Tag: Food and Water Watch

Safeguarding and Reclaiming the Public Water Commons and a Human Right to Water and Health

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

Maude Barlow’s latest, “Whose Water Is It Anyway” is hot off the press

Photo courtesy Council of Canadians

By Jim Olson

It took me just a few hours to finish reading Maude Barlow’s incisive, inspiring new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands (ECW Press, 2019). This is not new territory for Maude.  She’s a world water policy guru and activist for the protection of the human right to water, the war against the schemes by the corporate elite to privatize and control water, and the fight to sustain water’s integrity in the watersheds where it flows. In 2002, she published Blue Gold with Tony Clark to go after global corporate thefts of water by taking over public water supplies or selling off public water in bottles. In 2007, she released Blue Covenant, enshrining the inherent obligation to assure the human right to water for people’s access to affordable safe water for all; and in 2015, she wrote Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, in which she not only championed the human right to water, but called on governments and people to recognize the duty to care for the water on which the right to water and all life depends.

Her new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway, a convenient pocket-sized paperback, tells the story behind her life’s work. It was ignited when in the 1980s she glimpsed the under-the table hand of a widespread corporate scheme to parade as champions of the free market that would provide water to meet the needs of people everywhere. The scheme was actually to control the world’s sources and delivery systems of water. Her new book combines her story and the stories of many others facing blows from the corporate world order that cut off drinking water, metered the wells of peasants, or robbed residents and watersheds of the flow of freshwater to convert water into bottles at publicly subsidized massive private gain.

She hits the highs and lows—the death of a young man in Bolivia over a corporate takeover of the water of the peasants of Cochabamba, the conversion by Nestlé and other bottled water companies of the right to use water into the right to sell water on the private market at exorbitant profits. Then she traces the global awareness and growing movement that in the past 30 years has spread throughout the world, and raised a shield against the private ownership and ironfisted clench on the world’s water taps. Her story could have ended in 2010, when her life’s work, and the work of water warriors around the world—including the Blue Planet Project, Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, and Uruguay’s National Commission for the Defense of Water—culminated a decade of dedicated work to finally see the United Nations enact resolutions in 2010 declaring the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.

It would have been enough for Maude to tell this story, in a digestible, accessible paperback, but that wasn’t enough. Everything she writes is about her life, the conflicts over water, and the many unsung heroes on the front lines, which highlight the water crisis we face through privatization and waste of our most precious commons. The work is not done, the awareness and movement should be as much a part of quality of life, health, and dignity, and life itself. No, it wasn’t enough to stop with the success, but to chart the next steps she sees as essential, ones that are already taking root across the world—Blue Communities.

The Blue Communities movement is a citizen, grassroots, local movement that shifts the understanding of the sustainability of a community, its quality of life and economy on three basic principles: 1. Water is a commons in which everyone has a human right for drinking, health, and safety; 2. Water, including local public water infrastructure, is public, and must forever remain a commons, preserved for present and generations to come—a commons held in public trust, as FLOW has envisioned and worked for over the past 10 years; and 3. that natural water sources—our streams and lakes and groundwater—shall not be privatized by ownership or control, and public water should not be taken for free as bottled water, or the private takeover and control of access to public water supplies and infrastructure. Each local city or local rural government in the Blue Communities program adopts a resolution centering itself and its future on sustaining water for life, water that is public, a commons, safe, and accessible, common and secure for all. Already, cities in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States have turned to resolutions and specific actions to commit to the Blue Community principles. The World Council of Churches, representing 590 million Christians, has declared itself a Blue Community.

Maude’s book is a combination of big picture world water crisis, personal story, water policy, conflicts, and solution. Here is a short readable book, a book you can slip into your purse, backpack, or even suit coat pocket, to take with you into the city hall, the boardroom, the classroom, or statehouse. It’s a story that should be read by everyone who cares about liberty, dignity, harmony, and the common good of people and planet. Here’s an author who walks the walk and helps show us the way forward. For further information on Blue Communities, water commons, privatization, and the public trust doctrine, visit The Council of Canadians or FLOW’s OUR20 Communities page.

Faceoff over Farm Runoff Heads to Iowa Court

Iowa state agencies and officials to stand trial for breach of Public Trust duty to prevent harm to streams, fishing, swimming, and drinking water

Jim Olson, FLOW President and Founder

By Jim Olson

The foot-dragging by public officials to take action against deadly algal blooms and pollution from bad farming practices finally has reached a tipping point.

It was just a matter of time before a court would step in to force state government to implement a plan to stop the high concentrations of phosphorus, nitrites, and other harmful substances reaching our public lakes and streams from large corporate farm runoff.

Food and Water Watch, a national public interest organization, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have teamed up in Des Moines to file a lawsuit to force Iowa state officials and commissions for violating their duty to protect the Racoon River and the drinking water of 500,000 people.

Last year, a federal court dismissed a a similar lawsuit filed under federal law. This time, citizens and Food and Water Watch, represented by Public Justice, a national public interest law firm started decades ago by the late Dean Robb of Suttons Bay, Michigan, filed a lawsuit to protect the public trust in the navigable waters. When each state joined the Union (Iowa obtained statehood in 1846), the state took sovereign title and control over all of the navigable waters in a state in public trust for its citizens. Under this public trust the state as trustee has an obligation to protect these waters for fishing, navigation, boating, and swimming. Iowa trial judge John Hanson has ordered a trial to hear evidence on whether the state has abdicated its duty to prevent the impairment and subordination of these public rights by private interests. If the litigants are successful, the trial court will order state officials and agencies to implement a comprehensive plan to halt the continuous pollution of the source of drinking water for over 500,000 people.

Judge Hanson got it exactly right in letting this case proceed to trial. There is a legal duty under public trust law, there has been a continuing breach of that duty by the state, and it has resulted in harm and impairment to the public trust waters, resources, and public trust uses. The direct connection between the effects of activities on land that flow into public trust waters and resources is no different than if someone discharged pollutants or sediments directly into the water. In either instance, it is a direct result of needless human conduct that interferes with the natural water cycle—water falls on earth, percolates into ground, runs off into lakes and streams. Those who interfere with or harm the water in this cycle should be held accountable for damaging and failing to protect downstream public trust waters and the rights of citizens.

Watch out, Ohio officials, you’re next. I’ve argued in past blogs that the public trust in our navigable lakes and streams means that no one can pollute or impair these streams or sacrifice and subordinate the public’s rights and interests in drinking water, fishing, boating, and swimming to private purposes or interests. Ohioans and Michiganders have been plagued with annual dead zones for years now. Every summer a thick, toxic mat of green algae spreads across the western one-third of Lake Erie, endangering drinking water, killing fish, shutting down beaches, swimming, and tourism. Every year the governor of Ohio and state officials promise to do something. Every year nothing happens to stop the runoff.

Ohio’s governors and state officials have tinkered with laws to allow farmers to take voluntary actions, but have never taken action under the public trust duty to protect Lake Erie from harm, undisputedly the result of runoff of phosphorous from intensive corporate farms and extreme weather from climate change. When our leaders in the executive and legislative branches of government fail us, it is time for citizens to call on the judicial branch. Our democracy is founded on the checks and balances of three branches of government, not two.

Last week, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and noted Great Lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey called on citizens in Ohio and Michigan to take to the courts to put an end to Ohio’s truculence. I and others have argued that Ohio officials and the polluting big farms should be forced by the courts in Ohio and Michigan (Monroe County is on Lake Erie) to put an end to this blatant private confiscation of a treasured water resource that belongs to all citizens of these and surrounding states.

On behalf of all of us who live here in the Great Lakes Basin, our state government leaders must pass laws and file lawsuits to stop the dead zones and billions of dollars in damages to the businesses, cities and towns, and people. If our leaders fail us, then like the citizens of Iowa, it is time for citizens in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario to file lawsuits under the public trust doctrine. The time for action is now.