Water Forum Not The Place
To Solve Global Water Crisis
By Laura Carlsen
01 April, 2006
flooded Mexico City the week of March 16-22, causing major traffic jams,
provoking street confrontations, and filling the pages of local and
international newspapers. Yet nothing got wet.
The long-awaited Fourth World
Water Forum brought over 10,000 participants and hundreds of journalists
to town to discuss what organizers hoped would be the mostly technical
issues of a shared human concern. The event is organized every three
years by the World Water Council, which groups 300 organizations including
industry representatives, government ministries, international institutions,
and development banks.
However, the technical discussions
were quickly eclipsed by a clash of worldviews. From the outset, forum
officials expressed their view that water cannot be valued properly
until it is assigned a market price that reflects costs, and that private
participation is necessary for investment in infrastructure. This is
the vision pushed by the World Bank and others since they created the
Water Council in the mid-nineties. The accompanying water trade fair
offered a glimpse of what's at stake for the burgeoning water industry,
worth about $400 billion dollars a year.
Meanwhile, members of the
urban popular movement, small farmers' organizations, and indigenous
peoples asserted that access to water is a right and a public good.
This clash has happened at
previous forums. The Third Forum in Japan saw numerous dissenting voices
and protest actions, which is the reason that security and access were
tightened up at the Mexico City Forum. But a major change occurred between
the Third and Fourth Forums. What was once a sound of alarm from environmental
groups who warned of the risks of privatization has grown into a worldwide
grassroots protest movement.
In a tidal shift that wasn't
entirely clear until Mexico City, public opinion has moved against private-sector
management and reclaimed water as a basic human right to be managed
outside the market, by the people. In the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia,
residents fought the private concession for water distribution—and
won. Private contracts throughout the developing world have been cancelled
when irate users or disappointed governments noted that rates were raised
while promised investment—especially in non-profitable poor areas—never
materialized. In Latin America , the most unequal region of the world,
private concessions have exacerbated inequities in access to water by
focusing services in lucrative urban zones and ignoring areas where
the need is worst.
In a remarkable demonstration
of how water issues have filtered into public consciousness, on March
16 thousands of people marched through Mexico City with signs reading
“Public Water Forever,” “Life, not Profits,”
and “You Can't Buy What Has Never Been for Sale: Land and Water
are Sacred.” It marked the first time an essentially environmental
issue had mobilized so many people to protest.
The decline of the privatizing
model for water and sanitation systems was obvious in the defensive
posture of the pro-business forum organizers. On the linguistic battleground,
the word “privatization”—once the darling of economic
reformers—has been routed from the official discourse on water.
Promoters now speak of the role of the private sector in cooperating
in financing and establishing “mixed investment.”
But although the World Bank
and transnational corporations recognized their public image problem
and sought to avoid being portrayed as privatizers, their proposals
for water management emphasized market measures and private investment,
in marked contrast to the community-management solutions proposed in
the alternative forum.
In fact, moving between the
two forums, contrasts were the order of the day. In the alternative
forum, a representative from the Colombian trade union representing
Coca Cola workers assassinated by paramilitary forces for union activities
joined a spokesperson for Indian villages protesting the drying up of
their water sources by Coke bottling plants to demand a global boycott
of the transnational. At the official forum, Coke was a major sponsor
and all the beverages provided to thirsty participants bore its famous
trademark. Throughout the week, international leaders in suits vied
for the front pages with indigenous women, municipal workers, and environmentalists.
The World Water Council is
a non-elected organization with no public mandate and no formal decision-making
authority. Despite its claims to be a multi-stakeholder arena, the Fourth
Forum established physical, economic, and bureaucratic barriers to limit
the participation of critical voices; it imposed labyrinthine rules
for press participation; and sought to sideline countries opposed to
the final declaration (Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Cuba).
The final declaration itself
was an exercise in futility. Most organizations had assumed that at
least the Forum would pronounce in favor of elevating access to water
to a basic human right, as already included in the UN Convention on
Economic and Social Rights and stated in the WWF president's foreword.
This did not happen. The
final, highly diluted declaration merely “underlines the need
to include water and sanitation as priorities in national processes
…” Behind-the-scene comments indicate that this was the
result of heavy lobbying by the industry federation, AguaFed. If water
were recognized as a basic right, private companies could ostensibly
be held in violation for cutting off privatized water to poor users
in arrears—currently a standard practice.
No one disputes the seriousness
of the water crisis. Two billion people in the world without access
to drinking water, 3.35 billion without basic sanitation services, two
million children dead a year of water-related illnesses, prolonged drought,
aquifer depletion, and polluted rivers—together create a bleak
outlook for the future. However, the Fourth Forum offered little to
alleviate the crisis. Even studies presented at the Forum revealed a
lack of consensus on the efficacy of private sector involvement and
a long list of problems. The declaration merely announced the formation
of a data bank on “best practices” and affirmed previous
The United Nations, the international
financial institutions, and national governments should leave the World
Water Forum, and it should be left to continue its activities as primarily
a trade and industry fair and industry adviser. The UN should strengthen
its own programs with the active participation of member states and
develop broad mechanisms for civil society participation and sharing
community-based best practices. Civil society should be aided in developing
forums to exchange experiences and build alternatives.
The privatization model for
water use and distribution has failed to deliver. It's time to make
room for new, more democratic, alternatives.
Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program of the International Relations
Center, online at www.irc-online.org.