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Busting the Water Cartel

A Report From Inside the Activist Coalition at the World Water Forum

by Holly Wren SpauldingSpecial to CorpWatch
March 27th, 2003

Activist at World Water Forum, Kyoto.
Activist at World Water Forum, Kyoto, Japan. March 2003.�Holly Wren Spaulding


Kyoto - The conveners of the third World Water Forum, the World Water Council and Global Water Partnership, tried hard last week to sell the idea that there is a consensus behind their control, distribution and conservation of the world's water. But efforts to turn the Forum into a thinly veiled commercial for corporate solutions to the global water crisis backfired. Instead, many delegates were convinced by arguments put forward citizens' groups framing the water debate as a human rights issue.

The third meeting of the World Water Forum (WWF), held from March 16th to 22nd in Kyoto, Japan, comes at a time when there is growing alarm over the scarcity of water worldwide -- a crisis that is only expected to get worse. It also comes as there are fierce battles being fought over who should control this precious resource. One vision, put forward by major corporations trying to make a buck on water services, and their governmental allies, is that water is a valuable commodity to be controlled by the market. The other, sees water as a basic human and environmental right, to be protected by communities and people around the globe.

The Water Barons Control the Show, or Do They?

The schmooze fest between high-ranking government ministers from around the world, and the emerging water cartel including industry giants such as Suez and Vivendi of France, and the German-British conglomerate RWE-Thames, was also a preview of what to expect at the upcoming WTO summit in Cancun, Mexico this September. However, the Water Forum's primary goal was to promote the privatization of water resources, especially by endorsing public-private partnerships in both the north and the south.

The aggressive corporate campaign for control the world's water has activists concerned. The World Water Forum is "greenwashing, poor washing, and hope dashing," noted Anuradha Mittal of Food First, an Oakland, California-based policy group. Mittal and other activists were appalled by workshops like "How Will the Poor Become Customers?"

Mittal was part of a broad coalition of over 30 organizations from some 27 different countries which came together to challenge the drumbeat towards privatization at the World Water Forum. Summit organizers like to portray the WWF as an international body with a mandate to protect water resources. But human rights advocates charge that it is really an exclusive club accountable only to the demands of the market.

With room for dialogue blocked by the Forum process, activists decided to speak out at a panel of top executives from the leading water companies. The grand stage had been prepared with bamboo arrangements and massive video screens for the corporate presentation, but the twenty men on stage received a different kind of attention than the enthusiastic response they expected.

Grassroots activists took control of the discussion from the floor. Apart from telling the "suits" to go to hell, speakers told story after story of the daily crises caused by water privatization in their countries. Among them was Briggs Mokolo of South Africa who is fighting to defend poor families whose water is cut off by private service providers. A Mexican activist from Cancun brought a plastic bottle of brackish tap water, which was dark brown and smelled of gasoline, to pass around the panel for inspection.

Meanwhile, Indigenous rights activists questioned the premise of treating water as a profit-making commodity. For example, Tom Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Environmental Network said it is up communities around the world to safeguard water resources for future generations. As one native woman put it, "I am the Colombia River."

For every power point presentation on the success of a corporate water concession, there were those at the World Water Forum, like Maria Selva Ortiz from Uruguay, who gave testimony on the impacts such contracts have on people on the ground. In fact, says Ortiz "very often civil society has to rise up and revolt, " as has been the experience of rural and urban communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Among the strategies used by corporations in the global water grab, is to seize control of groundwater. According to Ian Johnson of the World Bank, groundwater mining has "very low or zero social costs in terms of exploitation." What Johnson didn't know was that that five members of the audience from were US-Canadian Great Lakes region where pitched battles are being waged over groundwater. Representing communities fighting Nestl's water bottling operations, they brought up the social and environmental costs that Johnson so sweepingly dismissed.

A Tsunami of Opposition

The corporate agenda became more explicit as the weeklong summit progressed, catalyzing opposition around report entitled "Financing Water For All." Chaired by Michel Camdessus, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, this document spurred what turned out to be one of the most heated confrontations of the week.

Trade unionists, members of International Rivers Network, and the Indigenous Network, joined other grassroots activists and policy advocates to operate homemade "Lie Meters" throughout Camdessus' presentation of the report. These make shift meters indicated the level of deceit on a color-coded scale, with red being the highest alert. Others held up large painted clouds with the words "Agua es Vida" (Water is Life) and "El Agua es del Pueblo"(Water Belongs to the People) blazoned on them. Speaking from the floor, Bolivian Human Rights activist Pablo Solon rejected the report's recommendations.

"We are not against this paragraph or that paragraph of the Camdessus Report. We are against the heart of the Camdessus Report, because the heart of the report is that it does not have a heart," Solon charged. He pointed out that water privatization policies, like the ones advocated by the Camdessus Report, have lead to riots and even deaths in Bolivia.

"You are not happy with taking us to war over oil. You want to take us to war over water too," observed an Argentinian trade unionist. Noted Indian scholar and activist Vandana Shiva drew applause when she pointed out that "People do not drink money, we drink water." Shortly thereafter, two large banners appeared on stage, one reading "World Water Council Mafia" and the other, "No Profits from Water." On cue, about 100 civil society participants walked out by way of the stage, blocking the presenters behind their expansive desks.

They passed Expo Center with banners, chants and "Water is Life" headbands finally meeting up with a larger march outside organized by Japanese activists.

In one final act of resistance, Canadian water activists and policy analysts Tony Clark and Maude Barlow were among a group of campaigners who crashed the "members only" meeting held by the World Water Council. They announced that more than two hundred organizations had signed on to the Water is Life Alternative Vision Statement. The statement is meant to counter the World Water Forum's vision of water as a commodity and source of profits.

Meanwhile, in the days following the World Water Forum grassroots activists have returned to their local struggles from El Salvador to Ghana, Detroit and New Zealand, from Tanzania, Nicaragua and India to the Netherlands. They vowed to continue developing alternatives to the models offered by the Water Barons. As Vandana Shiva noted, "For every really terrible thing they give us, we must come up with something really beautiful."

Holly Wren Spaulding is a member of the Sweetwater Alliance, a group fighting a Nestle water bottling operation in Michigan.