Water

World Water Forum Starts with a Bang: Activists Challenge Corporate Hypocrisy

Initiatives like the CEO Water Mandate allow corporations, not elected officials, to exert greater influence and control over global water policy.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – The 5th World Water Forum (WWF) is now in full swing in Istanbul Turkey. Water justice activists have convened from around the world to challenge the corporate driven agenda of the Forum while presenting an alternative vision for water justice that upholds and protects water as a human right and ecologist trust.

Such a response to the Forum is not new; every three years, the opening of each Forum has been marked by demonstrations, counter forums and other actions around the world that seek to challenge the role of private water corporations in setting the agenda for global water justice and policy.

The theme of this year’s forum, Bridging Divides for Water, is especially appropriate given the growing inequality in access to clean drinking water that plagues the planet. The UN estimates that currently a billion people in the developing world, mainly poor and marginalized communities, lack access to water and that figure is projected to grow to two out of three people in the near future.

However, the title of the Forum is ironic given the role of corporations in further creating “divides” in water, not bridging them. The Forum is organized by the World Water Council – an organization founded, led and influenced by transnational corporations, international financial institutions and their allies; all of whom have a stake in maximizing profits from water services delivery and the current global water crisis.

This year may prove to be a particularly challenging one for Forum proponents. More and more governments, NGOs, social movements, and other actors on the global stage are beginning to raise questions about the Forum’s legitimacy, and are calling on government leaders, including leaders of the UN, to move towards creating a more legitimate process and venue that fosters full democratic participation and decision-making regarding global water policy.

One stark illustration of the contrast between these competing visions for water policy is the meeting of the CEO Water Mandate in Istanbul, in conjunction with the Forum.

The CEO Water Mandate, an initiative launched in March 2008 and sponsored by the United Nations Global Compact Program, is presented to the world as an initiative by corporations and CEOs that encourages and enables corporations to take responsibility for their impact on global water resources. It is one of an increasingly dizzying array of ‘corporate social responsibility’ initiatives that make big promises about improving corporate practices, but in many cases have yet to deliver meaningful results. The Mandate is no exception.

To begin with, the companies that first launched CEO Water Mandate all have a vested interest in securing control over water sources and services in times of increasing water scarcity, and all have come under scrutiny for practices that have had hindered people’s access to water. A key player in the Mandate is Coca Cola, which has a highly questionable track record when it comes to water takings and water pollution. Suez, another signatory of the Mandate, is one of the world’s largest privatizers of water services. Nestle is the world’s leading bottled water company, and Pepsico and Groupe Danone are also major players in the global bottled water industry. A host of other companies from the mining, timber, chemicals and other industrial sectors whose processes are inherently water intensive and impactful, are now signatories to the Mandate as well.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the Mandate itself has no mechanisms within it to allow ordinary people to hold corporations accountable for their actions. The program is a ‘voluntary’ initiatives, meaning that ultimately the corporations involved have full say over how much they do or don’t do to honor the terms of the Mandate itself.

Last year, in response to the creation of the Mandate, NGOs from around the world signed and delivered a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the U.N. urging him to withdraw UN support for the CEO Water Mandate because of its inherent conflicts of interest and lack of transparency.

The response from leaders of the Mandate was swift; there was an immediate acknowledgement of the short-comings of the Mandate as a real tool for accountability. However, the proponents of the Mandate have pushed on; they have developed a so-called Transparency Framework, which they claim will improve the level of disclosure by Mandate participants regarding their activities.

However, looks can be deceiving. While under pressure, the leaders of the Mandate have begun to develop these new processes, the Mandate continues to work closely with a series of hand-picked stakeholders, including a few friendly NGOs. In Istanbul, the agenda of the Water Mandate meeting includes a few opportunities for ‘external stakeholders’ to express their views or ask questions of the Mandate leaders – if, that is, they can afford to pay the minimum registration fee of upwards of US$300 that gets them inside the Forum (a steep admission price for many people from the developing world who stand to be impacted by these corporations’ practices).

Meanwhile, several events related to the CEO Water Mandate are closed door sessions off-site of the Forum, including several key meetings directly with the endorsers of the Mandate. It is clear that while the Mandate now has a public face that it presents to the world, the real decisions are still being made out of sight.

Global water justice organizations, including Corporate Accountability International and the Polaris Institute, are once again raising the call to challenge this corporate driven water initiative, and are calling upon UN leaders to withdraw from the program.

These groups point out that the UN itself is facing a contradiction on its positions regarding water. On the one hand, the UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, has made it clear he is champion of the human right to water. He recently appointed leading water justice activist Maude Barlow from Canada as a Special Advisor to the UN General Assembly President on Water, and has called on the United Nations to explicitly recognize water as a fundamental human right.

On the other hand, initiatives like the CEO Water Mandate, threatened to undermine that right by allowing corporations, not elected officials and the people that they represent, to increasingly exert greater influence and control over global water policy.

Water justice activists around the world are looking to see how UN leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, will respond.

The call for transparency and accountability to the public, especially the billions of people worldwide without access to clean drinking water will echo throughout the World Water Forum this week in Istanbul. Water is the essence of life on this planet. As such, it is both a human right and an ecological trust. Any international policy should look to local communities and representative governments, rather than for-profit corporations, to set the global policy agenda and lead the development of solutions to the world water crisis. For that reason, water justice activists will be in Istanbul, Turkey all this week to demand change.
 

Mark Hays is a senior researcher at Corporate Accountability International.
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