Fixing Our Water Crisis Can't Be Done by the Corporations that Are Exacerbating It
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As the Fifth World Water Forum ended recently in Istanbul, a number of stories came out, each of which might have emerged as the main water story of the week. But in fact, to see the most important story of the Forum you have to look beyond the Forum itself. Here's what happened.
Father Miguel d'Escoto, President of the UN General Assembly, and an outspoken critic of water privatization, had requested a public audience at the Forum -- which presents the appearance of a UN event -- but was denied; in response, Maude Barlow, his Senior Advisor on Water, delivered a statement from him to the alternative, People's Water Forum, where 600 global water rights activists had gathered in an unsanctioned popular event. In this statement, Father Miguel provides a serious critique of the World Water Council and calls upon member states of the UN to implement a process leading to a legitimate global water forum under the auspices of the United Nations.
But a story about the UN General Assembly President being excluded from speaking at the World Water Forum, and his advisor speaking instead to the grassroots forum to ask that the UN step in to replace the World Water Council, this is not the main story. After all, everyone knows that nobody listens to the UN.
The Forum grounds were protected by an enormous security apparatus, both inside and out, which was frequently invoked 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 anti-dam NGO International Rivers were arrested for unfurling a banner during the Forum's inaugural speeches, and were summarily deported. There were several reported occurrences of water rights activists being physically removed from Forum sessions. In a particularly odious example of 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 maintain order and control dissenting voices, this is not the main story. Turkey is, after all, a police state, and the World Water Forum is, in any case, a private affair.
The Forum's Ministerial process -- a series of roundtable discussions among government ministries with the goal of developing a unifying 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 peoples. The Ministries of Bolivia and Venezuela spearheaded an alternative statement, and in the chaos of the final moments of the closing session, 24 governments signed their statement on the right to water and 16 called for the United Nations to take over the Forum in order to promote a democratic water future.
Though it may appear (and may, in fact, be) merely symbolic, the right to water is seen by advocates as crucial to promoting democratic, accountable, transparent water governance. But the courage of a handful of southern-country governments to fly in the face of the World Water Council and build a responsible alternative to the Council's corporate agenda, this is not the main story.
If we were to seek a water story of the week with a slight tragicomic edge, perhaps we could point to the World Water Forum's "VIP toilet problem:" as Maude Barlow and Food and Water Watch's Wenonah Hauter sought the nearest restroom after attending a Forum session, they were rebuffed by security, and told that there were VIP washrooms and common washrooms. If we were to go with this story, we would focus on its metaphoric aspect: 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. But this isn't a story, because nobody really cares about the 2.6 or so billion people without access to the global VIP washroom.