forum closes amid clash over privatization
By Eric Johnston and Asako Murakami
The Japan Times
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
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
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.