Latin America: Facing the World Water Forum, We Look Forward and Maintain Hope

The media tells us that 8 million people die every year from illnesses related to water; that more than a billion people lack access to potable water; and that more than 2.4 billion do not have access to sanitation.

Source: Climate Connections

At Sixth World Water ForumMarseille, France – The media tells us that 8 million people die every year from illnesses related to water; that more than a billion people lack access to potable water; and that more than 2.4 billion do not have access to sanitation.

These grave numbers, revised upward every three years, are cited by the World Water Council as the reason for convening their tri-annual World Water Forum. While the Water Forum, billed with a strong corporate flavor as an “international multi-stakeholder platform,” has a different character than the annual Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the results are largely the same: a lot of talking, perhaps even a lot of good intentions, but little action, and universal frustration.

So it is that the Sixth World Water Forum opens today (March 12-17) in Marseille, France. At $1000 for participants from wealthy nations, and about $450 for participants from the ‘under-developed countries,’ the cost of attending makes the forum inaccesible to those who come from the countries of the Global South.

And so it is that every three years those of us who believe this Forum to be illegitimate gather together to denounce it. And every three years, over the course of many months, organizations and movements from around the World come together to hold the Alternative World Water Forum. We have done so previously, in Kyoto in 2003, in Mexico City in 2006, and in Istanbul in 2009. Now, in 2012, in Marseilles, the last details for this year’s convening are being worked out.

The challenges facing our social movements are enormous. The greatest of these challenges is the construction of viable alternatives to the dominant economy and to the regime of natural resource management that is based on extraction, exploitation, and extreme energy.

The questions are clear, the answers diverse and complex. For example, who should convene these fora? If the World Water Council has no legitimate right to push decisions regarding global water issues, does the United Nations? We are struggling to put water in public hands – but is it truly public when the State controls it? Or when it is in the hands of us, the people? How can we create conditions where State-managed water systems coexist with systems developed and managed by the community? How can we get beyond the demagoguery that dominates the discourse of human rights and the Human Right to Water? In the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, how can we advance the defense of Mother Earth and her natural Rights when the practical demands of running a country within a global economy are in direct contradiction to ecological concerns?

Wherever we are headed, the world continues turning, and it will not stop in Marseille. Throughout the Americas, discontent is on the rise in the face of governments left, right and center, red, green and pink. We are witnesses, not to a series of isolated uprisings, but to a global movement against the unwarranted ambition of the corporate agenda, and in defense of the Commons.

In Chile, the population of Aysén has risen up and put state authorities in checkmate, because the government of Sebastian Piñera remembers them only when it comes time to launch a hydroelectric project.

In Ecuador, March 8, International Women’s Day, marked the launch of the National March for Life and the Dignity of the People. The march, convened by the National Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONAIE) and other sectors, seeks to unmask the neoliberal policies of the Correa administration and the ongoing criminalization of the indigenous peoples’ movement. The march, which began in the province of Zamora and will end in Quito on World Water Day, March 22,  is also in defense of the Constitution of Montecristi and the approval of the revolutionary agrarian law and the popular water law.

Not long ago in Peru, a similar March for Water ended with the alignment of new social sectors following the approval by the government of Ollanta Humala of mining projects in Cajamarca, in the face of widespread resistance and discontent.

In Bolivia, the peoples of the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS) are preparing their ninth march against the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway that the Morales government continues to promote as part of the interoceanic corridor to unite Brazil to Chile.

In the United States, the Occupy movement has been evicted from the plazas, but has expanded to the neighborhoods and other public spaces in the form of workshops, gatherings, and assemblies that may easily come to be more of a threat to the authorities, and teh authroitarians, than the simple occupation of public spaces.

Hours before the beginning of the World Water Forum in Marseille, reflecting on what is happening in our countries, I feel a kind of anger that it is an affair like this – a gathering of corporate elites – that brings us together, again. Every three years we unite to delegitimize and denounce this profit-oriented trade fair that is built on our backs by the corporations that make up the World Water Forum. It shouldn’t be this way.

But, I maintain hope: the day will come when we will gather together not to respond to the destructive agenda of the corporate elites, but because we see the way forward, because we have a clear, common agenda; because we are called by solidarity to do so. We will gather together because we will have learned not only from our defeats, but from our victories.

At the end of the day, we will join together because we desire to do so, as brothers and sisters on this planet we call Earth, and because it is our legitimate right.

Marcela Olivera is a Bolivian water rights activist, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Currently she is a Visiting Global Associate of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.