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The long-awaited Fourth World Water Forum brought over 10,000 participants and hundreds of journalists to town to discuss what organizers hoped would be the mostly technical issues of a shared human concern. The event is organized every three years by the World Water Council, which groups 300 organizations including industry representatives, government ministries, international institutions, and development banks.

However, the technical discussions were quickly eclipsed by a clash of worldviews. From the outset, forum officials expressed their view that water cannot be valued properly until it is assigned a market price that reflects costs, and that private participation is necessary for investment in infrastructure. This is the vision pushed by the World Bank and others since they created the Water Council in the mid-nineties. The accompanying water trade fair offered a glimpse of what’s at stake for the burgeoning water industry, worth about $400 billion dollars a year.

Meanwhile, members of the urban popular movement, small farmers’ organizations, and indigenous peoples asserted that access to water is a right and a public good.

This clash has happened at previous forums. The Third Forum in Japan saw numerous dissenting voices and protest actions, which is the reason that security and access were tightened up at the Mexico City Forum. But a major change occurred between the Third and Fourth Forums. What was once a sound of alarm from environmental groups who warned of the risks of privatization has grown into a worldwide grassroots protest movement.

In a tidal shift that wasn’t entirely clear until Mexico City, public opinion has moved against private-sector management and reclaimed water as a basic human right to be managed outside the market, by the people. In the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia, residents fought the private concession for water distribution—and won. Private contracts throughout the developing world have been cancelled when irate users or disappointed governments noted that rates were raised while promised investment—especially in non- profitable poor areas—never materialized. In Latin America, the most unequal region of the world, private concessions have exacerbated inequities in access to water by focusing services in lucrative urban zones and ignoring areas where the need is worst.

In a remarkable demonstration of how water issues have filtered into public consciousness, on March 16 thousands of people marched through Mexico City with signs reading “Public Water Forever,” “Life, not Profits,” and “You Can’t Buy What Has Never Been for Sale: Land and Water are Sacred.” It marked the first time an essentially environmental issue had mobilized so many people to protest.

The decline of the privatizing model for water and sanitation systems was obvious in the defensive posture of the pro-business forum organizers. On the linguistic battleground, the word “privatization”—once the darling of economic reformers—has been routed from the official discourse on water. Promoters now speak of the role of the private sector in cooperating in financing and establishing “mixed investment.”

But although the World Bank and transnational corporations recognized their public image problem and sought to avoid being portrayed as privatizers, their proposals for water management emphasized market measures and private investment, in marked contrast to the community-management solutions proposed in the alternative forum.

In fact, moving between the two forums, contrasts were the order of the day. In the alternative forum, a representative from the Colombian trade union representing Coca Cola workers assassinated by paramilitary forces for union activities joined a spokesperson for Indian villages protesting the drying up of their water sources by Coke bottling plants to demand a global boycott of the transnational. At the official forum, Coke was a major sponsor and all the beverages provided to thirsty participants bore its famous trademark. Throughout the week, international leaders in suits vied for the front pages with indigenous women, municipal workers, and environmentalists.

The World Water Council is a non-elected organization with no public mandate and no formal decision-making authority. Despite its claims to be a multi-stakeholder arena, the Fourth Forum established physical, economic, and bureaucratic barriers to limit the participation of critical voices; it imposed labyrinthine rules for press participation; and sought to sideline countries opposed to the final declaration (Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Cuba).

The final declaration itself was an exercise in futility. Most organizations had assumed that at least the Forum would pronounce in favor of elevating access to water to a basic human right, as already included in the UN Convention on Economic and Social Rights and stated in the WWF president’s foreword.

This did not happen. The final, highly diluted declaration merely “underlines the need to include water and sanitation as priorities in national processes …” Behind-the-scene comments indicate that this was the result of heavy lobbying by the industry federation, AguaFed. If water were recognized as a basic right, private companies could ostensibly be held in violation for cutting off privatized water to poor users in arrears— currently a standard practice.

No one disputes the seriousness of the water crisis. Two billion people in the world without access to drinking water, 3.35 billion without basic sanitation services, two million children dead a year of water-related illnesses, prolonged drought, aquifer depletion, and polluted rivers— together create a bleak outlook for the future. However, the Fourth Forum offered little to alleviate the crisis. Even studies presented at the Forum revealed a lack of consensus on the efficacy of private sector involvement and a long list of problems. The declaration merely announced the formation of a data bank on “best practices” and affirmed previous agreements.

The United Nations, the international financial institutions, and national governments should leave the World Water Forum, and it should be left to continue its activities as primarily a trade and industry fair and industry adviser. The UN should strengthen its own programs with the active participation of member states and develop broad mechanisms for civil society participation and sharing community-based best practices. Civil society should be aided in developing forums to exchange experiences and build alternatives.

The privatization model for water use and distribution has failed to deliver. It’s time to make room for new, more democratic, alternatives.