Lords of Water Finding Our Way Out of the World's Water Crisis

A year ago, the World Water Forum (WWF), the world’s largest water policy gathering, met in Istanbul, Turkey. Organized every three years by the World Water Council (WWC), the forum is billed as “an all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process’ where governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and others “attempt to find solutions to achieve water security.” But, as at previous forums in Mexico City (2006), Kyoto (2003) and The Hague (2000), 2010’s forum felt less like a civil gathering attempting to find solutions and more like a flashpoint for heated debate and acrimony over the future of the world’s increasingly scarce water resources. While it would be overly simplistic to suggest that there are only two sides to the debate, there is little doubt that water has become a deeply polarizing issue.

“Water is a political issue,” says Daniel Zimmer, the executive director of the WWC. “But politicians need to understand why they should care more about water.”

The fate of the world rests on its water policies. With 1.4 billion people worldwide lacking access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion lacking access to sanitation, the issue sparks anger in many who are close to the problem, especially in poor countries where lack of safe water is the leading cause of illness and death.

The WWF’s slogan last March was “Bridging Divides for Water.” Yet with its 400? price tag (about $515), tight security and extravagant promotion of high-input technological solutions, critics charged the WWF of representing the very divisions it hopes to bridge. While 35,000 people attended the official forum, several alternative gatherings were organized around Istanbul, two by Turkish opposition groups and one by a coalition of some 600 international adherents of so-called “water justice” under the name “People’s Water Forum.”

An attendee of the People’s Water Forum, Mary Ann Manahan of the Philippine-based environmental human rights group Focus on the Global South, says, “For the water justice movement, these are the best and the worst of times. The worst because the crisis is so grave; and the best because we now see the clear need for real, structural change.”

Children in Myanmar use a hand pump installed by nonprofit Action Against Hunger. © N. Villemenot/Action Against Hunger

Or, as Loéc Fauchon, president of the WWC, said in his opening remarks to the forum in Istanbul, “the time of water-come-easy is over.”

Paying for Water

The water crisis is, in large part, a crisis of financing. Estimates are that the U.S. will have to invest $23 billion annually for the next 20 years to maintain water infrastructure at its current level. To expand water services and achieve the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation, developing countries will need to double spending to about $18 billion per year. In addition, they will have to maintain existing water infrastructure, which will add another $54 billion in spending per year.

The WWC knows about big money: It is led by two of the world’s largest private water corporations, Suez Environnement and Veolia Water. Fauchon, president of the Council, is also the president of Groupe des Eaux de Marseille, a company owned jointly by Veolia and a subsidiary of Suez. Critics such as Maude Barlow, director of Canada’s Blue Planet Project and recent appointee as senior advisor on water to the U.N. General Assembly, contend that the Council’s links to private water operators and to AquaFed, the industry lobby group strategically headquartered across from the European Union Parliament in Brussels, compromise its legitimacy.

“I call them the Lords of Water,” says Barlow.

Inside the 2009 World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. © Mehmet Kaxmaz/Narphotos

“When you look at the themes set down for discussion in some of the sessions here, the alarms go off,” says Richard Girard of Canada’s Polaris Institute. Girard cited sessions called “Sustainable Means of Financing Local Water Authorities and Systems’ and “Optimising Public and Private Roles in Water Services’ as cause for concern.

For some, alarms went off strongly enough to engender outright protest. Hundreds of Turkish activists attempted to blockade the Forum’s entrance on opening day, leading to a police riot in which three people were hospitalized and 26 arrested. Two international activists, unfurling a banner denouncing large dams at the inaugural session, were quickly arrested and summarily deported.

This is not the first time global water policy has led to violent clashes. Throughout the “90s and into the first decade of our century, the World Bank, which provides the lion’s share of funding for infrastructure in the developing world, slashed funding for water and sanitation, promising that private investments would make up the shortfall. But only 600,000 new water connections have been made in all of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia from private investment—99% short of the World Bank’s goal of getting water and sanitation services to an additional billion people.

At the same time, due in part to the overconfidence in private investment, public financing for water hit an all-time low, leaving government utilities throughout the world high and dry. Between 2000 and 2003, some 94% of World Bank loans for water and sanitation forced recipients to contract private operators, rather than use the loans to strengthen public utilities.

The WWC and the four previous forums have strongly promoted public-private partnerships (PPPs) that put water services under private ownership. PPPs in Argentina, Bolivia, the U.S. and other countries have resulted in price hikes, decreased pollution control and water cut-offs, which, in the language of the water justice movement, “deny people the right to water.” It’s a form of violence, contest water-justice activists. But despite these and other harmful impacts, the Istanbul Water Consensus, a key document of the 5th Forum, attempts to secure the commitment of local authorities to similar water policies, including private sector management.

Another point of controversy was the release at the Forum of a new report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Managing Water for All.” The report, which is focused on pricing and financing, says that “Full cost recovery based on tariffs should be the long-term goal [of financing in the water sector].”

A woman and child fetch water in Yemen. © Abdu Ghalib/Gender Water Alliance

On first appearance, “full cost recovery based on tariffs’ would appear harmless; after all, we all have to pay the water bill. But research shows that private water operators (as opposed to government-run utilities) hike household water rates to recoup investments and to earn profits; to proponents of public water delivery, “cost recovery” has become a buzzword for “profit.”

Vibhu Nayar, project director with the Tamil Nadu Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Scheme in India, speaking at a People’s Water Forum event, said, “We’ve never had this phrase “cost recovery” before. Irrigation and industry use much more water than drinking and sanitation, yet we don’t hear the words “cost recovery” there. Why take money from the poor for drinking water when there are perfectly good public ways raise money for roads, for education, and so on?”

The alternative, say members of the People’s Water Forum, is public utility partnerships, or PUPs. Developed as a distinct alternative to public-private partnerships, PUPs are a cooperative model of water management based on capacity-building and exchange of knowledge; they encourage public utilities, municipalities and communities to jointly develop sustainable solutions, outside of the world of profit-driven development. They exclude profits for private businesses.

As Steve Bloomfield of Public Services International, a global organization with 620 affiliated unions in 160 countries that represents 20 million workers said in an interview at the Forum, “If anyone has the experience to address the world water crisis, it is public sector workers—we are the greatest single body of experience that exists in this field, and we should be given the opportunity to put that experience to the test.”

A Human Right or a Human Need?

The debate, at its core, is between market-based and rights-based water governance. Ever since an explosion of dissent at the 4th WWF in Mexico, the Forum’s ministerial process has become the platform for this debate. The ministerial process, a series of roundtable discussions between government ministers, corporate lobbyists and NGOs, leads to a final statement which, while it has no teeth in international law, plays a significant symbolic role in projecting policies on the ground.

As in Mexico in 2006, last year’s debate centered on concern that the words “human right to water” had been excluded from the ministerial statement, replaced by the phrase “access to safe drinking water” and “sanitation is a basic human need.” In the minutiae of political verbiage, this slight difference in terminology can have a profound significance. If water is defined as a human need, it implies no obligation on the part of governments to ensure access to it. If it is a human right, a series of policy procedures follow suit to make compliance obligatory.

Juan Carlos Alurralde, advisor to the Ministry of Environment and Water of Bolivia, says, “Many countries tried to introduce the right to water into the ministerial declaration. However, there’s been a strong opposition to this from the ministers of Brazil, Egypt, and the United States.”

Aaron Salzberg, the special coordinator for water resources with the U.S. State Department, and head of the U.S. delegation in Istanbul, says, “We don’t oppose any government that wants to implement the right to water. But before we’d ever recommend that all governments should do this, we need data that shows that a rights-based approach can actually make a difference.”

For people whose rights have been denied, whether by high tariffs on water or by having multinational companies guide water policy in less-than-democratic ways, there is little doubt that a rights-based approach can make a difference. By the final day of the forum, a block of southern country governments had developed a statement declaring that “access to water and sanitation is a human right,” and gained the sign-on of 25 nations. They also produced another statement linking water scarcity to climate change, recognizing what they call “an ecological debt” which must be paid by the wealthier nations to the poorer ones in order to bring about equity.

Finding Water Solutions that Work

Most of the square footage at the WWF is taken up by a trade expo: miles of booths boasting glossy signage and promoting the latest in filtration, pumps, pipes, pollution control and other water service accessories. Private engineering firms and water industry giants like Vivendi, Suez, Vitens, chemical companies like Dow and DuPont, and beverage businesses like Nestlé, all paid generous sums to display their wares. Government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which contracts its dam-building and flood control services to governments around the world, were prominent at many of the forum’s meet-and-greets.

What was not apparent, however, were small, decentralized solutions, such as rooftop rainwater catchment, domestic gray water reuse, village- and neighborhood-level ecological sanitation—the kinds of technologies that small water operators in poor countries—and arguably everywhere—need in order to confront the water crisis within their means.

The answers promoted by many critics of the WWF are not technical solutions, but community-based approaches that tap into ancient water stewardship principles.

“Our struggles,” says Manahan, “have brought about alternatives such as public-public water partnerships, communities reclaiming control over their water, and the establishment of publicly and democratically managed water systems. In the Philippines, neighborhood associations in slum communities are laying down pipes and boring wells. In Tamil Nadu in India they were able to transform a moribund and corrupt water utility into one of the most effective in the region, where engineers are working with and alongside communities. But these positive models have to be supported by state and public investment.”

Dr. V. Suresh, Director of the Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies in Chennai, India—and the man behind the Tamil Nadu program—told the People’s Water Forum, “When we were approached by the World Bank Water and Sanitation Project we said, “Well, with such help we will have technical support for water management, and we already have the construction skills—but will we have the right knowledge of what water is?””

Rajendra Singh, of Rajasthan, India, whose work with villagers over three decades has restored surface water sources once thought long-gone, said, “We learned to value traditional knowledge, where knowledge is shared for the good of all people and not for the good of some people to keep others down. Knowledge of the land’s contours, of the land’s capacity to hold water, and of the people’s capacity to manage it—geo-cultural knowledge. So, we have revived seven rivers in Rajasthan with the participation of people who were thought of as poor, as illiterate—and this not only brought the rivers back; it has brought back the meaning to their lives.”

Corporations, and Water Control

While community-based approaches to water management are surging from the grassroots, the corporate sector, recognizing that both water scarcity and social unrest can affect its bottom line, is taking an increasingly strong interest in water conservation. In just the past few years corporate social responsibility has met water scarcity head-on and evolved the concept of the “water footprint”—a metric of how much water an individual, business, or industry uses, taking into account the entire supply chain of products. Corporations such as Dow, IBM, DuPont and Pfizer are all racing to reduce their water use—and to demonstrate such a reduction to their shareholders.

In early 2008, for example, the Coca-Cola Company began making public claims that it would become “the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use in the beverage industry.”

“Water is our number-one ingredient; so water stewardship is very important to us,” says Scott Vitters, Coke&

#39;s global sustainability officer. Central to the company’s PR campaign is the claim that it is working toward the goal of becoming “water neutral.” What this means is somewhat unclear. But from the perspective of the water justice movement, it’s not enough.

In an article published on Earth Day 2009, Indian economist Devinder Sharma made a novel proposal that resonates with many points raised at the People’s Water Forum. Referring to the fact that, according to The Economist (August 27, 2008) “Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone consume almost 575 billion litres of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet,” Sharma says, “Wouldn’t it make sense if we were to close down these five companies? Closing these five companies will not result in more hunger. Closing these five companies will only mean that a few of us will be deprived of their products, nothing more. This will also enable us to seek suitable change in our unsustainable lifestyles that are harming the earth.”

This line of thinking would not have found much sympathy at the WWF, where many of the members of the U.N. CEO Water Mandate held their annual meeting. The CEO Water Mandate is a public-private initiative “designed to assist companies in the development, implementation and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices.” “As leaders of business organizations,” the mandate’s website says, “we recognize that the private sector has an important stake in helping to address the water challenge faced by the world today.”

Coke, Pepsi, DuPont, General Electric, Suez, Pfizer, Merck and Newmont Mining—all of them with spotty environmental and human rights records—are key participants. Historically, the U.N. separated itself from the corporate sector. Many developing countries, newly independent from their colonial powers, were particularly critical of the impact of multinational companies on their economic and human development, and insisted that the U.N. act as a counterweight to the private sector, especially in light of the promotion of trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation by the World Bank, IMF and the regional development banks.

But in the 1990s, a rapprochement was forged to further cooperation between the private sector and the U.N. institutions; business is no longer seen as part of the problem, but as part of the solution. Few would argue against the idea that businesses should play a role in cleaning up the world’s water mess. But critics fear that comingling U.N. agencies and corporate leaders is akin to putting the fox in the henhouse. In a letter signed by more than 125 organizations in 35 countries just before the WWF, Rafael Colmenares of Colombia’s Comité Nacional en Defensa del Agua y de la Vida wrote, “The United Nations should play a vital and active role toward protecting water as a human right and ecological trust. Instead, through the CEO Water Mandate, the U.N. is helping to advance corporate control of water.”

The next World Water Forum is planned for South Africa in 2012, and it can be expected that that nation’s social movements, led by the militant South African Anti-privatization Forum, will be ready for a fight.

Here in the U.S., sales of bottled water are down and President Obama’s stimulus package is giving a much-needed injection of funds to public infrastructure, while the Water for the World Act will allocate more generous funding to foreign aid in water and sanitation, underwriting both public and private water service. But with the predicted impacts of climate change far outpacing improvements in service, and without the vast paradigm shift that water justice advocates in the global south are demanding, it is unlikely that, in three years, the debate will be any less heated.