KYOTO — A two-day meeting of ministers from 170 countries opened Saturday in Kyoto at the World Water Forum, with delegates making firm promises to deal with the world’s water crisis.

The call to action, however, came amid protracted arguments over whether or not water resources should be privatized, growing doubts over Japan’s leadership as host of the forum and the United States-led war on Iraq.

“Without concrete action, the world’s water problems cannot be solved. We need to act now,” said Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Chikage Ogi, who opened the morning session.

Ogi also said Japan was proposing 91 of the 422 specific proposals for action that have been announced by nearly 40 countries. Japan’s proposals deal with water resource management, safe water and sanitation, water for food and rural development, the prevention of water pollution and disaster mitigation.

Other proposals cover issues ranging from the provision of clean drinking water to sanitation and irrigation projects.

The proposals were to be discussed by the ministers, after which a final declaration will be released.

In particular, Ogi said, Japan has much to contribute in terms of technology.

“Japan has the world’s most advanced desalination technology. That would aid greatly in water resource management,” she said, adding that a funding mechanism is needed to provide such technologies to countries that need it.

The ministerial meetings began after a chaotic week of seminars that saw disagreements — often intense — between delegates over issues, particularly the question of privatizing water resources.

On Friday, nongovernmental organizations that oppose the idea disrupted a session in Kyoto. They entered the conference room during a discussion on a report in favor of privatization written by Michel Camdessus, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Chanting “water for people, not for profits,” the protesters were allowed to make their point before being asked to leave, which they did.

Ministers continued to discuss the report in a closed session Saturday, as protesters remained outside the conference hall.

“We will likely mention in the final declaration to be issued Sunday that we take note of the Camdessus report,” said Koos Richelle, a director general of the European Commission in charge of development issues. “I think its recommendations for doubling of financial flows from various parties, including the private sector, for water infrastructure is the only way to address the investment needs.”

In the three days leading up to Saturday’s ministerial conference, Japan attracted strong criticism from several countries, as well as from NGO heads such as former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, for what they described as weak leadership.

Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Agnes van Ardenne said the language of a draft of the final declaration prepared by Japan on Friday was far too weak in terms of showing commitment. Other ministers said many of the 422 specific plans were anything but concrete.

“I will not return to The Hague without changes being made to be more direct,” van Ardenne said in an address to the conference Friday night. “Nobody is waiting for another vague statement.”

A new text of the draft was being discussed in Saturday’s sessions.

NGOs that oppose water privatization were also disappointed to hear that a strong statement reaffirming water as a basic human right was not going to be included in the final declaration. Some NGOs believe that such a statement would create a moral impetus for governments to avoid privatization of water resources.

Finally, there is the issue of Iraq. Throughout Saturday’s discussions, ministers were kept abreast of developments in the invasion of Iraq, and some called for the conference to include a reference to the situation in the final declaration.

Other delegates, however, claimed that the purpose of the conference was to discuss water, not international politics.

By Saturday evening, the inclusion of a specific statement on Iraq appeared unlikely, although some officials said it was still possible that a more general statement might be made.

Children state beliefs

KYOTO (Kyodo) A total of 109 children and young people from 32 countries taking part in the World Water Forum here issued a manifesto Saturday stating that governments are obliged to improve water and sanitation facilities.

The Children’s Water Manifesto also says that governments must “ensure that children and young people are involved in the decision-making and policymaking processes, beginning from the planning through implementation and evaluation of household water-related programs and issues.”

Children and young people involved in the compilation of the manifesto said they have forwarded it to a two-day ministerial-level meeting that started the same day, so that their views will be reflected in a ministerial declaration to be adopted Sunday.

The children and young people have been taking part in the Children’s World Water Forum as part of the eight-day World Water Forum held in the prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka and Shiga.

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