Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Looming Battle Over the Right to Water

Istanbul this week has been playing host to the 5th World Water Forum, a kind of masters of the water universe confab/trade show where global water policy is discussed, maybe determined (by who, exactly, is not clear), and big water deals are made (an estimated $400-$500 billion is invested annually in water-related projects).

The forum is organized by the World Water Council, a Marseilles-based organization that – even after spending a few days at the Forum – remains something of a mystery to me. Founded in 1996, the WWC describes itself as “An International Multi-Stakeholder Platform for a Water Secure World.” Critics of the group say it is nothing but a front for private sector interests who want to turn the world’s water resources into a market-based commodity. That might be an exaggeration, but the slickness and cool professionalism of the people working with the organization certainly don’t give it a warm and fuzzy NGO vibe.

Either way, the WWC – through the Water Forum, which is held every three years – seems to have become the main address for bringing together the major “stakeholders” dealing with water issues, from government ministers down to community activists (although they were mostly exiled to something called the “NGO Village,” located in a building that was a healthy walk from the conference’s main venue).

The debate over the privatization of water services and resources certainly hovered over the Forum, although the forces of privatization seem to have been diminished by the disastrous experience they have had in Latin America and other parts of the world over the last decade. The private water companies themselves seemed to go out of their way to present a new face at the event. I had a chance to speak at the Forum with the affable Alexandre Brailowsky, who holds the newly created position of “Social Empowerment Director” at Suez Environment (or the more ominous sounding “Social Engineering Director,” as one company press release referred to him), one of the largest private water and sanitation companies in the world. Brailowsky couldn’t tell me enough about how much the company has learned from its mistakes and how it is now interested in creating a process where “the people are involved.”

What struck me as the emerging defining debate regarding water is over the question of the right to water. To put it simply: is access to sufficient clean water a basic universal human right? Few would disagree with that notion (at least not in public), but the real question is what does enshrining a right to water mean in practical, legal and financial terms. This was clearly something that many of the “stakeholders” at the Forum were grappling with, considering that most agreed that fresh water resources are diminishing.

From my article about the issue in today’s Christian Science Monitor:
With fresh water resources becoming scarcer worldwide due to population growth and climate change, a growing movement is working to make access to clean water a basic universal human right.

But it's a contentious issue, experts say. Especially difficult is how to safely mesh public-sector interests with public ownership of resources – and determine the legal and economic ramifications of enshrining the right to water by law.

"It's an issue that is snowballing," says Tobias Schmitz, a water-resources expert with Both Ends, a Dutch environmental and development organization. Some 30 countries have a constitutional or legal provision ensuring individuals' access to water, up from a handful a few years ago, he says.

"Everybody is grappling with the issue, knowing that we need to secure this right. But the question now is over the practical application of this right," Dr. Schmitz says.

Government officials and leaders of numerous nongovernmental organizations and companies working on the water issue are meeting this week in Istanbul as part of the World Water Forum, which takes place every three years in a bid to shape global water policy.

One of the thorniest issues governmental officials at the forum have struggled with has been this question of the right to water. A declaration to be signed by the ministers of some 120 countries attending the forum is expected to refer to access to water as a "basic need," rather than a right….

…."This is not a semantic issue. If we can determine that water is a right, it gives citizens a tool they can use against their governments," says Maude Barlow, a senior adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.

"If you believe it is a human right, then you believe that you can't refuse to give it to someone because they can't afford it," she says.
You can read the rest of the article here. For more information about the issue, visit this site, put up by a coalition of groups working on question of the right to water.

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