KYOTO — With war in Iraq possibly only days away, a leading delegate to the Third World Water Forum declared at the opening session that providing clean water is more important than the looming conflict.

Delegates also vowed to use the conference to enact programs that meet the United Nations’ goal of halving by 2015 the number of people worldwide without access to safe drinking water.

But the extent of private sector investment in and control of water resources was expected to once again dominate discussions between delegates and nongovernmental organizations, as it did at the Second World Water Forum, held in The Hague three years ago.

“The water crisis and the discussions that will take place at the forum will have a greater effect on humankind in the 21st century than the current Middle East crisis,” said council vice president William Cosgrove.

The forum, being held in Kyoto, Osaka and in Shiga Prefecture, has already fallen victim to international politics. Due to the Iraq crisis, French President Jacques Chirac canceled his visit, and organizers have said they fear a mass exodus of participants, including many from the Arab world, if war breaks out this week.

The official number of attendees was originally expected to be 10,000. But organizers said that, as of Sunday, about 5,700 were estimated to have shown up at the Kyoto International Conference Hall.

Over the next eight days, delegates are scheduled to discuss issues ranging from water shortages caused by drought and climate change to potential armed conflicts among nations over water supplies.

“In 20 years, nearly two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants may face water shortages,” Chirac said in a video message at the opening ceremony. “As host of the upcoming G-8 summit, France has made sustainable development and the future of the African continent the priorities for the meeting. Water is a key issue.”

The World Water Council, which is sponsoring the forum, estimates that 1.4 billion people do not have access to safe water and that 2.3 billion people lack adequate sanitation. Another 7 million people die each year because of water-borne diseases, the council estimates.

Meanwhile, a recent United Nations report indicates that the average water supply per person around the world will decrease by a third over the next decade and a half.

To reach its ambitious goal of halving by 2015 the number of those who lack adequate water and sanitation, the forum discussed at Sunday’s meeting a report that details ways in which to develop and fund nearly 3,000 new water projects around the world. Presented as models for future development were the the successful actions taken to use water more efficiently in Burkina Faso, South Africa, Hungary, Belize, Guatemala and Japan.

“Increasing scarcity, competition and arguments over water will dramatically change the way we manage water resources. Innovative ways of using this precious commodity have to be found,” said Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, president of the World Water Council.

One of these ways is private ownership of water rights and supply.

The World Water Council — made up of representatives of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and private water companies like France’s Suez and Vivendi — argues that government-operated utilities alone have failed to address water shortage problems in the developing world and that private sector funding needs to be increased.

The World Bank estimates that, in order to address water shortage problems by 2015, annual investments in water infrastructure projects will have to increase from the current $80 billion to about $180 billion.

“Funds will come primarily from the private sector. France encourages investors to increase their involvement,” Chirac said in his message.

But critics point to several prominent failures of private sector control. In July 2002, a subsidiary of Suez terminated a water and sewage contract in Buenos Aires after Argentina’s financial crisis turned profits into losses. The mayor of Buenos Aires noted in 1999 that water rates rose by 20 percent in spite of the company’s promise that they would decrease.

The privatization of water led to riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2000, forcing a subsidiary of America’s Bechtel corporation to terminate a 40-year water supply contract after only one year. The riots occurred after prices rose by between 100 and 200 percent.

In a report released earlier this month, the Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, based in Washington D.C., reviewed seven specific cases of water privatization. It concluded that the common thread linking all seven was that privatization did not lead to clean and affordable water for all unless a significant profit, well above that of traditional public utilities, was guaranteed.

One possible solution to financing water projects is the creation of a new international funding mechanism ensuring that poor nations do not end up paying more than they can afford. Abu-Zeid said that a mechanism of this kind would include increased contributions from local governments as well as private contributions.

“We are looking for the right sort of partnerships,” he said.

But Anwarul Chowdhury, United Nations undersecretary general and high representative for the Least Developed Countries, suggested that the 49 LDCs were more interested in governments honoring past agreements than in the creation of a new mechanism.

“For the world as a whole, a funding mechanism may be a good idea. But the LDCs want to first see past agreements by governments to fund projects honored,” he said.

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