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Debating the Future of Our World's Water

Achieving water democracy is surely a terrific opportunity to fix governance problems from the local to the global, but it's one enormous task.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Ilin Sergey


The World Water Council, the convener of the World Water Forum, sure knows its market. At their recent global gathering held in Marseille, France, they tapped into the thirst of governments, development agencies, banks, NGOs and private water operators for a conversation about water services and managing the growing water crisis — as well as a shot at lucrative contracts. Exhibition booths included desalinization companies and private firms like Suez and Veolia, the biggest in the industry. The event had the feel of a trade show and the price tag of the Superbowl, dissuasive to thousands of water justice activists who set up a parallel,  alternative peoples’ water forum in a dock-side warehouse.

Where is UN leadership on water? A Crisis of Water Governance

The first World Water Forum was held in 1997; the Sixth concluded last month. The World Water Council is a private, not-for-profit body with a board weighted towards private water industry representatives and government officials friendly to private water management. The United Nations might appear a more sensible host for a global conversation about world water policy—water troubles are felt locally but the hydrological cycle is turned topsy-turvy globally. Human rights and environmental activists who steered clear of the Forum advocate moving it to the UN. The same opinion was whispered to me by a Forum session facilitator, “but if we say it out loud, this party is over.”

One obstacle to this shift is the approximately 27 UN agencies that deal with water. This bureaucratic dispersion mirrors the way most national governments split administration of water matters. There tends to be one agency administering potable water, another issuing water permits to mine operators, a third overseeing sanitation and no one watching out for watershed protection. Unlike, say, the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no central UN agency for global water. No one leads; into the vacuum steps the World Water Council.

“Would you have a pharmaceutical business federation run the world conference on health?” Pedro Arrojo, 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize winner asked at a non-Forum meeting of civil society organizations and governments. “It would be unthinkable.”

Which is not to say that there wasn’t concern about the UN. Its track record on water is far from stellar. It’s true that the General Assembly did approve the human right to water and sanitation in 2010, but that right is already being eroded in draft documents for Rio Plus 20 world environmental conference. In 1997, the UN approved the Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, but 15 years later it is still stalled, awaiting implementation. Were the UN to convene the global water gathering, civil society participation might be buried in observer or consultative status. Communities affected by say, a large dam, might have trouble making their voices heard. This is at least partially due to disproportionate influence of the private sector as documented in the Blue Planet Project study,  A Review of Private Sector Influence on Water Policies And Programs at the United Nations

So much public water, so little discussion of public management

A barker handed me a flyer that caught my eye, “Improving Governance and Performance of Public Water and Sanitation Services.” Finally, I thought, a conversation about how public utilities can provide a better service. Halfway to the workshop, I read the finer print: the session would discuss how Algiers public authorities contracted with Suez Environment – improving public water by going private!

How do you explain this disproportionate focus on private water services if, as Gerard Payen, president of the private water operator’s federation Aquafed states, only 10% of water systems are privately run? The answer, it seems, is equal measures private entrepreneurism and public cowardice. Put yourself in the shoes of a public official surrounded by propaganda alleging public sector inefficiency. Is providing water to your constituents giving you a headache? Is the water workers union making your life miserable? We are here to help. Friends at development banks can train you to set contract benchmarks—as they condition loans to require privatization. Public authorities squeezed by fiscal crises may be happy to get water operations off their books. Heck, if transparency is opaque, they might even reap some personal gain.

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