A boy in the Brazilian Amazon
Credit: Photo Stock.
New Scuffles Over Water
By Diego Cevallos
Groups that favor and groups that oppose the privatisation of water will return to the ring in March, during the 4th World Water Forum, in Mexico.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- There are many who predict that future wars will be over water supplies, but the wait won't be long for witnessing some intense skirmishes, which are expected in March at the 4th World Water Forum between those who favor and those who oppose privatisation of this essential resource.
Every day around the world, 2,000 to 5,000 people die from causes related to water shortages or poor water quality, and one billion people do not have ready access to water. The investments needed to ensure universal access are huge, and although governments assume most of the costs, private sector participation in water services is growing exponentially.
The World Water Forum in Mexico is the fourth, following those held in Morocco (1997), Netherlands (2000) and Japan (2003). They are organized by the World Water Council, created in the mid-1990s by representatives from the business, academic, scientific communities and civil society.
Among those founders are former officials from the World Bank and multinational corporate executives from the likes of France's Suez Group. Their presence is an irritant to non-governmental organizations that are staunchly opposed to the idea of water being turned into a commodity of the private sector.
These NGOs charge that the World Water Forum defends privatization of this resource, and they lament that the event has become the main arena for global discussion of the issue since there is no specialized United Nations forum or treaty on water.
There is currently no UN international convention dedicated to water, like those addressing the issues of climate change or biodiversity, for example.
But according to the Forum organizers, among them the host government of President Vicente Fox, it is a plural and open space for debate. And although its resolutions are not binding, they assure that the World Water Forum will define many policies in the future.
Some 8,000 people from around the world will take part in the event, Mar. 16-22, at a luxurious convention center in Mexico City, sponsored by commercial airlines, soft drink, beer and telephone companies.
The ultimate purpose, they say, is to halve the percentage of people who lack access to potable water worldwide by 2015. That aim is part of the seventh Millennium Development Goal, established by the UN in 2000, to "ensure environmental sustainability."
According to those who promote privatisation, only by putting a price on water and taking over water management from the "ineffecient hands of state systems" can such an ambitious goal be achieved.
Currently, less than 10 percent of water treatment and distribution systems are in private hands, but in the 1990-1997 period alone the financial participation of private companies shot up 7,900 percent in developing countries, according to Gustavo Castro, a researcher with the Mexican Center for Economic and Political Reasearch for Community Action.
The multinational companies don't hide their interest in building dams or in water distribution and treatment. They have racked up success in many countries, like Chile. But in others, including Bolivia and Argentina, they have been accused of poor management, bad service, and driving up the costs to the consumer.
According to the World Water Council, at the current rate of public and private water investment, access to this essential resource cannot be guaranteed for everyone until 2050 in Africa, 2025 in Asia and 2040 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sources from the World Water Forum assure that its position on the role of the private sector in water management is totally impartial. "In no way do we promote privatization," spokeswoman Rina Mussali told Tierramérica.
"What the Forum does is provide a platform for dialogue and discussion. We do not take a stance. We are not going to talk about whether to privatize, but we are going to offer an open space so that it can be discussed," said Mussali, who also works for the Mexican government's National Water Commission, CNA.
Of the wide range of participants in the 4th World Water Forum, organized in large part by the CNA, 15 to 20 percent will be civil society organizations and they will be completely free to present their experiences, she said.
But the activists say that those are just words.
According to Marta Delgado, of the non-governmental Mexican Alliance for a New Culture of Water, the CNA has demonstrated neither capacity nor openness to civil society groups in organizing the event.
Claudia Campero, spokeswoman for the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for Water Rights, agrees. "At the first three Forums, an open policy in favor of privatizing water was evident. Now they have moderated their discourse and they talk about promoting social participation and plurality, but they continue doing the same thing," Campero told Tierramérica.
"We know they way they work, and there are many filters to limit civil society's participation, including the registration fee of 600 dollars," she added.
The high cost is true, according to Mussali, because it is an expensive event, but there are ways to finance the cost and to ensure the participation of everyone, "so they are invited."
The Coalition, which brings together 18 Mexican NGOs, and other groups are already coordinating actions with their colleagues abroad in order to make their presence known at the World Water Forum.
Groups of peasant farmers, environmentalists, students and academics opposed to the unregulated globalization process will hold assemblies, marches and debates as an alternative to the Forum's official events.
When asked about these opposing stances, Ricardo Sánchez, UN Environment Program (UNEP) director for Latin America and the Caribbean, urged against "stigmatizing" the Forum just because private companies were involved in its creation, and he assured that the CNA has done "an excellent job" in organizing the seven-day meet.
In his opinion, the Forum is "the biggest global event for discussing the issue of water, so critical to the world. We must look at the issue from all angles. At the Forum there will be academics, people from the private sector and governments."
UNEP director general Klaus Toepfer will attend the meeting as well and participate in the debates of government delegates, who hope to come up with a declaration and perhaps some commitments.
As for the role of the private sector in water services, Sánchez recommended against closing the door on that possibility. "There are those who see water as a business. We cannot ignore that putting water in place for use costs money, and it is important that this fact be considered, but nor should we neglect the needs of the population that doesn't have access," he said. "Each country should determine which is the best solution."
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.