ISTANBUL - The Fifth World Water Forum begins in Istanbul Mar. 16 in the face of some stark facts: of the world's water, 97.5 percent is the sea, and of the remaining, 70 percent is frozen in polar icecaps. That leaves precious little for 6.76 billion people around the world, expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.
The statistics get scarier. United Nations agencies estimate that 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water. About 70 percent of water is used for irrigation - and most of that is lost before it reaches the plant. In 2017 close to 70 percent of the global population will have problems accessing freshwater. In 2025, approximately 40 percent of the population will be living in water-scarce regions.
Confronting these facts, and the difficulties they raise, will be an estimated 20,000 participants who will attend the week-long forum on the future of the "commodity" that is so much more vital than oil or gas, gold or diamonds.
The parley will bring together cabinet ministers, mayors, management experts, academics, parliamentarians and civil society organisations to discuss a wide array of water-related issues, and come up with recommendations for action. The conference has been sponsored by the World Water Council based in Marseille (France) and Turkish government agencies along with the Istanbul municipality. The water forum is held every three years.
The theme for the forum this year is 'Bridging Divides for Water'. It will address global changes and risk management, and the protection of water resources. The conference is expected to produce a joint declaration, The Istanbul Consensus.
What that consensus can be built around is another matter. "A global water crisis is on its way," says a paper prepared for the Forum by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest independent network working on natural resources, citing projected increases in population and pollution. Much of the concern boils down to a simple question: is water a "commodity" that profit-oriented private concerns can trade in, or a human right to be guaranteed by public institutions? Who owns it? Who should manage it?
The Forum maintains it has an open mind. Its programme declares that "the Forum is not a place for private firms to exploit water as a commodity but, to the contrary, to discuss and find common solutions that may be acceptable to all parties and be of benefit for all." But it also offers a venue "perfectly placed to facilitate new business opportunities...as well as providing access to sizeable potential new customers."
The Forum stands accused of having a particular agenda. "The Forum lacks democratic legitimacy and should be replaced by a UN process," Olivier Hoedeman of the Amsterdam-based NGO Corporate Europe Observatory told IPS in a telephone interview. "The World Water Council, which controls the Forum process, is simply a private think-tank unaccountable to anyone but itself. It has a history of close ties to private water multinationals and of promoting the neo-liberal agenda for the water sector."
His NGO and others are backing an alternative 'People's Water Forum' to run on the same dates, proclaiming "Water for People, Not Profit" and that "Another Water Management is Possible", taking a cue from the World Social Forum slogan "Another World is Possible".
Ger Bergkamp, director-general of the World Water Council, which counts 300 members from 62 countries, told IPS he has no problem with the alternative forum. "We are open to all without particular view or interest. All are welcome. If there are other forums, we welcome them. It will keep the issue alive."
Bergkamp denied that the Council is only business-oriented. He said the private sector is only a small part of the Forum.
That has not stopped groups such as the WWF planning anti-Forum demonstrations, though it is unclear how far they will be tolerated by Turkish security forces that are often suspicious of mass demonstrations. Tens of thousands marched in protest against the fourth WWF in Mexico City three years ago.
The bigger confrontations are expected within the Forum itself. Several delegations are reported to be opposed to any final declaration that falls short of calling for public management of water supplies. Hoedeman said Latin American delegations will issue a counter proclamation if privatisation is pushed.
The Forum will seek to be green, in line with recommendations of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in October last year. Delegates are advised to travel by train, boat or bus for short distances, use recyclable water bottles, go for electronic documents rather than printed ones, use both sides of paper, lower the thermostat in hotel rooms, turn off the tap when brushing teeth, take showers rather than baths, asks that towels and bedding not be changed every day, and use stairs rather than elevators.
And organisers have committed themselves to planting a tree for every participant. The trees will need water, though.