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Right to water blocked again at the 5th World Water Forum

Notes from the 5th World Water Forum March 16-22, 2009 Istanbul, Turkey

The Ministerial process aimed at producing a declaration on the outcomes of the World Water Forum has just closed. We’ve just heard that Brazil, Egypt and the US have prevented the right to water from being recognized as a human right. There was a proposal to include an appendix with comments from each country. Shockingly, the chair, a representative of the Turkish government, reported that the Governors of the World Water Council needed to be consulted before an appendix could be added.

We are starting to see more and more cracks in this farce of a process that pretends to be democratic. Governments wanting their comments to be made public are now awaiting the permission of the corporate-run World Water Council. Sources inside the meetings tell us that Switzerland was appalled. Uruguay declared even before the opening of the Forum that they would call for a counter declaration if the right to water was blocked.

The sense is that this time around, they will be able to get many more than the four countries that signed the counter declaration calling for water to be recognized as a human right. At the last WWF in 2006, Cuba, Venezuala, Bolivia and Uruguay signed on to the counter declaration.

Access to sanitation reserved for the VIPs at the World Water Forum

Yesterday, I picked up my media accreditation for the World Water Forum.  I now don’t need to pay the exorbitant fee of 100 euros a day, which has kept so many of our comrades from having their voices heard at the international conference which is being promoted as open and democratic.

Maude, Wenona Hauter, the Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, and I needed to use the bathrooms at the World Water Forum and discovered that there were separate bathrooms for the VIPs which we were not allowed to use. When we finally made our way to the ordinary people’s bathrooms, we discovered there was no running water, so the toilets wouldn’t flush and we couldn’t wash our hands.

The symbolism is hard to ignore. It’s a perfect statement about the World Water Forum’s agenda serving the rich and powerful while the poor are denied access to water and sanitation. The VIPs have a special space reserved for their sanitation purposes, while the rest of us have no running water.

Our Water Commons Panel

The Council of Canadians held a panel at the official Word Water Forum yesterday with Our Water Commons, Food and Water Watch and other organizations to launch a report that highlights success stories of communities working to protect the water commons through a communitarian approach to water management.

Given we had secured one of the few World Water Forum spaces reserved for civil society, which we were told many groups were denied, we held a guerrilla press conference before the actual panel discussion at which Maude and colleagues from the Uruguayan delegation at the World Water Forum, who have been working on the inside to promote water justice, called for the recognition of water as a human right.

There were hundreds in the room including Water Forum participants who hadn’t heard a critical perspective and seemed generally impressed. Foreign English media included Al jazeera and the Christian Science Monitor.

The panel itself featured powerful testimonials about the success of the commons approach in many parts of the world.

Here are some highlights:

A representative of the Uruguayan government, Jose Luis Genta talked about the recognition of water as a human right in Uruguayan domestic law.  “Water should be delivered according to social principles not economic principles,” he stated. Uruguay was one of the countries that drafted a counter declaration at the 2006 World Water Forum along with Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and others, when the official ministerial declaration did not include water as a human right. They are now working within the forum to bring more countries on board.

Activists from India including Rajendra Singh, who works with communities to revive traditional rain harvesting techniques,  delivered a powerful message about the rejection of the corporate agenda by implementing indigenous knowledge. Speaking of a community in India whose land was  transformed from barren and arid to a water-rich environment that sustains a thriving subsistence agriculture, Singh stated:, “It was traditional knowledge that served the community. University knowledge serves corporate interests and imposes one system on all. Traditional knowledge, which is about everyone sharing what they know, helped us find a solution.”

Oscar Olivera, whose success in kicking Bechtel  out of Bolivia is well known, spoke about the need to  see humans as part of nature and the importance of returning to a place where nature can take care of our needs rather than one where we see ourselves as dominating nature.

Adriana Marquiso, President of the Public Water Union in Uruguay stressed the importance of redefining the meaning of public so it extends beyond state control. “There are forms of public management that recognize other structures of governance. The public interest can also be promoted through models of public communitarianism.”

Wenonah Hauter used the U.S. example to expose the myth of private sector efficiency being advocated by the World Water Forum. “We did a survey in 20 States that have privatized water services and found that private companies charge more than public utilities. The difference was stark in many states. In Delaware for example, privatized water is 80% more expensive.”  Wenonah explained that private companies typically add 20 to 30% to operation costs in order to make a profit. She also discussed the tendency for corporations to favour greater consumption of their product rather than green infrastructure and conservation strategies that would prevent them from making profits.