World Water Forum Not The Place To Solve Global Water Crisis
Water 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
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
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.
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