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Jan 04 2007
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International gathering for promoting progressive public water models in rural areas (Barcelona, November 19 – 21 2006)

Summary and conclusions from the International seminar on "Public Models of Drinking Water Supply and sanitation in Rural Areas"

The seminar was organized within the Reclaiming Public Water (RPW) network, initiated in November 2005 to promote progressive public water models and other alternatives to water privatisation.  This involves connecting in an open and consensus-based network, activists, trade unionists, researchers and public water managers from around the world. So far, the RPW network has focused mainly on urban water delivery; therefore the initiative behind this recent seminar was to generate discussion within the RPW network on public models of drinking water and sanitation in rural areas. Thirty-five participants from Latin America, South and South East Asia, Africa and Europe came together in Barcelona with the aim of identifying the options for reforms and democratisation. Participants identified key issues and challenges and developed plans for joint work.

Building blocks for progressive models

What does `public´ mean in rural areas? Through brainstorming and discussion, participants explored the meaning of “publicness”. Rejecting mainstream approaches that treat water as an economic good, participants agreed that water should not be commercialised. “Water belongs to nobody but to everybody”, water should be for the benefit of all and for the welfare of all, including nature. This vision requires improved governance and democratisation through people’s participation. The role of the state (taking its responsibility to secure water for all) is vitally important, as well as the mechanisms of democratisation and social control. Key values for improving public water include efficiency, social justice, equity, transparency and solidarity.

In order to promote these public models, five main working areas were identified:

1. Conflict of access between urban and rural
2. Democratization of water management and participation
3. Challenging International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in particular the World Bank
4. Public-Public Partnerships
5. Right to water

Below is a summary of the discussions and agreed actions agreed in these five areas.. The action plans are being further developed and implemented by working groups with contact people responsible for specific tasks. You are warmly invited to join this process!

Jaume Declòs, Enginyeria Sense Fronteres (
Nami Yamamoto, Corporate Europe Observatory (
The summary of discussions as well as priorities and actions agreed by working groups

Conflicts of access between urban and rural
Due to the severely limited functioning of the state in rural areas and specifically the lack of democratic control of water resources, the right to water is undermined by profit-oriented water use. This dramatically affects water resources by degrading the ecosystem both in terms of quality and availability. This is turn affects rural peoples’ access to water to meet their basic needs. The conflicts over access between urban and rural populations poses challenges for achieving equal management of water resources. The intervention by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) further increases the risk of social conflicts and loss of sovereignty. For future action in this area, the conflicts over water access in rural areas require further investigation in order to identify good practice and develop mechanisms which mediate between the right to water and profit-making water uses.

Democratisation of water management and participation
We understand democratisation of access to water in rural areas to be the exercise of sovereignty and empowerment by the population in order to achieve universal justice and equal access. This involves social participation in decision making and social control, in a way which reclaims values of social justice, equity, sustainability, transparency and solidarity between communities. This democratisation would bring capacity to create sustainable management with respect between uses and customs. The group identified as actions; create an overview of successful cases of democratisation (according to the mentioned definition), support these approaches and encourage their replication; develop a comparative study on the different concepts of ‘participation’ as used by IFIs and the RPW network; and encourage a global discussion on democratisation, participation and social control using the internet and/or workshops.

Challenging International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in particular the World Bank

The current approach of the IFIs is an obstacle to expanding access to water in rural areas. For example, economic conditionalities that reduce social spending, the tendency to over-prioritise lending to urban water and commercially attractive projects at the expense of rural water, the pressure on governments to withdraw from the provision of water services and the creation of water markets in rural areas based on the logic of full-cost recovery. An action is now to conduct a study of IFI water project lending in rural areas.

Public Public Partnerships (PuPs)
This working group stressed the need to develop more public-public partnerships (PuPs) in rural areas and in particular South-South partnerships. An example of PuPs would be when an experienced public water operator supports a weaker public company elsewhere. PuPs should be not-for-profit and non-commercial, at lowest possible cost. The question is how to make these partnerships succeed. Further study and assessment are needed. It is important to involve engineers, local universities and trade unions. Securing financial resources remains crucial. A priority is to investigate and review cases of PUPs in rural areas. In the longer term, the working group could get involved in a specific pilot project and publicise the lessons learned from this.

Right to water & rural areas
The human right to water is universal and relates to quantity, quality and equity. It touches on many human rights as it is intimately connected to basic production activities and dignity, and is essential for environmental sustainability. The group identified a range of future activities, including: mapping the violations of the right to water by corporations; supporting social movements and demonstrations that highlight this injustice; studying the impacts of free trade and investment agreements on water in rural areas including their legal aspects, for example the GATS; analysing the concept on the right to water as developed by UN agencies; developing a discourse on the right to water which is different to that promoted by IFI’s; expanding the definition of right to water beyond drinking water, to include water for basic subsistence activities and environmental sustenance.


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