InsightOut: A Water-secure Future for All

Maude Barlow is a water justice activist and author. Her latest book is Still Hopeful: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism. 

St. Michael’s is about to become a “Blue Community,” pledging to help protect the planet’s water and promote the human rights to water and sanitation. I will have the pleasure of speaking at the ceremony.  

(L-R) USMC President David Sylvester, Prof. Hilda Koster, Maude Barlow, Sr. Georgette Gregory

Why is the university taking this step? Last month, to coincide with World Water Day, the United Nations held a three-day conference on water at its New York City headquarters. It was the first such gathering on the issue of water in almost 50 years and drew almost 10,000 people from around the world to confront the many serious issues facing the planet’s water heritage and to set a path for the future. 

The statistics are staggering. The planet is running out of clean water, something we were all once taught was impossible. We humans have polluted, diverted, dammed, over-extracted, and abused water to the point the UN says that within a decade, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40%. One quarter of the world’s population are forced to drink contaminated water every day and one half don’t have adequate access to sanitation. More children die of waterborne disease than all forms of violence together, including war.  

And it’s not just in the global South. On average, every year, 15 million Americans have their water shut off because they cannot pay their water bills and, in Canada, there are still some First Nations communities living without running water and sanitation.  

Thankfully, in 2010, the United Nations recognized the human rights to water and sanitation, establishing that the right to clean water is an issue of justice, not charity. The goal of our global water justice movement is that one day, everyone, everywhere, will have safe access to clean public water and sanitation.  

We started the Blue Communities project here in Canada almost 25 years ago as a positive vision for municipalities to protect water as a human right and a public trust, and to confront plastic contamination by promoting public water over bottled water. Blue Communities also recognize water as a common good that must be protected by democratic, transparent, and just governance. Our project soon spread to other countries and more than 25 million people now live in official Blue Community cities.  

But it has also spread to other sectors, including faith-based groups and universities. St. Michael’s is joining a growing group of universities in Canada, including McGill and Brescia University College at Western University, to protect what Pedro Aroyo, UN special rapporteur on the human rights to clean water and sanitation, calls the “blue soul of water.” 

St. Mike’s has already taken an important step to protect water from plastic contamination by banning the sale of bottled water, a model for other schools and universities across the country. This is a vital concern as the UN recently projected that the sale of plastic bottled water globally is set to double in the next decade. Becoming a Blue Community reflects a positive vision for change and serves as a declaration of hope. 

It is vital that we humans re-establish a relationship with nature and heed the teachings of Indigenous Peoples here in Canada and around the world. Water is not a resource for our pleasure and profit, but the very essence of life for us and all other species. The need to protect and restore biodiversity has moved to the top of the international agenda with a number of treaties and projects; to be successful, they will require an emphasis on protecting and restoring watersheds.  

Here in Canada, the federal government has promised to conserve 30% of Canada’s land and water by 2030 and plant 2 billion new trees. In its recent budget, the government established the Canada Water Agency with an endowment of more than $85 million and announced a further $850 million to protect and restore freshwater lakes and rivers. The government has also (finally) lifted the majority of long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, righting a terrible past wrong. 

The mission of the University of St. Michael’s College is serve “the common good and care for all creation.” In becoming a Blue Community, under the leadership of President Sylvester and the Collegium, St. Mike’s is fulfilling that pledge and truly leading the way to a water-secure future for all.  

Please join us on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at 2 p.m. to help the University of St. Michael’s College and Regis College celebrate becoming Blue Communities. Events will take place in Charbonnel Lounge, 81 St. Mary St., Toronto. To learn more about Blue Communities, please visit

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