KYOTO — For eight days, and at a considerable cost to local taxpayers, the World Water Forum brought together international corporations in the water supply business, World Bank officials and a large number of Japanese construction and design firms, as well as senior government officials and thousands of members of nongovernmental organizations.
But in the end, a lack of political will due to ongoing controversies over the privatization of water supplies and the war in Iraq left many participants doubting whether the conference produced anything of value.
The war began on the fifth day of the conference and prompted several delegates from the Arab world to leave.
“It’s not that the issues being addressed were not serious. It’s that there was no reason to come all the way to Japan for eight days to simply make speeches and vague promises about dealing with the problems,” complained one government official from Europe.
The agenda for the talks was made up of a host of water and sanitation issues for both developing and industrialized countries. They ranged from providing safe drinking water to the construction of large dams.
Many of the delegates were individuals and organizations that belong to or support the World Water Council, the forum’s sponsor. Formed in 1996, the council’s main role is to lobby governments around the world to address water supply and sanitation needs.
Nearly 200 Japanese companies, including general construction firms, road-building companies and trading companies supported the forum, which took place in Kyoto, Osaka, and Shiga prefectures.
Official delegates gathered to approve 422 specific action plans to deal with water and sanitation issues, building new dams, sharing new technologies and forming cooperative agreements between various regions to exchange information.
One of the main purposes of the forum was to help participants prepare for the Group of Eight Summit in June. French President Jacques Chirac has declared water issues a priority for discussions, and the participants wanted to use the meeting to coordinate efforts to lobby the G-8 governments.
Given the start of the war on Iraq, however, even former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, the forum’s steering committee chairman, was pessimistic that water would still be high on the G-8 agenda.
From the first day to the last, the underlying message — that a worldwide water shortage will lead to conflicts among nations in the 21st century — was simply but forcefully put.
To prevent conflict, massive investment in water and sanitation infrastructures is needed in order to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without clean water by 2015.
Most controversially, official delegates argued that the only way such investment will materialize is if cash-strapped governments look favorably upon the idea of private-sector control of their water supply and sanitation needs.
They argued that the private sector has more money and management ability than governments do. But in their seminars extolling privatization, they ignored examples of the failure of water privatization in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, South Africa, and the Philippines.
In Manila, for example, after two private firms won concessions for the city’s public water works in 1997, water prices tripled over the next five years.
By December 2002, one of the firms announced it would pull out. This firm was an affiliate of the French conglomerate Suez, which is a major supporter of the World Water Forum.
The announcement meant that the project, which was serving 6.5 million people in the western part of metro Manila, would be abandoned, according to reports by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington.
“You learn as much from your mistakes as your failures, and we need to study water-privatization failures as well,” said Koos Richelle, from the European Commission.
For NGOs that opposed the privatization of water services, the conference started off hopefully. Members of several groups reported that, unlike in the previous World Water Forum, held in The Netherlands three years ago, the various sessions were open to them.
But their hopes faded toward the end. Most groups issued declarations of their own Sunday, saying, in effect, that the ministerial declaration clearly demonstrates the way in which big water corporations and international lending agencies are heading — toward the privatization of water and sanitation services through public-private partnerships.
“The World Water Council tried to present themselves as caring for the poor and the environment. But the real agenda (of privatization) didn’t change a bit,” said Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based NGO.
World Bank official David Grey claimed at one forum session that the bank does not have an “ideology” regarding privatization. But the rapid growth of water privatization was possible because the World Bank has often made privatization of the water sector a condition for loan guarantees.
NGOs did not just complain. They also presented successful examples of alternatives to the kind of privatization that they said the forum was pushing.
For example, the Departamento Municipal do Agua e Esgoto, a water company in Porto Alegre, the capital of the Rio Grande do Sul province of Brazil, is publicly owned but financially independent from the state.
It is fully financed with the water bills paid by the city’s 1.4 million residents. DMAE has been in operation for 14 years and allows public participation and control over its operations and investments.
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