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Mar 13 2006
Supplied or written by Vikram Rajola

NGOs to Challenge Water Meet
Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Mar 13 (IPS) - Civil society groups will challenge water privatisation policies at the World Water Forum later this week.

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are preparing to oppose water privatisation policies which are due to come up at the fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City between March 16 and 22.

The meeting, which takes place every three years, is a key global event to be hosted by the World Water Council (WWC), an international water policy think-tank which has a strong preference for privatisation.

Delegates at the forum will issue a declaration addressing the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water within the next decade.

Public water operators still account for over 90 percent of water supply worldwide, but the Dutch campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) says past experience at the World Water Forum in The Hague (2000) and Kyoto (2003) suggests that the water forum is likely to "overlook the positive lessons coming from the public water sector."

The CEO says that although privatisation has lost a lot of momentum in recent years "due to the many failures", there is still a strong ideological push to promote private sector management, including from the WWC.

NGOs say the forum will be strongly business-dominated, and seeks to influence water policy at a global level.. With its high entrance fees, they say, it will exclude the participation of local civil society.

The Council of Canadians, Canada's largest citizens' organization, says that while the World Water Forum gives the impression that its aim is to solve a global water crisis, "the reality is that the companies that stand to profit from human need will dominate the event." The organisation says the forum's theme of 'Local Actions for a Global Challenge' is not a true representation of the meeting, and fears that few civil society groups will be able to afford the 600 dollars registration fee.

"The World Water Council is dominated by the World Bank, big water corporations, and the water ministries of First World countries. The pro-privatisation lobby has a strong voice at the World Water Forum, and will continue to resist any attempts to take water out of the marketplace," it says on its website.

In order to challenge such concerns, anti-privatisation NGOs will host a series of meetings on the sidelines of the forum to discuss how civil society can put pressure on the meeting to refrain from promoting water privatisation.

The CoaliciĆ³n de Organizaciones Mexicanas por el Derecho al Agua (COMDA) is one of the principal planners of the opposition efforts, which include an alternative conference and a protest march on the forum's opening day.

COMDA says the World Water Forum is organised to promote the interest of large transnational companies. It is particularly concerned that previous water policies have been very harmful to communities around the world, especially the most vulnerable.

"Its agenda is to promote water privatisation, particularly through public-public partnerships. Although the language has changed from previous fora to this one, it is the same organisers," Claudia Campero from COMDA told IPS Monday.

She says the Mexican government has been promoting a pro-privatisation water policy for more than a decade and will seek to strengthen its position at the forum.

"It wishes to consolidate this and to be acknowledged worldwide as in the vanguard. We, on the contrary, think these policies have brought dramatic consequences and must be re- thought through meaningful participation processes with the affected communities," she said.

On eve of the forum (Mar. 15) the CEO, COMDA and the Transnational Institute (TNI) -- an international network of activists -- will host an international symposium 'Public Water for All' to discuss improvements to public water delivery.

The symposium will bring together public water managers, civil society activists, academics and unionists from around the world to exchange experiences with reforms to improve the effectiveness, responsiveness and social achievements of public water utilities.

The meeting will focus on reforms that have improved public services in cities in the South and the potential of public-public partnerships to accelerate improvements in access to clean water and sanitation.

"The symposium will include numerous water managers whose successful public utilities debunk the myth that 'private sector participation' is needed to improve access to clean water and sanitation in developing countries," Olivier Hoedeman, research coordinator with CEO told IPS Monday (Mar. 13).

"Their perspectives provide some vital balance in the debate on the provision of water, in contrast to continued calls for privatisation and other forms of private sector participation. They also offer innovative examples of how public-public partnerships are providing new models for the transfer of expertise and best practice on a non-profit basis," he added.

Hoedeman says the symposium is taking place before the start of the World Water Forum in a bid to raise awareness of the issues amongst delegates at the main meeting.

"We're hoping to attract participants of the forum and give them an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on how public water delivery can be expanded and improved -- themes that are unfortunately not going to get much attention inside the forum," he said.

About 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion people to sanitation. Of the world's water run by the private sector, 95 percent is by European companies.

In parallel to the main forum, COMDA will also host the International Forum in Defence of Water from Friday to Sunday (Mar.17 to 19).

This meeting will mainly involve civil society speakers and will address issues such as the human right to water, alternatives to water privatization, and the environment.

Campero says the meeting will aim to give expression to a diversity of possibilities about how water should be managed.

"It particularly aims to allow communication among participants from around the world to share their struggles and proposals. Our strength in front of the WWF is our openness, our recognition of diversity and our solidarity with those communities that are struggling to maintain control over their water resources and their lives," she said.

"Against the background of disappointing experiences with privatisation the ideological monoculture of private sector promotion is starting to crack, and there is a growing political awareness that public water operators deserve attention and support. This will also be visible inside the World Water Forum," Hoedeman said.

"The civil society activities outside the forum will be far more ambitious, including large demonstrations, conferences and workshops. In terms of the content, the civil society movement has moved from opposition to privatisation to a confident and pro-active agenda of promoting reforms to make public water work also in those parts of the world where state-run utilities currently do not supply clean water for all," he added. (END/2006)

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