Why World Water Forum 'Solutions' Miss the Mark
Yesterday I walked around the “solution tents” at the 6th World Water Forum, which is more clearly than ever a trade show for the water industry to sell expensive services and products. Arranged as a “village,” the exhibit offered no vision for a future that addresses the source of pollution or the reason that millions of people lack access to water. From the tents labeled “factory” and “slum” to the “bank” and “library” exhibits, the failure to address the real problems was Kafkaesque.
Take the factory exhibit. In no place there was the cause of pollution mentioned. There was no suggestion that we should prevent pollution to begin with, or that waterways should not be the dumping ground for human waste or factory waste. In fact, pollution was never mentioned at all. The organizers of this corporate forum see pollution as a profit center to be cleaned by a range of technologies. So, instead of addressing water pollution issues, the exhibit featured an expensive machine that packages water in little plastic bags that are sold to people during disasters. It displayed the Hippo Roller, a nifty technology that is essentially a barrel on wheels that makes it easy for women to transport water. It featured a stand with two buckets, one above the other, that was for hand washing.
The slum tent, designed to mirror any of the millions of impoverished neighborhoods that have become the norm in urban areas, shows the real agenda at the forum—making money for the water industry. Most outrageous in the tent was Veolia’s water fountain with a coin slot and a place to use a smart card to access water. According to the provided literature, if the prepaid credit made available to a “target population” by authorities is depleted before the end of the month, users can recharge their card in commercial and mobile agencies at special prices. If this is the best the World Water Forum can do for the world’s poor—prepaid cards for water at a fountain—they should pack up today and go home.
It also featured the biodegradable Peepoo bag that can be used to prevent waste from going into the local river. Small bags collect the waste and they are placed in a larger bag that is eventually taken to a point where the plastic bag and waste are turned into compost. While it wasn’t clear whether the chemicals used in making the bags are safe, the idea of composting waste is good. This is not to say that these technologies are bad within themselves. But, they are not a long-term solution to the world’s water crisis or the lack of access to water.
The contempt for the public provision of water was demonstrated by the graffiti on the side of their built out slum that said in French, “delegation of public water,” with an arrow pointing to a wheel barrel with water jugs.
But, these types of “solutions” put the onus on the individual, not the national government. Even good technologies that present temporary solutions are costly for people who live on one dollar a day. These types of solutions require poor families to use their meager earnings to gain access to drinking water or to deal with their waste. This is not a long-term solution.
We gained access to these services in the United States because the decision was made to spend tax dollars building the infrastructure needed to supply drinking water and to treat wastewater. It’s time to talk about real solutions for doing the same in the developing world. While multinational companies are benefiting from the oil, gold and cocoa in countries like Nigeria or Ghana, the residents of these countries providing this wealth are going without having their basic needs met. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund should start pressuring governments to tax multinational companies, rather than using their political power to force these governments to give tax breaks to multinationals.
It’s also time to start including pollution prevention goals at the forefront of the debate on solving the world water crisis. A forum that does not address pollution or real long-term solutions for providing everyone safe drinking water is not a venue for governments to participate in.
The World Water Forum is dead. Low attendance and a dearth of real solutions make it pale and anemic in contrast to FAME (Forum Alternatif Mondial de l’Eau), the Alternative Forum where thousands of people are gathering across town to discuss implementing the right to water. We are calling on the UN to stop kowtowing to industry and to start a process that looks at the real options for providing water for the thirsty—from the use of development money to the institution of a small charge on financial transactions. The global water justice movement is calling on the UN to hold the next global meeting on water in the fall of 2014.
The time is now for the UN and governments around their world to fulfill their duty and not to delegate it to corporations.