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OSAKA — Water is everyone’s business, and so it is perhaps only natural that preparations for the Third World Water Forum — which starts later this month in the Kansai region — include activities to raise awareness and get the public more involved.

During the March 16-23 conference, 33 themes — ranging from floods and the relationship between water and poverty, to financing water infrastructure — will be discussed at some 350 sessions in the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. A ministerial session will be held the final two days.

In the runup to the event, some 25,000 opinions have been solicited from individuals and organizations over the Internet in an effort to help people most affected by water-related problems and to ensure their voices are reflected in the discussions.

Active debate has meanwhile already begun at the Virtual Water Forum on the Net, which is open to anyone seeking to discuss related topics.

“We believe this is the first international forum that is actually being built from the bottom up,” said Hideaki Oda, secretary general of the event, which is expected to attract 8,000 people from 180 countries. “It was made possible thanks to the Internet.”

This novel approach reflects the three main principles in organizing the forum — being open to all, involving people in the runup and encouraging participants to take actions to solve water problems in their respective fields, according to Oda, who worked on river-related issues throughout his 35-year bureaucratic career with the former Construction Ministry.

The forum was first proposed by the World Water Council, a global think tank on water issues set up in 1996 by international organizations, the academic community and businesses. It now consists of 313 members, representing the public and private sectors, U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations from more than 40 countries.

The First World Water Forum was held in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997, in response to growing concerns over water-related problems, including desertification, large-scale flooding and badly managed water resources that has resulted in one in five people in the world not having access to safe drinking water.

The second forum, held in 2000 in The Hague, issued the World Water Vision and a framework for action.

At the third forum, in Kyoto, organizers hope to prompt specific action.

Of the many topics on the agenda, one of the most contentious is privatization of water services, a recommendation made during the second forum.

The World Water Vision did not say government monopolies should be replaced by private ones.

However, many NGOs criticized the document, saying it “emphasizes a corporate vision of privatization, large-scale investments and biotechnology as the key answers” to solving water problems.

They insisted that a clean, healthy environment and access to basic water and sanitation are universal rights, and thus cannot be negotiated as commodities.

They also argued that privatization would make water less accessible and more expensive for low-income communities.

“The issue of privatization is controversial and a consensus has not yet been reached even among NGOs,” said Hiroshi Kanda, secretary general of People’s Forum on Water, an umbrella group of 21 Japanese NGOs.

“I personally think we have to create a water service system that ensures the following: community accessibility, safety and sanitation, as well as service sustainability.”

At the upcoming forum, parties with conflicting opinions will gather at the same table and discuss this sort of issue. Oda said he hopes the forum will help participants deepen their understanding of the various problems and come up with the most appropriate responses for each region.

“We cannot say that one side is absolutely right and the other is totally wrong,” Oda said. “Each region is different, and the measures to be introduced must also be different. It is no use spending time on shallow debate. We need to get moving through specific actions.”

People in Japan have an abundance of safe drinking water, so they may find it difficult to think of water problems as something close to home, but their way of life has global implications, according to PFW’s Kanda.

“Because Japan depends on imports for about 60 percent of its food supply and 80 percent of its wood products, it can be said that it is actually a major water consumer,” Kanda said, referring to studies on “virtual water,” a concept that takes into account the amount of water that would be needed to produce goods domestically that a country imports.

According to research by Taikan Oki, an associate professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Japan imported 60 billion tons of virtual water in 2000.

“I want the Japanese people to realize that their lifestyle has close connections with world water situations,” said Kanda, who has lectured about water issues at more than 100 venues nationwide since he assumed his current post in October 2001.

Although experts warn that conflicts over water may intensify in the 21st century, water also has the potential to foster regional cooperation, Oda said.

“Unlike global warming, which must be jointly addressed by all countries, water problems can be solved within each region,” he said. “Thus, water has the potential to foster regional cooperation and we should make efforts to realize that, instead of making it a source of conflict.”

Various parties are now collaborating in Japan.

NGOs, administrative bodies, labor unions and academic circles in the Kansai region have joined hands to launch various activities to raise public awareness and to deepen understanding of water issues, both at home and abroad.

Kanda said he welcomes such moves. “I’ve realized that society will not change if only NGOs criticize authorities and propose alternative policies,” he said. “Raising the awareness of as many people as possible and encouraging them to take action is indispensable for making a difference.”

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