The United Nations named a "water czar" this week to advise the world body on water policy. And while no one disputes the growing importance of water-supply issues around the globe, some are wondering if they've picked the right woman for the job.
Supporters say Maude Barlow of Canada is the perfect choice. "We are just thrilled. We think there's no one better to fill this spot," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, of which Barlow is a board member.
"She has been probably the most outspoken and well-known advocate in making water a human right and making sure that water is in public control, not corporate control," Hauter told FOXNews.com.
But critics say Barlow, 61, an activist from Nova Scotia with no scientific training, has no place advising the United Nations on hydrological issues. "[She] frequently resorts to hyperventilated or exaggerated claims — she's convinced the bottled water industry is out to take over the world," said Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.
"She makes such outrageous statements that you wonder why the U.N. would entrust her with even a titular position."
Barlow has accused major players in the water industry, like Suez Energy and Nestle Water, of violating human rights "in lots of cases" and has blamed them for sickness and death in a number of countries.
In Bolivia, she said, Suez violated a written agreement to put in a waste-water treatment system. "People die because they don't. Lake Titicaca is dying because they don't," she told FOXNews.com. "You're damn right that's a human rights violation. I have no trouble saying that whatsoever."
U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto introduced Barlow as his pick for the new position on Tuesday, a step in confronting the pollution and scarcity of water that Barlow calls "the most important human rights and ecological crisis of our time."
Barlow reiterated that message on the 60th anniversary of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Thursday.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to advance a more democratic and transparent method of policy making around water at the global level than now exists. Without water there is no life, water is a public good, and a human right,” said Barlow.
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 3.5 million people die each year from water-related illnesses — including 1.5 million children who die from diarrheal diseases and infections. The U.N. hopes to cut in half the number of people without access to sanitary water by 2015.
Barlow will advise D'Escoto and help craft water policy for the U.N. She is planning an all-day meeting there in February and hopes to organize an international summit in the spring, "to bring some heads of state together to talk about this crisis.
"It is my dream" to have a Rio-like summit for water rights, she said, invoking the 1992 summit in Brazil that set an international climate-change agenda.
At the top of Barlow's agenda is a push to make access to water a basic right, calling on all nations to take it out of private hands and provide their citizens free and sanitary water. "We want it to be a human right — we don't want people denied water because they're too poor to pay for it, which is happening now," she said.
That would represent a sea change in the way water is procured and distributed, a complete nationalization of resources that, if put into effect, could spell an end to the water industry.
Spokesmen for the industry said the emphasis on ending privatization was misplaced and that they would have preferred an appointee with more knowledge of the workings and infrastructure of the trade.
"Unfortunately if you're ... [just] going to fight the 'privatization' of water throughout the world, it's a misguided conception," said Rich Henning, a spokesman for United Water, a U.S. subsidiary of Suez Energy.
"It's really private companies that supply 90 percent of the world's technology in terms of water-treatment and distribution systems. It's really the private sector that has brought the most change to the water systems," he said.
Barlow says she has refused a salary and will have no staff, hoping to avoid the bureaucratic boondoggle that plagues the U.N.
"I have no intention of hanging out very much at the U.N.... I will still spend 90 percent of my time with the grassroots out on the road," she said. "I don't want to get caught in the bureaucracy."
Barlow sees herself as an activist voice within the U.N., continuing a 20-year career in water activism during which she has written numerous books and led international protests against the World Trade Organizations and the water industry.
She admits her new challenge is daunting and says the U.N. won't be able to bring about any quick fixes.
"I'm not saying that the moment we have a human right for water, the next day everything will be fine, because it's not," she said. "The United Nations cannot force any country to do what it doesn't want to do. It doesn't have that power."
She hopes that increased international pressure will force nations to reconsider selling water rights. "If nothing else," she said, it would give people "a personal spiritual tool to say we have these fundamental rights" and help water activists make a bigger push worldwide.