There are not many surprises in BLUE GOLD. The primary message of Maud Barlow and Tony Clarke's book echoes the Blue Planet Project, a global campaign to assert the universal right to water, of which Barlow is one of the international leaders. It is the 'battle against the corporate world' - here in particular the 'theft of the world's water'. Of course, it is not so much a 'theft' of water - the world's water supply has been more or less stable since the beginning of time - rather the increasing control by a small group of multinationals over the water's allocation to the peoples of this planet.
Consequently, the strength of the book is in its coverage of the multi-national corporations, the 'Global Water Lords', and the exposure of their expanding power over water delivery and processing systems around the globe. Initiatives to privatize water delivery at a national level probably started with Napoleon III in France in the middle of the 19th century. At that time, governments were usually in charge of water management. Since then privatization has spread from France to the rest of the world. Today, Barlow and Clarke maintain, some 10 corporate players dominate the global water industry. Two French companies hold the lion's share. Most of these major players are multi-utility providers, which increase their hold on the water resources of countries and regions. Once a government opens a door to privatization of any of the water related services, such as water delivery or waste management, it abandons its right to take back control at any stage even if water user groups complain about bad or no service or the company does not live up to the contract. The rules and regulations of the WTO see to that, the authors claim. Although the percentage of national water systems controlled by multi-national corporations at the present time is small, Barlow and Clarke want to warn of the trend and its implication.
Examples are described where things have gone wrong: poor quality of project implementation resulted in water pollution and environmental damage, and/or communities and local business lost the water supply altogether. In these instances corporate water suppliers maintained their profit margin through cutting back in previously promised investments and/or increasing consumer rates. The latter was implemented without any regard to the capacity of the poor to pay. As a result, they could be cut off from the service.
Barlow and Clarke's analysis of the progression of the global water crisis and its origins is less satisfactory. A reader unfamiliar with complex topic of water might find the tour d'horizon overwhelming. The review of the diversity of root causes at local, national and regional levels is superficial and tends to present generalizations where concrete examples would have been more meaningful. The tendency to paint a black and white picture with big business as the main villain sidelines other major reasons for water crises around the world. Agriculture is only mentioned in passing, although some 70% of all water resources are used by agriculture: agribusiness and millions of small-scale and mid-size farmers across industrialized and developing countries. Implementing water conservation methods (through improved irrigation, drought tolerant crops, etc) could lead to substantial water resource savings.
Recent initiatives against global corporate water control highlighted in the section 'Fightback' are selective, emphasizing well-known international as well as North American cases. The approach is usually confrontational with clearly identified opposing sides. Examples of constructive multi-stakeholder collaboration efforts in many parts of the world which attempt to tackle water scarcity are not given enough recognition.
The 'Way Forward' spells out fundamental principles and recommends a series of standards that should be included in any agreement of public-private partnerships in the water delivery sphere. These include the involvement of water users in the planning of the systems, local stewardship and watershed protection, strengthen water preservation and reclaiming of polluted water systems. Underlying all these standards is the recognition of water as an essential part of life and the right of all beings to water whatever their social or economic status. A call for capacity building and education of consumers, communities, government officials and private sector actors at all levels should be added.
BLUE GOLD is an easy read, maybe for some too easy considering the seriousness of the topic. It covers very important ground, often in an overview fashion that tends to generalize and take a black and white stand. Although it is obvious that the authors did comprehensive research in preparation of the book, it shows a certain lack of thoroughness by not providing citation references (footnotes), adequate source listings and a bibliography or reading list.