23. Activists Slam World Water Forum as a Corporate-Driven Fraud

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

AlterNet, March 17, 2009
Title: “Fifth World Water Forum Marked by Violence and Repression”
Author: Jeff Conant

AlterNet, March 18, 2009
Title: “An Inside Peek: Why the World Water Forum Is a Sham”
Author: Jeff Conant

Democracy Now! March 23, 2009
Title: “Water Rights Activists Blast Istanbul World Water Forum as ‘Corporate Trade Show to Promote Privatization’”
Interviewee: Maude Barlow

KPFA, “Sunday Sedition,” March 29, 2009
Title: “Andria Lewis interviews Maude Barlow”

Student Researcher: Frances Capell
Faculty Evaluator: Andrew Roth, PhD
Sonoma State University

Water rights activists blasted the World Water Forum, held in Turkey in late March of 2009, as a corporate trade show promoting privatization of water. Three hundred Turkish activists gathered near the forum’s entrance and were faced with the overwhelming force of between 2,000 and 3,000 police. The forum opened with Turkish police firing tear gas and detaining protesters, who were shouting “Water for life, not for profit.”

According to its website, the World Water Forum is “an open, all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process” where governments, NGOs, businesses and others “create links, debate and attempt to find solutions to achieve water security.”

However, the Forum’s main organizer, the World Water Council, is dominated by two of the world’s largest private water corporations, Suez and Veolia. Critics contend that the Council’s links to Suez and Veolia, as well as the large representation of the business industry in the Council, compromise its legitimacy. Corporate interests that make up the World Water Council are in constant contact with the World Bank and other financial institutions. Each Forum is set up as a quasi-United Nations event, to the extent of issuing a Ministerial Statement at the Forum’s close promoting global policy approaches to water and sanitation.

The Council promotes extraordinarily expensive and destructive dam and water diversion projects as well as policies such as Public-Private Partnerships (PPP’s) that put water services under private ownership. PPPs in Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, the US, and other countries have resulted in huge price hikes, water pollution, depletion and cut-offs which, in the language of the water justice movement, “deny people the right to water.” Despite these and other harmful impacts, the Istanbul Water Consensus aims to secure the commitment of local authorities to similar water policies. This year’s forum issued a communiqué that describes access to water as a “basic human need” rather than a human right, despite efforts by dissenting Latin American countries, France and Spain to introduce the right to water. They were reportedly blocked by Egypt, Brazil and the United States. In the minutiae of political verbiage, this apparently slight difference in terminology can have a profound significance. If water is defined as a “need” rather than a “right,” it becomes a commodity subject to trade and implies no obligation on the parts of governments to ensure access to it. If it is a human right, on the other hand, mandatory government policy is activated to assure unconditional access to everyone.

Activists from the People’s Water Forum—an alternative formation representing rural poor, the environment and organized labor— slammed the official event as a non-inclusive, corporate-driven fraud pushing for water privatization. They called for a more open, democratic and transparent forum.  A block of Southern governments led by Uruguay is building support for an alternative, legitimate forum to be led by the United Nations.

High-profile civil society voices such as Maude Barlow, senior adviser on water issues to the United Nations General Assembly, are calling for this to be the last corporately held World Water Forum. “The security is tight, because what they’re about is promoting privatization, promoting a corporate vision of the world,” she said, “and they want to pretend to the world that that’s the consensus of the world. And it isn’t.”

Barlow maintains that multinational water companies and the World Bank are not proper hosts for a World Water Forum. She proposes that it be held under the auspices of the General Assembly of the United Nations, keeping the right to clean commons in the public trust to avert a deeply inequitable situation in which water is diverted from the poor to those who can pay for it.
“The World Water Forum is bankrupt of new ways to address the growing water crisis in the world, because they have maintained an adherence to an ideology that is not working, that has dramatically failed,” Barlow remarked on Democracy Now! “What’s clear here is that the energy and the commitment and the brilliance and the ideas and the cultural change have come together. And this [the People’s Water Forum] is where the future of water is coming from, this movement here.”

Update by Jeff Conant
The World Water Council, a private consortium led by two of the world’s largest water corporations, has come to be seen in the global water sector as a legitimate host of the world’s largest water policy gathering. But policies promoted by the corporate body have led to profound inequity in water service provision worldwide, while also serving to move huge amounts of public money into private hands. The World Water Council and its triennial gathering, the World Water Forum, strongly promote so-called Public-Private Partnerships that put water services under private ownership. PPP’s in Argentina, Bolivia, Ghana, Tanzania, the US, and other countries have resulted in price hikes, decreased pollution control, and water cut-offs, patently denying people—and especially the poor—access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.

One way in which the World Water Council seeks legitimacy is through promoting the appearance that it’s flagship event, the World Water Forum (WWF), is sponsored or endorsed by the United Nations. So, when Father Miguel D’escoto, President of the UN General Assembly, and a vocal opponent of water privatization, received no response from the Directors of the World Water Council to his appeal to speak at the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, the curtain was drawn back and the Council’s legitimacy came into question.
Covering the WWF in Istanbul, I persistently raised the question at press events there, “Why did Father D’Escoto’s letter receive no response?” The answer from Loïc Fauchon, President of the Council, was that no such letter had been received.

Since then, however, we have learned that the Directors of the WWC have contacted Father D’Escoto’s office to meet with him, and have suggested that many of the WWF’s future activities might come under the auspices of the UN. They seem to have been shaken by the attention.
The one aspect of the Forum over which the Council seems to want to retain control, however, is the Ministerial process. As I noted in my article, “An Inside Peek: Why the World Water Forum is a Sham,” “At each Forum, a series of roundtable discussions between government ministers, corporate lobbyists and NGOs leads to a final Ministerial Statement which, while it has no teeth in international law, plays a significant symbolic role in projecting policies on the ground.”

I wrote at the time, “While this process happens entirely behind the scenes and is obscure to nearly all the Forum’s participants, it is perhaps the most influential aspect of the event. Over the next two days we expect to see the intrigue come to a head.”

In fact, the conclusion of the process resulted, on March 22, in a serious vote of dissent, with twenty-five country delegations signing a statement defending the human right to water, and an additional sixteen demanding that future Water Fora be hosted by the UN. This is the largest collective act of dissent that the WWF has seen since its inception.

There has been very little mainstream press attention to the issue; in fact, there is persistent dearth of attention to the dire issues of water and sanitation in general. One exception has been the French press, which took up the issue in a cover story in Le Monde the day after the Forum’s closing. In the United States, these issues receive almost no coverage at all outside of the extreme independent press—a shocking truth given that lack of access to safe water is the number one cause of disease and death worldwide.

The best sources of information on this story, and on global water policy in general, are to be found through Food & Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org), for whom I work as a researcher and advocate, World Development Movement (http://www.wdm.org.uk), Public Services International Research Unit (http://www.psiru.org) and Transnational Institute, (http://www.tni.org).

Update by Maude Barlow
One of the most contentious issues surrounding the growing global water crisis is the question of who is going to determine access and allocation; will it be the market, or will it be people through their elected governments? Is water a commodity to be put on the open market to the highest bidder or part of our commons, a public trust and a human right? This struggle is intense in communities around the world who are fighting big private water utilities delivering water on a for-profit basis or giant bottled water companies coming in and depleting local water supplies. But every three years, the fight goes global at the World Water Forum, a massive gathering of people that resembles a United Nations summit but is actually sponsored by the World Water Council, made up largely of the big water corporations, the World Bank and pro-corporate segments of the UN.

The fifth World Water Forum was held in Istanbul and, as you know from the story, was the target of intense criticism from activists and environmentalists from Turkey and around the world; Miguel d’Escoto Brockman, the President of the UN General Assembly; and many nation-state representatives who disagreed with the fact that the “right to water” was not in the final declaration. In the end, twenty-five countries signed a second declaration declaring their support for the right to water and many openly stated that the next World Water Forum should be sponsored by the General Assembly of the United Nations and not by big private water operators who stand to profit from the assembly.

Since the forum, the pressure for the General Assembly to take over this role has intensified, and in my role as Senior Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly, I am urging the General Assembly to adopt an emergency resolution taking upon itself the responsibility of coming up with a global framework of action to deal with both the ecological and human crisis now upon the world, one that recognizes that water is a human right and therefore cannot be denied on the basis of the inability to pay.

This story matters because the growing water crisis is one of the most pressing threats of our time. But the only international body that presumes to speak for global policies and practices is one whose members are making billions as depleting water sources become market commodities and who deny water to those who cannot pay for it. It is a fundamental issue of democracy and of justice in deciding the future of policies that will affect the whole world.

There was very little media from North America covering this crucial story (thank heavens for Amy Goodman!) but it did get covered in Turkey and in the global South. For more information, go to Food and Water Watch, http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org, and the Blue Planet Project at http://www.canadians.org