by Afsar Jafri(1)
Unlike the World Water Forums in Marrakech (1997), The Hague (2000),
Kyoto (2003) and Mexico (2006), the Istanbul forum was unique in the
sense that for the first time, some of the governments questioned the
legitimacy of this international forum on water. Many government
delegates even raised the basic question that since the declaration of
the World Water Forum is not binding, why would they participate in the
Forum. Governments concern about the legitimacy of the World Water
Forum was quite valid since the WWF is organised by a ‘private’
authority, the World Water Council, which is created and controlled by
giant water corporations, to further their agenda for water
commodification, commercialisation and privatisation. Taking advantage
of the fact that there is no UN body or international institution with
the mandate to facilitate intergovernmental discussion on water policy,
the Forum has become a pseudo official meeting on the issue.
The World Water Forum is organised every three years as a joint venture between the World Water Council (WWC) and the government of the host country. The WWC is a non-profit organisation with members mainly from multinational water companies and international financial institutions. The corporate domination of the WWC is evident from the fact that M. Loïc Fauchon, the President of the WWC is also the President of Groupe des Eaux de Marseille, a company owned jointly by Veolia and a subsidiary of Suez. Even its alternate President, Charles-Louis de Maud'huy, has been working at Compagnie Générale des Eaux, a subsidiary of Veolia, since 1978. The main funding of the WWC also comes from water industries.
The discontent among the participating nations against the WWF was quite visible at the Istanbul Forum. Some of the government delegations were quite upset with the ‘lack of policy space’ vis-a-vis to their official Ministerial Statement. They were quite outraged with the exclusion of an expression to recognise access to safe drinking water and sanitation as "a basic human right," and not just a "basic human need," which was in the draft Ministerial statement. Since the beginning of the Istanbul Forum, the government delegations from Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela with the support of some of the Northern and African government delegations tried their best to open the discussion on the ‘access to safe drinking water and sanitation’, especially “point 15” which says that “We recognise that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need”. But they were rebuffed by the WWC and their proposal was blocked by Brazil, US and Egypt. The Turkish Minister is believed to have said at the government officials meeting that Board of Governors of the WWC is supposed to give the green signal whether the “access” issue will be opened for discussion or not. The Environment Minister of Bolivia, Mr. Renee Orellana, at a strategy session by the Global Water Justice Movement(2) in Istanbul disclosed that “at least 10 countries delegations (Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Cuba, Switzerland, Lebanon, Germany, Spain and Chezk Republic) were angry with this process”. The governments were expected to take the consent of the Board of Governors (a bunch of CEOs of the water corporations) of the WWC what they should put in their declaration. This indicated that the governments had nothing much to say even on a non-binding commitment “the Ministerial statement” at the World Water Forum.
This was not surprising then that 25 countries had officially challenged the Ministerial declaration released on 22nd March 2009 at the World Water Forum, by affirming the “Right to Water” through a counter-declaration called the Complementary Declaration(3) on mainly ‘right to water’. The new Declaration which was primarily moved by Latin American delegations recognizes access to water and sanitation as a human right and commits to all necessary action for the progressive implementation of this right. The countries who signed on to this declaration include Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Cameroon, Chad, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay and Venezuela. Even Switzerland, which has not yet signed, has declared its support for the new Declaration on “Right to Water”. The President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel d'Escoto, in his statement to the 5th World Water Forum delivered in Istanbul by his Senior Advisor on Water, Maude Barlow, have said “We must work quickly to guarantee that access to drinking water constitutes a fundamental right of all peoples and is included among the goals of the United Nations Decade”.
Another blow to ‘Bridge the Divide” move at the World Water Forum was noticed when a similar set of enraged government delegations set on a task to move the Forum from the control of the unaccountable and elitist body like the WWC to a more democratically accountable process under the United Nations. On last day of the Forum, around 16 governments finally signed on to a statement that calls on States to develop a global water forum within the framework of the United Nations based on the principles of democracy, full participation, equity, transparency and social inclusion. In fact the President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel d'Escoto, has also called upon UN Member States “to work together to promote policies for a Forum that meets our well-developed methodologies for such events”. He said that “it is clear that the present World Water Forum does not share the widely held views against water privatization and on preventing water from becoming a commodity. I must agree that future Forums should adopt international norms and conduct their deliberations under the auspices of the United Nations.” The Global Water Justice Movement supported this initiative by a group of Latin American governments because we also believe in and demand for “Wold Water Forum out of water”. Since water is such a fundamental issue, like the climate, it should be covered under a much wider forum such as the United Nations. It is the only international body which can work to stop the commercialisation and privatisation of water. It is therefore the duty of the civil society groups to influence their respective national governments to disengage with the World Water Council and extend support for holding global water forum under UN process.
The World Water Council stand on “right to water” in the Ministerial Statement was also opposed by the local and regional authorities who signed the Istanbul Water Consensus (IWC). Though more than 250 mayors and representatives of local and regional authorities from 43 countries, invited by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and the World Water Council, debated the various water issues on 18 and 19 March in Istanbul but only 52 mayors finally signed the Istanbul Water Consensus. The low number of signatories to the Consensus document also indicates a visible defiance of the World Water Council which moved the Istanbul Water Consensus, a key document of the 5th Forum which tried to secure the commitment of local and regional authorities to policies that put water services under private ownership such as Public Private Partnership (PPP’s).
However the Istanbul Water Consensus reaffirms that “access to clean water and sanitation is a basic right for all human beings”. On the 20th March 2009, in a joint statement the UCLG, the ICLEI and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, expressed their dissatisfaction because access to water has not been acknowledged as a ‘right’ in the final Ministerial declaration and that the local and regional authorities were practically not taken into account in this text, which is a base minimum level of consensus(4). Local and regional authorities demanded an amendment to the Ministerial Statement which they believe constitutes a significant retreat in comparison to the Mexico Declaration where Ministers expressly recognized the important role played by local authorities in the development of access to water and sanitation services.
The World Water Council driven World Water Forum in Istanbul has yet another dubious distinction compared to its previous versions because this was quite violent, repressive and intolerant against the water activists and civil society groups. On 16th March when the World Water Forum was being inaugurated, a few of us from Global Water Justice Movement along with the 300 or so Turkish activists from ‘No to the Commercialization of Water Platform’ peacefully marched towards the main gate of the Forum at Sutluce Congress Centre to express our concerns about the political agenda of the Forum and prevent the delegates getting inside. Within few minutes of the protest, several hundred Turkish police in riot gear suddenly charged the protesters, separating the Turkish activists from international activists and used pepper sprays and rubber bullets on the Turkish protestors and arrested 17 of them. The Turkish water activists were voicing their agitation on the Turkish governments plan to build 600 dams on the country's rivers, besides privatizing drinking water supplies, and putting on sale the total water resource of the country.
At the same time when the bullets were being fired outside the Forum, two international activists of the organisation International Rivers were arrested by the Turkish police from inside the Inauguration Hall for unfurling a banner reading “No Risky Dams” at the opening ceremony of the World Water Forum (WWF). Within 24 hours both of them were deported out of Turkey on the charge of “manipulating the public opinion”.
According to those who had attended all five World Water Forums, the Istanbul edition was extremely repressive and intolerant towards the water activists created a wider divide between the official delegates and the activists. Turkish police and intelligence officers were keeping a close watch on those raising dissenting voices in the session and their movement was constantly watched. Some were even barred for raising dissenting questions. This meant that the WWC didn’t welcome those in the WWF at Istanbul who didn’t support their views and ideology about water and water policies. The strict, non-transparent, autocratic nature of the World Water Council was out to crush any peoples’ opposition challenging its ideology whether inside or outside the Forum. Reacting to the way the WWF and Turkish authorities treated activists, Maude Barlow, Senior Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly, said “the World Water Forum and its mentors are now bankrupt not only financially but also ideologically and morally”. Rajendra Singh, the Magsaysay Award winner from India for his work on river rejuvenation in Rajasthan, said that in Morocco (1997), the official delegates and water activists were having equal status, and there was an equal respect for those who raised the issue of ‘right to water’. In Istanbul, he said, the water corporations viewed delegates as consumers and producers which was not a comfortable feeling for him. In Istanbul, the official delegates, bureaucrats and the state of Turkey were openly facilitating the interest of corporations.
However, one positive development in Istanbul was that the Public-Public Partnership (PuPs) was debated as an alternative to the Pubic Private Partnership (PPP) model. In one of the side events at the Forum in Istanbul, organised by Transnational Institute and Public Service International, the PuPs were discussed as an potential alternative to the PPPs and a effective tool for improving access to water and sanitation for the poorest. For public water operators, PUPs are proving to be cost-effective, low-risk, geared towards lasting capacity-building, based on local control, and enable transparency, accountability and involvement of workers and civil society. They are offering solutions to deal with the water crisis within the public control and management, therefore this model of water management are fast-growing trend and more and more countries are opting for PUPs world over. The PuPs are also being supported by a new mechanism, the Global Water Operators Partnerships Alliance (GWOPAs), which is a UN-Habitat programme for cooperation and mutual support among water operators, on a not-for-profit basis. The GWOPAs is offering a significant value addition to the PuPs as an effective alternative water management system. It is an important mechanism for exchange of knowledge and expertise between the Northern and Southern water utilities and weaker and champion water utilities. According to Jaime Morell of Consorcio Provincial de Aguas de Sevilla in Spain, the PPP model is no more valid and today is the time for PuPs. Their Consorcio is effectively implementing the PuPs model in Spain and creating a collaboration of public utilities with an objective to defend the public utilities from the onslaught of privatisation and design projects for public management which are sustainable and for long term. According to him, the PuPs are going on in Peru, Malawi, Kenya, El Salvador, Nicaragua and their Consorcio is likely to start work very soon in Lebanon, in the refugee camps of Palestinians. In India too, “the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai has taken an initiative to make PuPs a reality and making these PuPs work and work effectively and efficiently” said Ms. Santha Sheela Nair, Secretary to the Department of Drinking Water Supply, Ministry of Rural Development, the Government of India.
The Istanbul Forum was also different from its previous forums with respect to the key role played by the Global Water Justice Movement, of which Focus on the Global South is a active partner, in attacking the World Water Forum as a “corporate driven fraud”. The pressure from the Global Water Justice Movement was also reflected in the Ministerial Statement of the Forum which forced them to shift in their terminology, e.g. ‘full cost recovery’ to ‘sustainable cost recovery’; ‘no subsidies’ to ‘government support’. In Istanbul, the Global Water Justice Movement played an strategic role to oppose the industry dominated World Water Forum and held counter events, press conferences, workshops to denounce the forum as a sham. It was interesting to see the official delegates and Ministers from Latin American countries like Bolivia, Venezuela attending the daily strategy meeting of the Movement. Some of these official delegates as well as parliamentarians from EU and Turkey also participated in the Peoples Water Forum held Movement in Istanbul. Speaking at the Peoples Water Forum, the EU parliamentarian Roberto Musacclio said “World Water Forum is far from being a official forum. It is one being driven by private companies”.
At the Peoples Water Forum, the Movement came out with a declaration which demanded that “the United Nations General Assembly organize the next global forum on water”. It calls upon the “United Nations and its member states to accept its obligation, as the legitimate global convener of multilateral forums, and to formally commit to hosting a forum on water that is linked to state obligations and is accountable to the global community”. It also gave a call to all organizations and governments participating at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul to “commit to making it the last corporate-controlled water forum. The world needs the launch of a legitimate, accountable, transparent, democratic forum on water emerging from within the UN processes supported by its member states”.
Maude Barlow, a key ally of the Movement has rightly said, “We have been fighting World Water Forum and have discredited them as a wrong institution with wrong purpose and wrong ideas. The United Nations is the only global forum that can guide policy on water”. The Movement have three years time to work towards this goal and to make this happen. And we hope, when we meet for the 6th World Water Forum in 2012, it will be called by the United Nations sans corporate agenda, corporate politics and corporate greed.
1. In Istanbul, Focus on the Global South was represented by Mary Ann Manahan from Philippines and Afsar Jafri from India
2. The Global Water Justice Movement is a coalition of organisations, movements, ngos, who came together in Istanbul to oppose the world water forum and to hold counter events “the People’s Water Forum”, and to denounce the forum as a sham.
3. In Mexico (2006) 5 of the Latin American countries had put together the Complementary Declaration on Human Rights to water.