Fifth World Water Forum Marked by Violence and Repression


As the World Water Forum opened in Istanbul Turkey yesterday, 300 Turkish activists gathered near the forum's entrance were faced with an overwhelming force of 2000-3000 police. The peaceful protest quickly escalated as police charged the crowd, firing water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets and lunging into the crowd with fists and truncheons.

The World Water Forum is a triennial gathering which, according to it's website, is "an open, all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process" where governments, NGOs, businesses and others "create links, debate and attempts to find solutions to achieve water security." The World Water Council, the forum's main organizer, is dominated by two of the world's largest private water corporations, Suez and Veolia. Loïc Fauchon, president of the Council, is also the president of Groupe des Eaux de Marseille, a company owned jointly by Veolia and a subsidiary of Suez. The alternate president, Charles-Louis de Maud'huy, has been working at Compagnie Générale des Eaux, a subsidiary of Veolia, since 1978. 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.

With 1.4 billion people worldwide lacking access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion lacking access to sanitation, according to WHO figures, the issue has come to the forefront of the global agenda, and sparks anger in many who are close to the problem, especially in poor countries.

At a meeting of the Freshwater Action Network, a global gathering of civil society organizations the day before the Forum's opening, Zimbabwean water activist Nyanzone Malimi warned his colleagues from many countries in the Global South, "The World Water Forum is not a politically neutral space ... it is a very ideological space, and so while we are here this week, we've got to go out there and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight."

The World Water Council and the four previous forums have promoted policies such as Public-Private Partnerships (PPP's) that put water services under private ownership. PPP's in Argentina, Bolivia, the US, and other countries have resulted in price hikes, decreased pollution control, and water 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, a key document of the 5th Forum, attempts to secure the commitment of local authorities to similar water policies, including private sector management.

The police riot at the forum's gate resulted in 26 arrests and three people severely injured, two by beating and one by rubber bullets. According to Turkish law, they can be held up to 48 hours before charges are brought. They are expected to be arraigned today.

One of the Turkish organizations protesting the forum is the Campaign 'Another Water Management is Possible.' A spokesperson for the Campaign, Turkish musician Birol Topalolu, has criticized his government's current water policies, focusing on the rash of dams being planned and constructed. Turkey's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, or DS, plans to build 600 dams on the country's rivers, including several in the Eastern Kurdish region where the local population has been demanding political independence from Turkey for decades.

"Although it is going to create 10,000 megawatts of energy annually, they don't take notice of the damage it will cause to nature," said Topalolu. "There are plans to build 50 dams on just one river near the Black Sea. The Ilsu Dam Project will leave 313 square kilometers of settlement underwater, which will also destroy the 10,000-year-old city, Hasankeyf."
Just after the violent scuffle outside the forum's main gate, another scuffle erupted inside at the inaugural event. Ann-Kathrin Schneider and Payal Parekh of the organization International Rivers unfurled a banner reading 'No Risky Dams.' While many WWF participants applauded the protest, the police immediately detained the two. After being held in jail overnight, charged with "manipulating the public opinion," they were given the option of one year in Turkish prison, or immediate deportation. The two are expected to arrive in their home countries today.

Meanwhile, a block of southern governments led by Uruguay is building support for an alternative, legitimate forum to be led by the United Nations, and high-profile civil society voices such as Maude Barlow are calling for this to be the last World Water Forum.

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