The World Water Forum and the Resistance Against the Corporate Takeover of Water
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The global water justice movement is perhaps one of the best examples of a social movement that grew out of local water struggles into a transnational network aimed at promoting strategies of solidarity and resistance to neoliberalism.
I am just back from a week-long intervention with Maude Barlow, our chairperson at the Council of Canadians, Blue Planet Project colleagues and allies from around the world in Marseille where the 6th World Water Forum was held between March 12 and 17.
According to Maude, who has been an integral part of this movement since its inception in the 1990s, this last intervention signalled a major shift in power.
"At the first forum that was open to the public in The Hague, we had to find each other and meet in the hallways," she told the more than 4,000 activists gathered at the opening ceremony of the Alternative Forum (Le Forum Alternatif Mondial de l'Eau or FAME). She described with great pride how a disjointed group of people who were concerned about water issues grew steadily into a movement that would build its own forums.
Quite appropriately, the opening ceremony was a celebratory event aimed at honouring the various victories of the movement including the July 2010 UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation, the remunicipalization of water and sanitation services and the referenda through which people in Madrid, Italy and elsewhere in the world have shown overwhelming support for the human right to water and public services.
A corporate trade show in UN clothing
While boasting several UN agencies as partners, the World Water Forum is criticized for posing as a multi-stakeholder body. The overarching message of activists protesting the World Water Forum is that there is a need for international policy and multilateral cooperation when it comes to water resources, but a trade show run by water multinationals cannot be the space for these discussions.
You don't have to know anything about the World Water Forum to know something is wonky when a forum that claims to provide solutions for the world's water crisis shuts out vast segments of the public. With a heavy police presence surrounding the Forum, activists attempting to register on the first day were detained before even entering the Forum. There was no apparent reason other than the fact that many were young and not garbed in business attire. Some had slogans like "water is a human right" on their clothes.
As soon as Maude landed in Marseille, she was outraged to hear police were protecting a private corporate forum. There had already been reports in the media about the excessive use of public funds for this forum, which did not factor in the security costs. Of course, the entrance fee of 700 Euros was unaffordable for most activists, particularly those from the Global South.
Most emblematic of this problem are what they call the "high-level" policy roundtables with only limited access to civil society and the public. As noted in a blog by Council of Canadians campaigns director, Brent Patterson, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow was invited by the Uruguayan government to speak at a roundtable which included governments from Uruguay, Spain and Switzerland. Her participation was blocked by the World Water Council despite the fact that the governments convening the event wanted her at the table. Brent's blog can be read here.
Backtracking on the human right to water and sanitation
On its second day, the Forum released what it calls a "ministerial declaration." As in previous years, the declaration does not acknowledge the human right to water and sanitation. The major difference this time around, is that the right is now officially recognized by the United Nations. We heard from official sources that Canada was the country that blocked the resolution. The declaration is drafted in secrecy and there are no signatures attached to it allowing for the country with the weakest position to influence the final outcome.