World Water Forums: Time to end them

India Together, March 31, 2009

Activists and governments alike demand that future deliberations on water issues be brought within the legitimate fold of the UN, and not hosted by private and corporate interestsShripad Dharmadhikary* reports

The World Water Forum describes itself as “the main water related event in the world” and “the world’s largest water event”. The latter is likely to be true. The Fifth of the World Water Forums (WWF5) that was held in Istanbul from 16 to 22 March this year saw over 25,000 people attending the main forum and another 8000 visiting its Water Expo. There were more than 100 thematic sessions, seven regional sessions, and countless ‘side-events’ during the seven days that ended with a Ministerial Conference on the last three days. Nearly 100 ministers met in the Conference.

Notwithstanding all this, its claim to being the “the main” water event is not tenable. Indeed, since the time the first Forum was held in Marrakech in 1997, its credibility and legitimacy have been on the decline, and stand severely eroded.

There are several reasons for this. The World Water Council, which organises the forums, counts among its members many big corporations active in the water sector, and builders and promoters of large dams including professional and governmental agencies. The governance of the council is dominated by these players. The agenda, the structure, and even the participation in the forums is governed by the interests of these groups.

Not surprisingly, among the main thrusts of the forums has been the push for privatisation in the water sector, and for the construction of infrastructural interventions like large dams. Moreover, the forums have been an exclusionary process, with little meaningful involvement of the common people, civil society and those raising concerns about privatisation and large dams.

Bridging divides or widening them?

The theme for WWF5 was “Bridging Divides for Water.” Yet, the forum seemed structured to be an exclusionary process. First of all, the forum charged stiff registration fees. People from the developed countries were charged 400 Euros while those from developing countries were charged 240 Euros. (about Rs.16,500). These were in fact the fees with “early bird” discounts, and fees that had been “been reviewed to make them fairer and more accessible”. Such stiff fees made it difficult for even first world civil society groups to participate.

The WWF5 organisers had provided support to some of the participants; that included waiving off the registration fees (I myself received such support to attend) – but the provision of this support was at the discretion of the organisers. Moreover, there was no provision of travel support.

In the forum venue itself, the stalls and exhibitions of the NGOs were separated from those of the Governments and private companies. The “NGO Village” and the main Expo were on the two sides of the Golden Horn, the fresh water inlet dividing the old and new parts of Istanbul.

However, the exclusions ran much deeper. On the opening day of the Forum, a number of Turkish groups gathered outside the official venue to protest against privatisation of water in the country and against the destructive dam projects like the highly contentious Illusu project. They wanted to issue their media statement near the gate of the Forum venue. However, this peaceful protest was met with a brutal crackdown by the police who outnumbered the protestors by about 6 times. The police used teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets and clubs.

Around the same time, as the Forum assembled inside for the inaugural event, two activists – Ann-Kathin Schneider and Payal Parekh – of the NGO International Rivers stood up in the balcony and unfurled a banner that read “No Risky Dams”. They also shouted these words a few time. Immediately, a horde of security personnel pounced on them and they were led away. They were soon given orders to leave the country on the same day – or face one year in Turkish prison. Ultimately, the two were escorted to the airport and left the country early the next morning, after spending the night in police custody.

The Forum organisers’ silence on these events is telling.

Opposition from governments

However, it is not only a group of “activists” who are protesting on various issues. The Forum also faced strong dissent from many governments. The official newsletter of the Forum presents the Ministerial Declaration and the Istanbul Water Consensus as the main outputs of the WWF5.

The Istanbul Water Consensus relates to local authorities, and the consensus was carved out of a compromise by pushing certain contentious parts into footnotes. The Ministerial Declaration – the centrepiece of the Forum – was another matter altogether. At least 24 Governments – including Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela and our own neighbours Bangladesh and Sri Lanka demanded that access to water and sanitation should be recognised as fundamental human rights. This become a bone of contention and the declaration committed to recognising “water as a basic human need” and to “acknowledge the work on human rights and access to water in the UN system”. The attempt to reopen the draft for discussing this issue was rejected.

The resolution of this stand-off is not clear. It is interesting that the WWF5 does not unambiguously state anywhere that this draft of the Ministerial Declaration was adopted. Nor does it say that it was not adopted. Clearly, the issue of water and sanitation as a human right has become a difficult one for the WWF5.

A crisis of legitimacy

However, the most serious challenge to the World Water Forum is in terms of the legitimacy of what is clearly a private organisation, dominated by select stakeholder constituencies, claiming the right to be the host for global discussions on water where everyone – especially local communities and the poor – need to have a meaningful role. Further, the World Water Forum also has appropriated to itself the right to host an inter-governmental Ministerial Conference.

Till now, many NGOs, civil society groups, trade unions, social movements and activists were challenging this. However, at the WWF5, they were joined by the no less than the President of the United Nations General Assembly. In a speech released by his senior advisor on water Maude Barlow, UN president Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann said future forums should, “conduct their deliberations under the auspices of the United Nations.” He also came out strongly in favour of guaranteeing access to drinking water as a fundamental right.

Moreover, 16 Governments signed a statement calling 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 parallel to the main forum, activists from all over the world, joined by their counterparts from Turkey also organised many different events which virtually took on the shape of an alternative forum. These groups too are demanding that access to water and sanitation be declared as human rights, and have called for the next Forum to be held under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is evident that the pressure on this count is going to mount in the coming days, and the Fifth World Water Forum could well end up being the last to be hosted by private and corporate interests. As it should.

*Shripad Dharmadhikary coordinates the Manthan Adhyanan Kendra, a centre set up to research, analyse and monitor water and energy issues.

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