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April 8, 2009

Telling a New Story About Water

Activists push the idea of a global water commons at the corporate-controlled World Water Forum in Istanbul

By Jeff Conant

As the Fifth World Water Forum ended March 29 in Istanbul, a number of stories came out, each of which might have emerged as the big water story of the week.

The World Water Forum is a meeting of the most powerful interests in the water industry; it presents itself as a UN-led event but is more on the order of the World Economic Forum, an elite meeting of financial powerbrokers each year in Davos, Switzerland.

Story no. 1) Father Miguel d’Escoto, President of the UN General Assembly, and an outspoken critic of water privatization, requested a public audience at the Forum;in response, Maude Barlow, his Senior Advisor on Water, delivered his statement to the alternative, People’s Water Forum, where 600 global water rights activists had gathered in an unsanctioned event. ?In this statement, D’Escoto provided a serious critique of the World Water Council, sponsor of the tri-annual World Water Forum, and called upon member states of the UN to create a legitimate global water forum under the auspices of the United Nations.

However a story about the UN General Assembly President being excluded from speaking at the World Water Forum, and his advisor speaking instead to grassroots activists asking that the UN step in to replace the World Water Council, is not the main story. After all, everyone knows that nobody listens to the UN.

Story no. 2) A massive police presence guarded the site of the Forum, both inside and out, and was frequently activated to suppress dissent. A street demonstration on the opening day turned into a police riot, with 26 Turkish activists arrested and three severely wounded. Payal Parekh and Ann-Kathrin Schneider of the group International Rivers were arrested for unfurling a banner during the Forum’s inaugural speeches, and were deported from the country. There were several reports of water rights activists being physically removed from sessions. In a particularly odious example of police surveillance, Norwegian journalist Rolf Hanssen witnessed police in the Forum Press Center collecting information from the computers used by media covering the event.

But a story about Turkish police colluding with the World Water Council to control dissenting voices is not the main story. Turkey is, after all, a police state, and the World Water Forum is not a public event.

Story no. 3) The Forum’s Ministerial process—a series of roundtable discussions among government ministries with the goal of developing a joint statement—appeared to be tightly controlled by the Water Forum’s governing body, and resulted in a highly contested final declaration, declaring water a basic need, but leaving out the question of water as a human right. Renee Orellana, Bolivia’s Minister of Water and the Environment, pointed out that the statement also failed to address climate change, collective rights, the possibility of community-control of water resources, and indigenous people. The Ministries of Bolivia and Venezuela spearheaded the drafting of an alternative statement, and in the chaos of the final moments of the closing session, 25 governments signed the alternative statement endorsing water as a human right and 16 called for the United Nations to take over the Forum in order to promote a democratic water future. As I write, the governments of Switzerland, Norway, and the African Union, which comprises 53 countries, are considering signing the statement declaring water as a human right.

Though it may appear merely symbolic, the right to water is seen by advocates as crucial to promoting democratic, accountable governance of water issues. But the courage of a handful of countries from the global south to fly in the face of the World Water Council and build a responsible alternative to the Council’s corporate agenda is not the main story. After all, what power do they have in the face of large corporations?

Story no. 4) One story coming out of the World Water Forum has a slightly tragicomic edge. As UN water advisor Maude Barlow and Wenonah Hauter, head of the U.S. group Food and Water Watch, sought the nearest restroom after attending a Forum session, they were rebuffed by security, and told that there were VIP washrooms and common washrooms. This story highlights the fact that inequitable access to water and sanitation is not merely symbolic of the divide between the wealthy nations of the North and the impoverished nations of the South, but is in fact one of the root causes of this divide. The slap-in-face of VIP washrooms reveals with stark clarity that the global elite running the World Water Forum, rather than seeking to bridge divides between those with access to water and those without, is fully intent upon maintaining its position as a global elite.

But this isn’t a story because do people really care about the 2.6 billion people without access to the global version of the VIP washroom?

In fact, none of these is the main story coming out of the Istanbul meeting, because the World Water Forum itself is no longer the main story. The World Bank has spent $200 million over the past fifteen years on water privatization policies and projects—the same policies promoted by the World Water Council—and by the World Bank’s own admission, these policies have failed. Two of the world’s largest private water operators, Suez and Veolia, major backers of the World Water Council, have received the lion’s share of World Bank investments in water and sanitation, and, in the process, raised water tariffs and delivered poor service from Atlanta to Argentina. During the same years that these companies aggressively promoted water privatization, public financing for water hit an all-time low, leaving millions high and dry.

The development model that aims to turn water into a commodity for sale; that has constructed dams on 60 percent of the world’s large rivers, displacing upwards of 40 million people (the lowest estimate); that has shifted massive amounts of natural resources from the “developing countries” to the “developed countries,” is coming to a crashing end. As Oscar Olivera, trade unionist and spokesman for the Bolivian Coordinadora del Agua y La Vida said, “What we are talking about today is a challenge to a whole concept of development, and to the imposition of structures that deny our rights and control our access to basic resources.”

“Today we are witnessing the transfer of power from the World Water Forum to the People’s Water Forum,” said UN advisor Maude Barlow. She also described the forces pushing for water privatization this way: “They are bankrupt morally and ideologically, and they are bankrupt in their ideas. They have nothing left to do but take from the rest of us.”

Food and Water Watch’s Wenonah Hauter pointed out, as she has many times before, that public investment in water is the very basis of public health in the northern nations and should be in the southern nations as well.

“For the water justice movement,” said Filipina activist Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South, “these are the best and the worst of times. The worst because the crisis is so grave; and the best because we now see the clear need for real, structural change.”

An important story coming out of Istanbul’s World Water Forum is the failure not only of a meeting of corporate water policy advocates, but of an entire development model.

At a press conference convened by the directors of the World Water Forum I asked, “What gives the forum its legitimacy?”

The answer: “It is the world’s biggest water event.”

But, as Arundhati Roy and others have said, the age of big is over. This is the century of the small.

Even the big story on water is about the coalition of small groups that are poised to change the situation: community groups, public water managers, unions, consumer and human rights activists, small NGOs, indigenous peoples, women’s organizations, and health advocates working to promote water justice from the ground up.

As Doctor V. Suresh, Director of the Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies in Chennai, India asked, “When we were approached by the World Bank Water and Sanitation Project we said, well, with such help we will have technical support for water management, and we already have the construction skills – but will we have the right knowledge of what water is?”

As Omar Fernandez, a Bolivian Senator and the Director of the National Organization of Irrigators, said, “It is the diversity of peoples in our nation that build the basis for managing water.”

As Steve Bloomfield of Public Services International, a global organization with 620 affiliated unions in 160 countries, representing 20 million workers told me, “If anyone has the experience to address the world water crisis, it is public sector workers – we are the greatest single body of experience that exists in this field, and we should be given the opportunity to put that experience to the test.”

On the last day of the Forum I spoke at length with a reporter from Agence France-Presse who came to the event in search of stories about appropriate technology and small-scale, community-driven development—rainwater collection, ecological sanitation, village-level water purification and the revival of traditional water management strategies. He didn’t find them. So I pointed him to Rajendra Singh, of Rajasthan, India, whose work with villagers over three decades has brought seven rivers back to life.

“We learned to value traditional knowledge,” says Singh, “where knowledge is shared for the good of all people and not for the good of some people to keep others down. Knowledge of the land’s contours, of the land’s capacity to hold water, and of the people’s capacity to manage it – geo-cultural knowledge. So, we have revived seven rivers in Rajasthan with the participation of people who were thought of as poor, as illiterate – and this not only brought the rivers back; it has brought back the meaning to their lives.”
I will not pretend, in the instance of this article, to be an unbiased or objective journalist. I attended the World Water Forum as an advocate for human rights and as a member of a broad coalition whose principle goal was to challenge the forum’s legitimacy. Why? Because the same private corporations and international financial institutions that caused the world’s water crisis should not pretend to take responsibility for solving it.

In more than ten years of involvement on water issues, I’ve dug trenches for pipes alongside villagers for whom potable water is equated both with self-sufficiency and with life. I’ve visited deeply impoverished people in many nations—people often living without decent sanitation, often struggling with toxic dumping, often suffering displacement as refugees of environmental devastation. I’ve seen that, surprising as it may at first appear, the poor pay more for clean water and are, of course, the first to see it taken away.

And in all of these places I’ve seen that, at the root of sustainable community development—whether in Akron, Accra, or Argentina—is self-reliance. And at the root of self-reliance is human dignity.

Dignity, which doesn’t necessarily wear a business suit or polished shoes.

Or any shoes at all, for that matter.

Yet, as the boosters of private sector investment remind us, there are certain facts we must confront. One of these facts—as fundamental as the air we breathe—is that water, like it or not, can be bought and sold.

But dignity, it has been said, cannot.

And dignity and water are closely related.

For those of us dedicated to promoting access to safe, sustainable water and sanitation for the world’s people, the World Water Forum is certainly not the main story—it is merely a distraction. But it is a dangerous distraction. And at this late date, with many people lacking access to safe water, with the climate crisis revealing new horrors on a daily basis, with the collapse of financial markets replacing terrorism as the greatest threat to global security, and with the same institutions that have been in charge of our money taking greater control of our water, we cannot afford such distractions.

With the convergence in Istanbul late last month of many NGOs and social movements from North America and Europe; with the presence of the African Water Network, the InterAmerican Network for the Defense and the Protection of Water Rights; with representation from the broad and diverse water movements of Asia and the Middle East; with the intervention of Father Miguel D’escoto, a Nicaraguan Jesuit at the helm of the UN General Assembly; with the involvement of environment Ministers of embattled southern governments like Bolivia and Venezuela; with more and more social movements defending the human right to water, the main story of the week is that the time has come for community-centered, earth-centered policies to become the focal point of water policy, both globally and locally, north, south, and everywhere.

But let’s hope this is not just the water story of the week. Let’s hope it is the water story of the century.