Critics Rail Against 'Stealth' Privatization as World Water Forum Opens in Mexico
By Mark Stevenson
Associated Press
March 16, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- Experts from 121 nations gathered Thursday for seven days of talks aimed at resolving the world's water crises as demonstrators gathered to protest against privatization, dam projects and water extraction from poor Indian communities.

The protesters set up camp in downtown Mexico City in preparation for a march north to the convention center where Mexican President Vicente was to inaugurate the IV World Water Forum later Thursday.

Police authorities said they would keep protesters at least a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the center, which was heavily guarded by officers who also had cordoned off streets several blocks away from the forum site.

Forum organizers have established the goal of improving water access for the poor, but similar past efforts have failed: The poor pay vastly more money to private corporations for their water today than they did when the first global water forum was held in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997.

Outright privatization of water systems has been a hard sell since 2000, when thousands of Bolivians protested rate increases in water contracts held by foreign companies. The protests left seven demonstrators dead and forced the companies out of the country.

Bottled water, on the other hand, has earned good profits and little attention.

"It's in some way sort of a stealth privatization," said Janet Larsen, research director for the Earth Policy Institute, a private, Washington-based environmental group. Larsen noted that the biggest gains in bottled water sales are in developing countries.

Mexico -- where about 40 percent of the nation's 103 million residents live in poverty -- is a poster child for the phenomenon: The country is now the second-largest consumer of bottled water in the world, just behind the United States in terms of volume and behind Italy in per capita consumption.

Sales of bottled water in China jumped by more than 250 percent between 1999 and 2004. They tripled in India and almost doubled in Indonesia, according to a study released by the institute. Worldwide, the industry is now worth about US$100 billion (euro83.5 billion) per year.

Dominated in many regions by giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle, bottled water -- once a First World health indulgence or a symbol of European epicures -- is fast becoming a staple of the Third World.

It's not because people can suddenly afford the luxury; it's that the tap water in some countries is so bad that people are loath to use it, sometimes even for bathing.

"You can't even brush your teeth without fearing that you're going to get who-knows-what infection," said Javier Bogantes, director of the Latin American Water Tribunal, which is holding mock "trials" of water-rights violations in Mexico City during the forum. "You can't take a shower, thinking about what the stuff in the water could do to your skin."

In Mexico, bottled water is distributed by vendors in roving bicycle carts for as little as 9 pesos (80 cents) for a 20-liter (4.5-gallon) jug. Usually, it's just filtered tap water.

Still, it's a hot seller in Mexico City slums such as Iztapalapa, where the yellow-brown tap water is tainted by magnesium and iron. Locals call it "tamarind juice."

"We usually buy three or four jugs a week (of bottled water) but sometimes, there isn't enough money," said Juana Maria Bautista Ortiz, 42, who earns about 700 pesos (US$66; euro55) per week as a factory worker.

Bautista -- like many poor around the world -- often spends as much as one-tenth of her income on water sold in bottles or delivered by water-tank trucks.

Mexican officials, stung by the criticism that bottled water costs consumers thousands of times more than what tap water would, announced a quixotic campaign in early March to persuade people to drink from the tap.

Two days after the announcement, the government's Health Department conceded that, given tap-water quality, people should boil it before drinking it.

"The problem isn't that these (bottling) companies are supplying people" with water, Bogantes said. "The question is, given that governments have invested millions of dollars in water treatment and distribution systems, why aren't they supplying the population?"

One problem is that many people are accustomed to paying little or nothing for municipal water in many developing countries, said German Martinez, director of the water system in Mexico City, where only about 40 percent of customers pay on time. "What we really have to do is get people to pay for their water," he said.

"When we want to construct dams (that would provide more water for the population) people come and demonstrate" against them, added Jesus Campos, assistant director of Mexico's National Water Commission.

The world water forum, which meets every three years, is examining these issues. It also will address harnessing water for growth, providing water more efficiently, using it in a more environmentally conscious manner, and preventing it from causing natural disasters.

But Bogantes has doubts about whether the official water forum will consider non-commercial solutions.

"The current that is trying to solve water supply through privatization has been strong at past forums," Bogantes said. "And it appears to be the tendency here at this forum."

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