For more than a decade, the idea that private companies would be able to bring water to the world's poor has been a mantra of development policies promoted by international lending agencies and many governments.
It has not happened. In the past decade, according to a private water suppliers trade group, private companies have managed to extend water service to just 10 million people, less than 1 percent of those who need it. Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to clean water, the United Nations says.
The reality behind those numbers is sinking in. At the fourth World Water Forum, a six-day conference here of industry, governments and nongovernmental organizations, there is little talk of privatization.
Instead, many people here want to return to relying on the local public utilities that still supply 90 percent of the water to those households that have it.
There is a "big-time shift" in tone, said David Boys, a water policy expert with the Public Services International labor federation. Mr. Boys is a member of an advisory panel appointed by United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, that presented its recommendations at the forum, beginning with a call to strengthen local public utilities.
"The companies have lost tons of dough and tons of respect," Mr. Boys said. "They are pulling out."
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Bolivia, where, in the city of El Alto, residents have been fighting a subsidiary of the French company Suez. The government is now negotiating for Suez to leave, arguing that it did not extend service to people too poor to pay enough to make it profitable.
"The water rates have to conform to reality," said Abel Mamani, an activist from El Alto who is now Bolivia's new water minister.
An uprising in the city of Cochabamba five years ago chased out a subsidiary of the United States company Bechtel after it raised rates but failed to improve service.
Bolivian officials at the World Water Forum admitted that the old public municipal water systems were mired in corruption, bureaucracy and nepotism.
"The solution is for the community to get involved in water management," said Pablo Solón, an economic adviser to the government.
That kind of citizen oversight is already in place in many cities, like Porto Alegre, Brazil, which created a permanent council of 12 citizens' groups to oversee its water utility.
Even officials of the World Water Council, the organization that runs the forum and is heavily weighted toward multinational water companies, appear to be giving up on wholesale privatization.
"Let's finance infrastructure for the 50 countries most in need and the twenty poorest megacities through a more intense donation policy," said Loïc Fauchon, president of the council, in his opening speech last week.
The debate over privatization is driving the controversy inside and outside the forum, which ends Tuesday. Across town, international and local groups held an alternative forum for activists opposed to privatization, who are unconvinced that governments and organizations like the World Bank have given up on the idea.
"The state does not assume its responsibilities properly," said Cuauhtémoc Abarca, a Mexico City activist. "In many cases there is a deliberate intention to show that public utilities work badly" as an excuse to privatize them.
For all the focus on privatization, much of the serious work of the forum was rooted in heart-wrenching statistics.
One in three people in the world, 2.6 billion, does not have access to any kind of toilet or latrine, according to a United Nations report to be presented at the conference on Tuesday.
Water-related diseases cause more than three million deaths a year, mostly of children younger than 5. Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, estimates that women and girls in the poorest countries and regions walk nearly four miles a day to carry water.
Only $3 billion in aid a year goes to improve water access and sanitation, the United Nations World Water Development Report said, and very little of that gets to the people who need it most.
But there was encouraging news, too, that local activists, even very young ones, could make a difference.
"We were scolded for being young people with big ideas," said Suresh Baral, 13, who organized a sanitation club in his school in rural Nepal. With help from Unicef, the children set up a microfinance program to help villagers pay for installing toilets.
Dolly Akhter, 15, started a hygiene group for adolescent girls in her slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many teenage girls stayed away from school, too embarrassed by the lack of privacy for hygiene.
But when the group brought in new latrines, the girls returned and several were able to avoid early marriages by continuing their studies.
As her news conference ended, she looked up and said in broken English, "I hope water for all in the world."
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