Maude Barlow and Jörg Zeuner, talking while walking alongside a wooden wall
Natural resources

Natural resources

Ways out of the water crisis

The Canadian author and activist Maude Barlow fights, on numerous fronts, for more water justice. In his position as Chief Economist of KfW, Jörg Zeuner talked in 2017 to the holder of the Alternative Nobel Prize about ways to implement the UN human right to water.

About Mrs Barlow
Portrait of Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is chair of the civil rights association Council of Canadians and was a leader in the campaign to have water and sanitation recognised as a human right by the UN. The winner of the Right Livelihood Award ("Alternative Nobel Prize") has received 14 honorary doctorates and is the author of numerous books.

More about Maude Barlow

Ms Barlow, in your new book "Boiling Point", you describe water problems we're facing in our own backyard, problems we had previously regarded "third world issues". Your book focuses on Canada, a country we would have expected to have enough water, given its abundance of lakes and rivers. What happened?

MAUDE BARLOW There is no water-rich country in this world that is not facing problems. In China, more than half of all rivers have disappeared since 1990. Brazil is considered the country with the most water in the world. And yet the southern parts of the country experience extreme drought, because so much of the Amazon rainforest has already been depleted. And North America is facing real problems. Canada and the United States are both counted among the ten water-richest countries in the world. And now we're running out of water in Alberta. The Great Lakes are shrinking. Lake Winnipeg, the tenth largest lake in the world, is now the most threatened lake in the world.

You're talking about ecological issues but also social problems.

BARLOW Yes, I'm also talking about the fact that the water utilities are turning off the water supplies of the poor. We always thought that having no access to water is a problem faced in the southern hemisphere. But even here in Europe, thousands of people are denied access to water. And the same is happening in many cities in the United States.

About Mr Zeuner
Portrait of Dr. Jörg Zeuner

Dr Jörg Zeuner was Chief Economist of KfW from September 2012 until April 2019. His comments and ideas are critical contributions to the economic policy debate in Germany and within KfW to advance sustainable development. The economist also lectures at the University of St. Gallen and the University of Konstanz. In his previous role, he worked for the International Monetary Fund for nearly ten years.

Mr Zeuner, does our European perception cause us to ignore that our own water supplies could also come under threat?

JÖRG ZEUNER I would not call it "ignore", but we do feel that water issues currently faced in the Middle East, for instance, are more pressing. At the same time, we see effects of climate change on all countries, including Germany. We will see regions where water will become scarcer in the future. And other regions will have more rainfall, which will also bring its own challenges, for example in view of protection against floods.

BARLOW I would like to congratulate Europe, though, because I believe that the Europeans have definitely taken better care of their water reserves than we have in North America.

ZEUNER On behalf of Europe: thank you for the compliment. It's true, we have achieved a lot in some areas. We have also learned from our experiences made in past decades - think about river pollution in the 1960s and 70s. Swimming in these waters used to be impossible. And we should use our experiences now on a global level - in order to manage water resources responsibly.

A large number of plastic water cans standing in orderly lines, people gathering around them.
A day's work

People in regions without water supply spend hours every day gathering water.

Ms Barlow, you call yourself a "water warrior". What do you mean by that?

BARLOW This means that my fellow campaigners and I fight for water justice. We have actually seen water wars in the past, for example in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the late 1990s. But water plays a role in many conflicts. "We" are the Council of Canadians, for example, Canada's largest civil rights association, which I chair. We have more than one hundred thousand members and fight for fair trade, water protection and climate justice. "We" are also the activists all around the globe.

Control over water is also an issue in many international conflicts, for example in the conflict between the two nuclear powers India and Pakistan. Might this lead to a major war over water in the near future?


Together with Tony Clark, Maude Barlow wrote the book "Blue Gold", which was published in 2002 and has since then become a classic reference text on water issues. Both this book and Barlow's other publication "Blue Future" were also published in German. Barlow's latest book "Boiling Point" is only available in English.

BARLOW Yes, I do currently see alarming signs for serious tension between India and Pakistan. And the relationship with their large neighbour, China, is also strained. But I see even more. India is a good example that shows how the economic development of a country is pushed despite limited water resources - unfortunately without taking into account the needs of ordinary people. This creates conflict between the capacity of nature and human actions and efforts. And then there is the overarching conflict between the rich and the poor. We're now starting to see all of these conflicts accumulate.

ZEUNER I'm more optimistic. If there is an obvious conflict of interest, the supply with drinking water should indeed be treated as a priority. But we also need economic development, even more so when resources are scarce. If water resources are depleted, this serves neither the local economy nor private households or the government. I hope that the water sector will serve as a powerful example for the best results being achieved by cooperating. Integrated water resource management systems are crucial, as they allow all stakeholders to determine a fair and sustainable system, in which each stakeholder gets a fair share of water.

This is not always easy, for example in unstable regions or if issues have to be addressed across national borders.

ZEUNER Natural watersheds do not follow political borders, that's right. For this reason, many water issues need to be dealt with across borders. But this can work. In Jordan, the planning of water projects is based on a long-term view and takes into consideration how the measures affect neighbouring states. We support interesting projects in Eastern Africa, where water management is decided across borders, at least at a certain level. These are good examples.

Maude Barlow and Jörg Zeuner sit across a table and talk to each other.
Speaking and listening

Maude Barlow and Jörg Zeuner met in the Old Harbour of Würzburg to exchange their ideas. The Canadian author and activist, who visited Germany upon invitation of the "Allianz der öffentlichen Wasserwirtschaft" (representation of interests of public water management in Germany), later held a presentation in Würzburg on "The human right to water".

You mentioned Jordan. In Jordan, deep wells were built to draw fossil water. Like in the American Mid West, where deep wells are used to provide water for farming. These aquifers are many thousand years old and do not replenish. What will happen once the reserves have been fully exploited?

BARLOW We need to understand that we're in a race against time. The demand for water in our world is rising and fresh water resources are diminishing. We're using too much ground water, doubling our consumption every twenty years. This abuse of water is destructive. On day 59 things are still looking good and on day 60 the water is gone.

Could you be more specific?

BARLOW The Ogallala aquifer in North America is one of the largest aquifers in the world. The US Department of Agriculture confirms that it will be depleted in our lifetime. And what are we using this water for? We're farming corn on huge industrial farms, exclusively for the production of corn-based ethanol. You need around seventeen hundred litres of water to produce one litre of corn ethanol. This is a waste of farmland and a waste of water. We need to address these issues across borders and answer the question: "What's the effect of this measure on the environment and on water resources?" Otherwise we will soon face dire consequences. We're talking about the very near future here and I'm very concerned. Governments promote trade agreements and the export of cheap and water-intensive foodstuffs. But nobody is asking: What impact does this have on our water?

Aerial shot of large flocks of sheep that move across rocky, dry landscape.
Out of place

Flocks of sheep graze the last leafs and stalks on drought-ridden pasture land.

ZEUNER The agricultural sector is probably the largest consumer of drinking water in most countries. This is teaching us, and I would like to emphasise this again, that all stakeholders need to be included in designing the water system and also in establishing the rules governing the distribution of water among stakeholders. Price plays an important role here. In my opinion, water needs to have a price. Water will be one of the scarcest resources there is. It is not for free and unlimited, as we were led to believe for a long time. In order to avoid water wastage, a fee should be paid by most of its consumers. This does not mean that there are no poor, weak sections of society who will not pay anything and still be granted access to drinking water. The supply system needs to cover the costs, and the loss of water must be minimised. This is a huge task.

BARLOW I'm not against a service fee, but I do make a distinction here: you should pay for the service and not for the water. And those unable to pay, we agree on this, must still be granted access. We have to protect water supply mechanisms from mercantile profit orientation. The supply with water must be publicly controlled.

Human right
Logo of the United Nations

Through resolution 64/292, adopted on 28 July 2010, the UN recognised the human right to water. The United Nations had already defined improved access to drinking water as one of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

The human right to water and sanitation was recognised by the United Nations in 2010, thus placing this important resource in the focus of the global community. Ms Barlow, you played a major role in the enforcement of this resolution. Will it change anything?

BARLOW It's difficult to enforce something in the UN. However, in this case members recognised that the crisis we're facing here is twofold: ecological and humanitarian. We're unable to solve the humanitarian crisis without addressing the ecological issues. If our surface waters are polluted and groundwater depleted, we cannot establish justice in this world. And I believe that many decision-makers have understood this. By the way, Germany was one of the leading countries supporting the resolution for a human right to water. We're experiencing now a fundamental change in our relationship to water, and that makes me very optimistic.

Drip irrigation can save a lot of water in farming, and desalination plants are also a great help. Do we need more technology in order to preserve existing resources?

In dialogue ...

Maude Barlow and Dr Jörg Zeuner in dialogue (KfW Bankengruppe/Fluglinse).

ZEUNER Innovation is very important, technological progress is very important. We need new ideas and have to find out where we can implement them. A professionally organised water system, which also incorporates ideas and methods from the private sector, is the precondition for efficiency and sustainability. In Germany in particular, we have many ideas and a lot of experience. But we have to take into account the knowledge base of international project partners when using these technologies. When we look at wastewater treatment, we see a very good example for a field where we can start with simple technologies and build on that. This way, we can gradually achieve higher and higher standards that eventually lead to clean water.

BARLOW It's important to use appropriate technology. I've visited a place called Salisbury in Southern Australia. They wanted to build an energy-intensive desalination plant there, but the people said no. Instead, about a hundred wetlands were created to collect strong rainfall, clean and store the water. The region has so much water now that they are even able to sell it. They have turned the desert green and now see bird and animal species which they had never seen there before. Many people visit the place to learn from this project. And this is really simple, old technology.

“The crisis we’re facing here is twofold: ecological and humanitarian.”

Maude Barlow

If you look into the future, what kind of world do you see? Do you see a world full of environmental conflict and water wars? Or do you see a global community that has learned to preserve its natural heritage?

ZEUNER There is potential for conflict, but I also see many opportunities with regard to scarce resources. The best solution is based on cooperation. I'm therefore firmly convinced that we will work together and recognise the mutual benefit for us all.

BARLOW Yes, I totally agree. I see water as a potential gift of nature to teach us how we can live on this planet in a different, and perhaps simpler way. In Canada we're highly aware of the heritage of our First Nations people. It teaches us to love water. Our understanding is that we're responsible for seven generations after us, and that we have to leave the place where we were born in a state that is at least as good as it was when we came here.

Cover of CHANCEN

This article has been published in CHANCEN, autumn/winter 2016, "The power of water".

To German edition

What gives you hope that soon more people will think like that?

BARLOW I've seen how long it took before the attitude towards women's rights changed. But we know it's possible, we can change. We're able to respect water and we can learn to treat our water reserves better than we have done in the past.


All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.

Published on KfW Stories: 17 February 2017, last updated 30 April 2019.