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Tollbridge Over Troubled Waters

March 22nd was World Water Day, as it has been every year since it was inaugurated by the UN General Assembly back in 1993. Countries are encouraged to use the day in activities aimed at raising awareness of water problems all over the world.  Each year has a theme.  Last year it was ‘Sanitation’, this year it was ‘Transboundary waters – Shared Water, Shared Opportunities”.

A UN report, “Water in a Changing World”, released to coincide with the day, warns that increases in population and climate change, coupled with demands for more food and energy production, are depleting the planet’s freshwater supply at an unsustainable rate.  Already there are about 2.5 billion people without improved sanitation facilities, 200 million people get sick due to waterborne diseases, and about 2 million people die each year from using unclean water.  Unless these problems are addressed it will lead to global “political insecurity and conflict at various levels” in the coming decades. “Action is required now,” urges the report.

Global demand for water is greater today than it has ever been and demand will increase in the future.  “With increasing shortages, good governance is more than ever essential for water management. Combating poverty also depends on our ability to invest in this resource,” said Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, presenting the report in ?stanbul last week on behalf of the United Nations at a five-day event entitled ‘The World Water Forum’.

‘The World Water Forum’ is a triennial gathering, described by its organizers ‘The World Water Council’as the “world’s most significant water policy and discussion event” – “an open, all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process” where members can “create links, debate and attempt to find solutions to achieve water security.”  Previous meetings have taken place in Mexico, Holland, Japan and Morrocco.  An estimated 27,000 delegates including  political leaders, specialists and water activists from over 120 countries converged on ?stanbul to attend this fifth worthy-sounding forum.

So why, on the opening day of the forum were there violent clashes in the streets outside the forum building between hundreds of protesters chanting “Water for Life, not for Profit!” and up to 3000 police in riot gear who attacked the crowd with fists and truncheons, firing water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, arresting many and leaving three severely wounded, while inside the conference theatre two women protesters were arrested and charged with “manipulating public opinion,” for an action they performed as government dignitaries were about to take the stage?

Although some big aid and environmental agencies are members of  ‘The World Water Council’, other members include large development finance institutions – the World Bank, for instance. Officially aimed at finding ways to avert an impending world water shortage, critics denounce the World Water Forum as a front for multinational companies seeking profits and promoting privatisation, dismissing it as a “lords of water” jamboree.

The President of ‘The World Water Council’, Loic Fauchon, also happens to be the President of  Société des Eaux de Marseille – a joint subsidiary of two of the world’s largest private water multinationals, French Veolia Environnement and Suez Environnement.  Previous World Water Forum policies have promoted putting water services under ‘Public-Private Partnerships’ (PPP’s) – despite the fact that schemes such as these in countries like Argentina, Bolivia and the US have resulted in price hikes, decreased pollution control, and water cut-offs, denying people easy access to water.

“It’s organised to look like a UN-type event, but it’s not,” said Maude Barlow, senior advisor to the president of the UN General Assembly and founder of the Blue Planet Project, a Canadian-based water-protection group.  “It’s really just a big trade show put on by the big water companies. There is going to be no mention of water as a human right. They don’t want to support that because they see water as a commodity to be sold on the open market. We believe water should be a public trust.”

A spokesman for the Canada-based Polaris Institute, participating in the forum, said that the management and delivery of water should be a sustainable local policy, run by local people, and that the failure of many countries and municipalities to manage their water supplies should not be used as an excuse to outsource management to private companies instead.  “Water is a human right, not a commodity, and private, corporate control of the world’s water resources is wrong.”

Ufuk Uras, a Turkish MP from the Freedom and Solidarity Party, said: “It’s become an issue of the selling and buying of water. This is a fair that’s going on, and when you see the participating companies that are here, it becomes an issue of supply and demand.”

The entrance fee to the event of 100 Euros was also criticized.  “If the organisers were serious, the delegates would get in free,” said Wenonah Hauter, of the US-based Food and Water Watch.

At a meeting of the Freshwater Action Network, an alternative gathering of one of more than 270 international activist groups who had made their way to ?stanbul to join the protest, Zimbabwean Nyanzone Malimi warned his colleagues: “The World Water Forum is not a politically neutral space – it is a very ideological space, and so while we are here this week, we’ve got to go out there and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight.”

The two protesters who were arrested inside the conference theatre at the opening of the forum,  Ann-Kathrin Schneider and Paval Parekh, ‘water justice activists’ from the California-based organization ‘International Rivers Network’ were hustled away out of the dress circle after they had unfured a banner which read: “NO RISKY DAMS!” – a call for Turkey’s rivers to be saved from exploitative multinational water companies.

As she was detained, Parekh said, “Large dams have left a legacy of lies and loss. Continuing to build destructive dams will bring unacceptable risks to people and the planet.”

Said Schneider: “The Ilisu Dam in Southeast Turkey is a symbol of outmoded water and energy policies which destroy communities and the environment. We call on the participants of the World Water Forum to embrace smarter and cleaner solutions which are readily available.”

(The Ilisu Dam Project will leave 313 square kilometers of settlement underwater, which will also destroy the 10,000-year-old city, Hasankeyf.)

After being held held in jail overnight the women were given the option of one year in Turkish prison or immediate deportation.  They chose the latter and flew home the next day.

Musician Birol Topaoglu, a member of the Turkish protest campaign ‘Another Water Management is Possible’ criticized his government’s current water policies, focusing on the 600 dams being planned and constructed on the country’s rivers, including several in the Eastern Kurdish region where the local population has been demanding political independence from Turkey for decades.

“They don’t take notice of the damage it will cause to nature,” he said.  “There are plans to build 50 dams on just one river near the Black Sea.” It’s feared that new water legislation coming after provincial elections at the end of March will open up Turkey’s rivers and lakes to commercial control.

At an Alternative Water Forum held at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, concentrating on water as a human right to which everyone should have access, Maude Barlow called for an end to the World Water Forum.

“We demand that the allocation of water be decided in an open, transparent and democratic forum rather than in a trade show for the world’s large corporations,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Turkish police who fired water-cannon and tear-gas to disperse protesters gathered at the start of the forum told media that they prefer to use water because it’s cheaper than tear-gas.  For how much longer, I wonder?

MICHAEL DICKINSON lives in Istanbul.  He can be found at http://money-free.ning.com/  or at michaelyabanji@gmail.com

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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