted struggles connected with achieving equity for women in the labour force. In 1980 Barlow became the city of Ottawa’s Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity.

In the late 1970’s this remarkable woman was involved with the struggle for the inclusion of women in the armed forces, as well as the RCMP while at the same time initiating a project for incarcerated women, many of whom were serving life sentences, in the former Kingston Prison for Women, in “…what they called ‘P4W,’ an institution built in 1934 that, until recently, housed all federal female offenders in Canada in infamously poor conditions” (Barlow, 1998, p. 33).   A disproportionate number of the women in P4W women were Indigenous. In 1981 Barlow was instrumental in The Canadian Human Rights Commission ruling that women incarcerated in the prison were victims of discrimination. “Over the next several years, some real beneficial institutional changes, such as drug counselling, employment training, and improved living conditions, were mandated” (Barlow 1998, pp.39-40). From 1983 – 1984 Barlow served as senior advisor to Pierre Trudeau on women’s issues and in 2008 was invited to serve as senior advisor on water issues to the UN General Assembly’s President, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan priest and co-founder of Orbis Books.

Currently Barlow chairs the board of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch. Barlow’s commitment to and perseverance regarding social justice activism has been recognized by many institutions, organizations, and foundations. She has received at least fourteen honorary doctorates, in addition to the 2005 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship Award, the 2011 EarthCare Award, and the prestigious Right Livelihood Award along with many other awards.

Barlow received recognition for providing leadership in the struggle to have water and sanitation declared a human right by the United Nations and in 2005 shared the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel”) granted by the Swedish Parliament with her colleague Tony Clarke. Their co-authored book, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (2005) has been published in forty countries.

The struggle to have water and sanitation recognized as a human right came about through Barlow’s involvement with The Council of Canadians. In 1985 Edmonton publisher, bookseller and Canadian nationalist activist Mel Hurtig, along with Tommy Douglas, authors Margaret Atwood and Farley Mowat, David Suzuki, and Maude Barlow created The Council of Canadians. The stated intention of the Council, as indicated in their vision statement is to “Advocate for a society built on democracy, justice and care for each other. We believe we can learn from the perspectives and struggles of others as we work together for a more just world.” A principal initiative of the Council has been “…to ensure access to clean water is a human right and stop water privatization”. The Council of Canadians is responsible for a wide variety of social justice and environmental initiatives. For a full description of the Council’s work go here.

I asked Maude Barlow what she was most proud of regarding her accomplishments as a social justice activist over the decades, she responded “If I had to choose two accomplishments of which I am most proud, they would be building the Council of Canadians and leading the campaign to have the UN declare water to be a human right. I was present at the 1985 founding press conference for the Council and chaired its board (as a volunteer) for over three decades. In that time, I traveled across the country multiple times meeting with members, setting up chapters and working on local or national campaigns. It was very hard work but there is no substitute for the kind and quality of relationships that build in a process like that and the amazing results one can get from building community and solidarity. The Council is under new management now and I am no longer involved but it remains a source of pride for me at a personal level” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

The United Nations (U.N.) resolved that water and sanitation was a human right on July 28, 2010 (Resolution 64/292). Barlow (2019) observed, “I have spent most of my adult life learning about water and worrying about what we humans are doing to it” (p. 134), and she related to me, “On July 28, 2010, I stood on the balcony of the United Nations General Assembly while that august body voted to recognize water and sanitation as fundamental human rights. It was an amazing moment that culminated many years of hard work on the part of many people and has had real and important ramifications. Again, this campaign was successful because we took the time to build an international movement and persevered in the face of powerful opposition. This was a truly “people” led fight”. (Personal communication February 26, 2023)

Little Girl on the beach

Photo by Terry Stone

Ten years after the resolution passed at the UN, Barlow (2020) reflected “The fight to recognize the human right to water was surprisingly fierce and bitter”; the struggle “…was opposed by the private water utilities and the bottled water industry, the World Bank that was promoting water privatization in developing countries, the World Water Council, and many wealthy countries of the North, including the United States, Great Britain, and Canada”.

“No place on earth will be free from the consequences of the water crisis now unfolding,” Barlow (2013) cautions, “Even if we start to slow the damage we have created, by challenging the growth imperative and adopting water conservation practices and source-water protection, it is crucial that we set rules of fairness and justice around the issues of access” (p.19). She observes further that “As a rule, poverty and class divisions are at the root of lack of access to clean water. But increasingly the crisis is due as well to a decline in local water sources that in turn forces people to become refugees” (p. 13). Regarding water refugees and immigration, “Another United Nations study predicts that 2.2 million migrants will arrive in the rich world every year, from now until 2050” (p.19).

Barlow (2013) is clear in her concern regarding water: “Every year, more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war” (p. 9). “Some 3.6 million people, 1.5 of whom are children, die every year from water-related diseases, including diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. One billion people still defecate in the open, and 2.5 billion live without adequate sanitation services. By 2030 more than 5 billion people – nearly 70 percent of the world’s population – may be without adequate sanitation” (p. 9).

Barlow again demonstrated committed leadership when, “In 2000, the Council of Canadians founded the Blue Planet project, a global initiative based in Ottawa that works with partners around the world to achieve water justice based on the principles that water is a human right, a public trust and part of the global commons” (2022, p. 134). “A Blue Community takes three pledges: to protect and promote the human right to water, to assert that water is a public trust and therefore no privatization of water services will be allowed, and to phase out bottled water on municipal premises and at municipal events such as conferences and concerts” (2022, p. 140).

One should never take clean water and sanitation for granted. All communities remain susceptible, vulnerable. “The United Nations calls water scarcity ‘the scourge of the Earth’ and says that at the current rate of depletion and pollution, two-thirds of the world’s people are likely to be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. ” (2022, p. 129).

I live on the Sunshine Coast, traditional territories of the Shíshálh Nation and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, where water restrictions throughout the summer months are not uncommon.  Only at the beginning of February 2023 did the Sunshine Coast Regional District remove water conservation regulations which were first implemented in May of 2022. For months, the coast was faced with drought conditions.  Concerned persons erected signs on hydro posts on the highway reading, “Stop Flushing” and “Conserve Water”.

I asked Maude Barlow about her thoughts on what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done, to rectify the injustices associated with the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation in many Indigenous communities throughout Canada. Her response? “The lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation in First Nations communities has been a badge of shame for Canada for many years – rightly so. There are some First Nations that have lived with Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) for over 25 years! But this is a story that is changing. The [Justin] Trudeau government made ending this crisis a priority when it first took office. While the original 2021 deadline to end all long term DWAs has not been met, there has been real progress nonetheless. The government – with the solid backing of the Canadian people – has ended 138 long term DWAS since 2015, something no government of any political stripe even tried before. There are still 32 long term DWAs in 28 First Nations communities, but they are all slated to be addressed in the next few years. Water advisories have been lifted in 81% of the communities with water issues and there are no remaining DWAs in BC, Alberta, Quebec or Atlantic Canada. This initiative is a small but important step in the reconciliation process” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

First Nations consider water (rain, streams, rivers, lakes, oceans) integral to their communal well-being and spirituality. Water is elemental, is sacred. “The land and care for the land and water is the founding source of First Nations identity and culture and is captured in each nation’s laws” (Barlow, 2016, p. 66).

Reflecting upon her years as a social justice activist and the commitment required for social activism Barlow writes, “In my social justice work, it is getting harder to stay positive in front of my colleagues, many of whom are such experts in the details of the crises we face that it is hard for them to offer hope themselves” (2022, p. x). Writing in her recent autobiography, Still Hopeful (2022), she quotes Buddhist teacher and author Joan Halifax who makes a distinction between “optimism and hope”.  “Optimism…can be dangerous as it doesn’t require engagement. Things will get better on their own…”. Halifax refers to “wise hope”; “…wise hope is born of radical uncertainty, rooted in the unknown and the unknowable. Wise hope requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know, and to being perpetually surprised” (p. 3).

Asked to expound on this, Maude Barlow responded, “Well, let’s be frank. There are many and very real threats to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. [Including] The climate crisis, declining freshwater sources, loss of habitat and species, plastic pollution of lakes and oceans, and so on. My goal in writing Still Hopeful was not to undermine these very real threats, but to face them squarely and find the solutions to deal with them. I worry that many young people may get the message that it is ‘too late,’ that the climate crisis has gone too far and there is little anyone can do. This is a recipe for defeat and we cannot let it happen. For me, hope is a commitment to protecting all that is good for the future and the planet, knowing that we do not control the outcome but taking action anyway, having faith that countless others are doing the same. Miracles do happen” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

The Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC) is interested in young persons and their extremely legitimate concerns surrounding the climate crisis as well as in promoting educational initiatives and processes contributing to environmental sustainability and the commons on a local level.  I asked Barlow what action(s) she thought young persons could take, apropos the climate crisis. “Young people can do so much! They can stop drinking bottled water, recycle at home and school, join sustainability committees, join river and road side clean ups, plant community gardens, and so much more”; adding, “But many are going way beyond these measures, as they head into post secondary studies, helping to design ways to free the oceans of plastic or desalinate water using solar energy, protecting waterways from harmful run off through regenerative farming, and so many other innovations we badly need. If we teach young people to care about the planet and give them the tools they need, they will lead the way. I am working on a new project called “Blue Schools” designed to do just this” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

Finally, reflecting upon her experiences over decades of involvement with national and international activism, and considering that capitalism, neo-liberalism, and belief in the free market system have constructed impediments to the ongoing security and sustainability of publicly owned safe drinking water and sanitation, I asked Barlow just what kind of economic system would most benefit the current climate crisis, and assist in cultivating a return to the commons, to which she responded, “In my view, we need an economy very like one we had in the past in Canada, where there was a role for the private sector, but where government and community were responsible for essential services, such as education, health care, water, postal and at one time, even transportation. Canadians, sparsely populating such a vast and cold land, had to ‘share to survive’ in Margaret Atwood’s words, and it gave us the belief that we deserve good government. A return to the notion of the commons is essential to our collective survival.” (Personal communication, February 26, 2023, emphasis added.)

 I am extremely appreciative for the graciousness demonstrated by Maude Barlow in taking time to consider my questions and respond in writing for this article. With deep gratitude, thank you Maude! Thank you also to Shauna Klein for her editorial assistance with this article, much appreciated!


Barlow, M. (1998). The Fight of My Life: Confessions of an Unrepentant Canadian. Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollins.

Barlow, M and Clarke, T. (2005). Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. Toronto, Ontario: New Press.

Barlow, M. (2013). Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2016). Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2019). Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Taking Water Protection into Public Hands. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2020). It’s been 10 years since clean water was declared a human right – and there’s still work to be done.

Barlow, M. (2022). Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press

Colin James Sanders, PhD, has published book chapters and articles relating to his therapeutic career, book reviews, interviews, and essays on poetry. On the Editorial Board of The GTEC Reader, his recent work includes an essay on the climate crisis and eco-socialism; a poem illustrated by his paintings and memoir in New Zealand’s online Journal of Contemporary Narrative Therapy. Artwork in this article by Colin Sanders.