The Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow has been visiting communities around Ontario's Great Lakes, talking to people about the urgent need to address the toll industrial pollution, climate change, over-extraction, invasive species and wetland loss are taking on the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world.
Last night she spoke at London's Aeolian Hall, the last stop on her "Great Lakes Need Great Friends" tour.
"We're living in a world that is losing water," says Barlow. "We're taking water and removing it, polluting it and mismanaging it." Studies support Barlow's assertion, showing that by the year 2030 demand for water in the world will outstrip supply by 40 per cent. That, says Barlow, is catastrophic.
According to a 2004 study by the Great Lakes Commission, about 850 billion gallons of water are pumped out of the Great Lakes Basin and St. Lawrence River every day. Close to 2 billion gallons of that water is "consumed," meaning it is not returned to the watershed.
Add to that evaporation due to climate change, industrial pollution, and the pumping of groundwater from around the Great Lakes and you have an environmental crisis that will affect not only the many indigenous species that need the freshwater the Great Lakes provide, but the millions of people who rely on those resources.
Pollution and cancer
It's not all about supply and demand either. The Great Lakes region has the highest incidence of cancer in North America. The Aamjiwnaang First Nations people living in and around Sarnia, Ontario, or "chemical valley" as it is widely known, are reporting the birth of twice as many girl babies as boys per year.
Clearly, there is something terribly wrong in that part of the province, and one can't help but draw the conclusion that it is industry that is responsible for these disturbing statistics.
According to Barlow, it all boils down to two competing ideas of what the Great Lakes are about. "Some see the Great Lakes as a precious watershed that gives life and livelihood to the millions of people who live around them. Others see the Great Lakes as a big dollar sign." Industries exploiting the Great Lakes collectively report profits in the trillions of dollars.
"If the Great Lakes region were a country, it would have the second biggest economy on the planet, next to the United States." Barlow cautions, however, that seeing the issue in terms of the environment vs the economy is a mistake.
"You can create better jobs, more sustainable ones, more long-term, if you keep these lakes healthy."
Harper's budget bill will 'take us back 100 years' on environmental protection
One of the biggest concerns of Barlow and the Council of Canadians is the Harper government's budget bill, C-38. It's an omnibus bill that contains changes to legislation that has nothing to do with the budget.
"The budget bill, C-38, is going to take us back 100 years in terms of environmental protection. They're going to decimate the Fisheries Act, which is the only strong legislation for water protection in Canada."
If this seems like a dire situation, that's because it is. The Council of Canadians views this federal government as the most anti-environmental government in the history of Canada, and there is little or no evidence to the contrary.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Barlow ended her talk with a positive message. "Water belongs to the Earth, and it must be regarded as a public commons and a public good to be preserved as such for all time."
They want to see the Great Lakes declared a protected bioregion, and want to see legislation - across the multiple political jurisdictions that the Great Lakes encompass - and the staff to enforce the legislation, to protect this most valuable resource, freshwater.
Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderates rabble.ca's discussion forum, babble.
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