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The World Water Forum and the resistance against the corporate takeover of water

The global water justice movement is perhaps one of the best examples of a social movement that grew out of local water struggles into a transnational network aimed at promoting strategies of solidarity and resistance to neoliberalism.

I am just back from a week-long intervention with Maude Barlow, our chairperson, Blue Planet Project colleagues and allies from around the world in Marseille where the 6th World Water Forum was held between March 12 and 17.

According to Maude, who has been an integral part of this movement since its inception in the 1990s, this last intervention signalled a major shift in power.

“At the first forum that was open to the public in The Hague, we had to find each other and meet in the hallways,” she told the more than 4,000 activists gathered at the opening ceremony of the Alternative Forum (Le Forum Alternatif Mondial de l’Eau or FAME). She described with great pride how a disjointed group of people who were concerned about water issues grew steadily into a movement that would build its own forums.

Quite appropriately, the opening ceremony was a celebratory event aimed at honouring the various victories of the movement including the July 2010 UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation, the remunicipalization of water and sanitation services and the referenda through which people in Madrid, Italy and elsewhere in the world have shown overwhelming support for the human right to water and public services.

A corporate trade show in UN clothing

While boasting several UN agencies as partners, the World Water Forum is criticized for posing as a multi-stakeholder body. The overarching message of activists protesting the World Water Forum is that there is a need for international policy and multilateral cooperation when it comes to water resources, but a trade show run by water multinationals cannot be the space for these discussions.

You don’t have to know anything about the World Water Forum to know something is wonky when a forum that claims to provide solutions for the world’s water crisis shuts out vast segments of the public. With a heavy police presence surrounding the Forum, activists attempting to register on the first day were detained before even entering the Forum. There was no apparent reason other than the fact that many were young and not garbed in business attire. Some had slogans like “water is a human right” on their clothes.

As soon as Maude landed in Marseille, she was outraged to hear police were protecting a private corporate forum. There had already been reports in the media about the excessive use of public funds for this forum, which did not factor in the security costs. Of course, the entrance fee of 700 Euros was unaffordable for most activists, particularly those from the Global South.

Most emblematic of this problem are what they call the “high-level” policy roundtables with only limited access to civil society and the public. As noted in a blog by Council of Canadians campaigns director, Brent Patterson, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow was invited by the Uruguayan government to speak at a roundtable which included governments from Uruguay, Spain and Switzerland. Her participation was blocked by the World Water Council despite the fact that the governments convening the event wanted her at the table. Brent’s blog can be read at: http://canadians.org/blog/?p=14098.

Backtracking on the human right to water and sanitation

On its second day, the Forum released what it calls a “ministerial declaration.” As in previous years, the declaration does not acknowledge the human right to water and sanitation. The major difference this time around, is that the right is now officially recognized by the United Nations. We heard from official sources that Canada was the country that blocked the resolution. The declaration is drafted in secrecy and there are no signatures attached to it allowing for the country with the weakest position to influence the final outcome..

To date, Bolivia is the only country to have challenged the Ministerial Declaration. The Council of Canadians and other allies sent a letter to governments in Marseille before the closing of the Forum, demanding that they denounce the declaration. The letter can be read at: http://canadians.org/water/documents/RTW/World-Water-Forum-Ministerial-Declaration-0312.pdf

Days before the World Water Forum, in response to the draft text Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation issued a statement criticizing governments for being inconsistent with prior commitments. At the opening ceremony of FAME, she warned that this may be used influence the text for Rio+20 negotiations. Blue Planet Project Organizer, Anil Naidoo is currently in New York where he reports that a handful of states including Canada are lobbying to remove language on the human right to water within the Rio+20 documents. See Anil’s blog at: http://canadians.org/blog/?p=14221

We are the forum

The Alternative Forum kicked off with a pre-forum event aimed at deconstructing the discourse of the corporate forum and providing an overview of our historical opposition to the World Water Forum as a movement. Participants lined up at the microphone to talk about why they, as farmers, water workers, students and activists from numerous other walks of life were at the Alternative Forum. Many also felt strongly that we should no longer regard ourselves as the alternative to their “official”. Instead we should distinguish their forum as that of the corporations, the water vendors, the polluters and privateers. Ours is that of the people, the defenders of the environment, the advocates of social justice and those who are at the frontlines of struggles to protect water. Needless to say, there were no cops guarding our forum, no closed door high-level roundtables, and no exorbitant entrance fees.

In addition to the plenary discussions and workshops on the human right to water and sanitation, the green economy and Rio+20, women and water, public financing, extractive industries and many other issues of interest to the global water justice movement, the hallways and food court area at the Alternative Forum were bustling with lively discussions and planning meetings about initiatives we would carry out in our communities and through our international networks.

Governments meet us out side

We decided we would not speak to governments at the corporate forum. Instead, they were invited to step outside the forum to hear our positions on the implementation of the human right to water and sanitation, the green economy and the need for governments to withdraw support for the corporate forum and support a democratic, people-centred summit on the human right to water and sanitation. Spain, Germany, Bolivia, Uruguay, Colombia, Nigeria, Panama and the United States governments took up our offer and attended the meeting as did the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. To read the declaration that was presented to them, please go to: http://canadians.org/water/documents/RTW/Marseille-civil-society-statement-EN.pdf

The way forward

There have been some exciting discussions on how to move forward on the momentum built at FAME. Many have use the opportunity to strengthen and revive regional and international networks.

Most immediately, many will be engaged in mobilizing for water justice at the Rio+20 World Summit on Sustainable Development in June 2012. The Marseille World Water Forum had positioned itself as a launch pad for Rio+20 and had promoted water as the engine of the green economy. As such some of our colleagues have wasted no time in shifting their efforts to Rio+20 with the hopes that they will be able to quash efforts of corporations to appropriate the Summit as a mechanism to enable greater corporate access to water resources and markets for water services. Within that battle, the human right to water is seen as key. We will soon know whether states like Canada have succeeded in eliminating the right from the Rio+20 negotiating text. If so, we will have a great battle on our hands to ensure that Rio+20 does not become a mechanism for deepening injustice when it comes to water resources and services.

Among the long-term strategies, many are also calling for a boycott of the World Water Forum in favour of a democratic people-centred summit aimed at implementing the human right to water and sanitation.