Every three years the World Water Council – a non-governmental entity based in Marseilles, France – holds the World Water Forum (WWF), an enormous event whose 4th incarnation is taking place now, between March 16 and 22, in Mexico City. This year’s gathering has already been marked by conflict and controversy.
The WWF, which presents itself as a UN-led event in its pretensions to setting global water policy, is in reality something like a free-trade fair, corporate expo, and platform for the corporate water sector to set an agenda for the coming years. The President of the World Water Council, Rene Coulomb, is also President of Suez, one of the world’s top three water companies. The WWF is co-sponsored by the World Bank, Coca-Cola and other corporations, in collaboration with the water ministry of the host country, in this case, CONAGUA, Mexico’s water agency widely known for corruption and misuse of funds. It is for these reasons that Santiago Arconada, an official in Venezuela’s Ministry of Environment, likens the WWF to the World Economic Forum, calling it "the Davos of water."
Not unlike the Davos Forum, this one has generated a notable reaction among progressive and popular movements, sparking a series of alternative events, protest marches, and actions concurrent with the WWF itself, mostly organized by the Mexican Coalition for the Right to Water (COMDA, by its Spanish acronym) along with an international coalition called the Friends of the Right to Water. The alternative events – coming to a close this week – have included a tribunal denouncing cases of water abuse worldwide, workshops on subjects ranging from social control of water services to analyses of the role of free trade and the World Bank in water issues, to dialogues on gender, health and indigenous cultural rights.
Well over a thousand attendees of the alternative forum have used the venue as a platform to build a global movement for democratic, community controlled water access, to demand that the World Trade Organization stay out of the water sector, and to pressure the United Nations to draft a Convention on Water as a Human Right. The alternative forum will close with a declaration to articulate these and other goals with sign-on and commitments for action from the vast diversity of participating groups representing popular movements at the cutting edge of the water rights issue, from Argentina to Tanzania and from the Philippines to Canada.
The opening day of the WWF was marked by a massive protest march through the streets of Mexico City. In the early evening of March 16th more than 20,000 mostly peaceful demonstrators braved a gauntlet of riot police and a 6.5 kilometer march route in the first ever international march in favor of the human right to water. From the Angel of the Independence in the trendy Zona Rosa neighborhood to the Banamex Center where the WWF was having it opening session, the march grew increasingly diverse and militant. Families, workers’ unions, popular organizations, sectarian groups, and international activists marched together chanting and singing through the streets. The question of access to water is not a marginal issue in this city of 26 million in a country known to be suffering from water scarcity and water stress. This was very much a march of the people.
Among the workers and families marching, hundreds of youths with masks, sticks, and other black-block accoutrements taunted the police and several small scuffles broke out leading to the arrest, and eventual release of 26 youths allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails.
The day of the march, Angel Martinez, a member of the Union of National Water Workers – la coordinadora en defensa del caracter publico del agua – discussed some of Mexico’s water problems:
"The quality of water service in Mexico is terrible, and you can see it in the high indices of water-borne illnesses and even cancer in every state in Mexico. Apart from diarrhea diseases – the main cause of death in children in every state, we are finding high rates of cancer from heavy metals in the water in quantities that you Gringos would find terrifying. The PRI [the government party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century] has always used water to divide the people and advance its political agenda. For example, the local PRI government would give one part of a municipality a public water utility ‘for PRIISTAS’ and then tell the rest of the people, ‘if you want water, you can have it, just vote for the PRI.’
"With President Fox the situation remains the same – everything is for sale, and if you want to be part of the power structure, it’s simple – just go along with the politics of selling everything."
"The Coordinadora has tried to raise awareness of the water issue by organizing workshops and assemblies. This January we organized the first Assembly in Defense of of Land and Water and Against Privatization. What is it we hope to achieve? We want to make it known that our water is being privatized in a silent, underground way. It is not like electricity or oil, where the entire system is simply sold off in the light of day to private companies. In the case of water, CONAGUA gives concessions to industries as part of their manner of working – this is seen as absolutely normal. They will concession a local water utility or a water source to the beer industry, the paper industry, the textile industry and others, and these are not short-term concessions – these are concessions that last from 20 to 70 years."
Summing up his opinion of the World Water Forum, Martinez said, "The organizers of the Forum think they are coming here to tell Mexico how to privatize water. But what is going to happen is that the Mexican government is going to say, no, let us show YOU how it’s done, without people even realizing!"
At the second and third World Water Forums, the World Water Council was adamant in its refusal to recognize water as a right, taking the position instead that water is a human need – a need which then can be filled by the corporate water sector. Much headway has been made since then, with terminology shifting over the years from "privatization of water services" to "public-private partnerships," to the currently in vogue term "private sector participation." Whatever affect the March 16 demonstration and the alternative events have had, it is clear that popular pressure continues to force the World Water Council to find creative ways to push its corporate agenda.
On March 19, the day the official Forum dedicated to the right to water, a group of the Friends of the Right to Water entered the convention center with a message. Some 50 international activists marched to a central location within the Water Forum, chanting and shaking water bottles filled with coins "to show that water has been privatized for the benefit of the few that were heavily represented within the World Water Forum," according to Miriam Torres of California’s Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.
As the press rolled in, the banners rolled out: two banners saying "Right to Water Not Corporate Control" and "$H2000000.00?" were unfurled to a throng of cheers and chants, including from participants from the Forum itself. Santiago Arconada of Venezuela then read the Spanish version of the Declaration of the Right to Water from the alternative forum, and Lidy Nayul, a Filipina representing the group Focus on the Global South, read it in English to a high energy response from the crowd. Several speakers then elucidated the difference between the vision of water stewardship held by the alternative forum and that of the corporate event, followed by a march throughout the convention center followed by hundreds of participants, ending at a conference session on – what else? – the right to water.
Anil Naidoo, a representative of the Council of Canadians and a chair of the Friends of the Right to Water commented on the action: "To allow the World Water Council to have their undemocratic meeting without our challenging it would have been a shame. We were trying to represent the international water justice movement, and I think our message was clear. As we will continue to do, we managed to assert our voice and our rights, even in a venue where our voice and our vision of water rights were not initially welcome."
Jeff Conant coordinates the Environmental Health Book Project for the Hesperian Foundation and in his spare time acts as a Senior Editor of LiP Magazine, where he is writing a blog from the Mexico City events. Orin Langelle is a photographer and the Co-Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, an organization which advances ecological awareness and global justice.