Water Rights Activists Blast World Water Forum as "Corporate Trade Show to Promote Privatization"


AMY GOODMAN: Sunday was World Water Day and marked the close of a week-long gathering held in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss water policy at a time when over a billion people lack access to clean water and two-and-a-half billion lack water for proper sanitation.

Activists from the People's Water Forum, an alternative formation representing rural poor, the environment and organized labor, slammed the official event as a non-inclusive, corporate-driven fraud pushing for water privatization and called for a more open, democratic and transparent forum. The forum, which is organized every three years by the French-based World Water Council, is funded in large part by the water industry.

The forum opened last Monday with Turkish police firing tear gas and detaining protesters, who were shouting “water for life, not for profit.” Two activists from the non-governmental organization International Rivers were deported after holding up a banner just before the conference began that read “No Risky Dams.”

The final non-binding communiqué from the official forum describes access to water as a “basic human need” rather than a human right, despite efforts by dissenting Latin American countries, France and Spain. They were reportedly blocked by Egypt, Brazil and the United States.

Well, Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films caught up with some of the leading campaigners from the People's Water Forum -- Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch, Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South, and Maude Barlow, the senior adviser on water issues to the United Nations General Assembly and Right Livelihood Award-winner -- for their thoughts on the World Water Forum. Begins with Maude Barlow.

    MAUDE BARLOW: Every time you turn around, everywhere you go, there are police. It's absolutely unbelievable. You cannot come in from the outside. There's absolutely no way. Unless you've paid a great deal of money and you've had the security screening and you behave yourself very properly while you're in there, you would not be welcome. You would be thrown out and/or arrested. And the World Water Council people, the World Water Forum, did not critique what the police have been doing here. They've just accepted it and enjoyed it and taken advantage of the tough security measures here.

    The security is tight, because what they're about is promoting privatization, promoting a corporate vision of the world, and they want to pretend to the world that that's the consensus of the world. And it isn't. And our groups are here to say it's not, and so they want to control us as much as possible.

    They basically say that they are the collection of people around the world who care about water, and they come together every three years to have this great big summit. And every single year, the police presence gets more and more like the World Trade Organization, every single year, from the very beginning, when there was none, to this. But basically, the World Water Council, which puts this on, is really the big water corporations and the World Bank and some UN agencies and some northern development agencies, some academics, the odd small NGO -- small as in, you know, NGOs, but really, it is the corporations, and it's a big trade show. That's what this is about. They'll put on sessions on gender and water, but they don't mean any of it. This is really about one development model for water, and that's the privatization model. And that's what they're promoting, and that's what their consensus is, and they refuse to include the notion of the right to water and, of course, the public trust into their documents.

    WENONAH HAUTER: We've been organizing around the water forums for several years, because this is the corporate trade show where decisions are made about who gets water and who doesn't get water. Strategies are developed here. And it's basically a big business corporate cheerleading session that sets the agenda for the world. And rather than governments coming up with the solutions for the 1.4 billion people that don't have access to water, we have the corporations that are going to benefit from privatizing it and for providing financing for new and old infrastructure.

    In the US, we just looked at the twenty states that have the most private water, and you have to understand that 86 percent of water in the US is public, although the private companies are moving in, because they think there's a big profit. But in those twenty states, private water is always more expensive, and private sewage is always more expensive, and we're talking sometimes as much as 80 to 100 percent more.

    The other thing that the private companies are trying to do at this meeting and that they're promoting in the US is private financing for water infrastructure. Now, this sounds good, and it may even sound good to well-meaning NGOs, because everybody knows that there isn't enough money going into services for the poor, but when you look at the details, it's a rip-off. So, in the US, where we have fewer federal dollars spent on our aging infrastructure, there's about a $22 billion deficit every year. The private investors think that in this economic crisis, it's a safe place to make a profit.

    You know, lots of times we are accused of being too idealistic, of being ideologues. But, in fact, it's the other way around. When you actually look at the facts, the facts are with us. Privatization is not more efficient, and there are dozens and dozens of studies from around the world, the developed world and the Global South that prove this. It's more expensive. It causes more environmental problems. And the incentive is to not conserve water, but to use as much water as possible and to spend as much money as possible in building and fixing infrastructure. And that's why we're being prevented from having a dialogue in this forum.

    MARY ANN MANAHAN: I'm a researcher, campaigner with an organization called Focus on the Global South. We're here for the Alternative People's Forum, with the People's Water Forum. And people here are very -- it's very different from the official World Water Forum, in the sense that this is the real water forum for us.

    They used the water crisis in Asia as a staging point to launch privatization experiments across the region. But for the last ten to fifteen years, we've been experiments, or we've been the laboratory of privatization projects and guinea pigs. But we've experienced, for the last -- early on to the privatization experiments, that it has failed to deliver its promises of efficient delivery, transparent and democratic water systems, of lower prices. Those promises have failed miserably. And the failures are systemic.

    And they're not anecdotal, you know, just one case, but we're seeing a trend where in each country where they try the privatization experiment, they all have failed. So this is why many of the groups who are experiencing the impacts of privatization in their communities, particularly those who work with poor communities who can't come here, because they don't have the money to come here, were sharing the stories, the stories of the people who are actually experiencing the unequal access to water and sanitation.

    MAUDE BARLOW: The World Water Forum is bankrupt of new ways to address the growing water crisis in the world, because they have maintained an adherence to an ideology that is not working, that has dramatically failed.

    I'll tell you what happened here. It's no longer about the World Water Forum. That's what happened here. We just transferred, and now it's about us and our vision. The World Water Forum is bankrupt. They're bankrupt of ideas. They're bankrupt of money, frankly. And they have no other thing to offer but what's failed. And what's clear here is that the energy and the commitment and the brilliance and the ideas and the cultural change has come together. And this is where the future of water is coming from, this movement here in this room. It's not coming from over there. So we will be less concerned -- I mean, if they want to go to Marseilles, let them go to Marseilles next time. It won't matter. It really won't matter. The change has been here. It's been a transfer of power. That's what happened here.


Maude Barlow, the senior adviser on water issues to the United Nations General Assembly and chair of the Council of Canadians, speaking out against the World Water Forum that is wrapping up now in Istanbul, Turkey.

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