World Water Forum rekindles privatization debate

The opening of the fourth World Water Forum on Thursday brought attention to the controversial issue of water privatization, advocated by Forum organizers as a way of fighting the global water crisis.

As delegates from more than 120 countries and thousands of company representatives gathered in Mexico City, some NGOs argued that the forum represents business interests and not those of one billion people worldwide with no access to clean drinking water.

Friends of the Earth dismissed the forum as a “business dominated talk-shop,” saying that water privatization was a “pie-in-the-sky” solution that was failing in many countries, and called for water to be recognized as “part of the global commons.”

But others joined the World Water Council, the host of the Mexico event, in blaming the water crisis on governments rather than private companies. The latest World Water Report from the UN, officially published on the first day of the forum, also pointed to corruption and mismanagement by governments as the root causes of the crisis (see related story).

A new book launched by the International Policy Network coalition of NGOs to coincide with the World Water Forum argues that market forces can deliver the clean drinking water that corrupt governments have failed to provide.

Its author, Kendra Okonski, said: “Solutions to water scarcity in the 21st century lie in extending markets and other decentralized arrangements – and eliminating government policies which distort and undermine markets. Because markets enable people more fully to value water, they harness people’s entrepreneurial initiative.”

But water privatization policies have been sparking such protests in South America and Africa that French water giant Suez said its work there has become impossible. The group last week announced that it will focus on projects in Asia instead.

South America has seen its share of controversy over water privatization. In Bolivia, thousands protested against increased water rates when Suez took over municipal water supplies, eventually forcing the company out of the country. Argentina clashed with the same company when it proposed to increase rates by 60% in 2005. And in Uruguay, protests against water privatization prompted a change in the law.

NGOs point out that the president of the World Water Council is no other than Loic Fauchon, who also presides over the Marseille Water Supply Company, a Suez subsidiary.

Carlos Santos of REDES / Friends of the Earth Uruguay said: “Water privatization guidelines that came out of the 3rd Water Forum failed spectacularly in Uruguay.”

“Privatization of water services in the Maldonado area caused grave social, economical and environmental consequences. It also brought about a popular uproar and a constitutional reform -backed by 64,7% of Uruguayan citizens – which prohibited water privatization and laid the ground for participatory and sustainable water management.”

The World Water Forum is held in Mexico City from 16-22 March.

By Goska Romanowicz

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