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The Guardian/UK

Campaigners Vow to Disrupt World Water Forum

Robert Tait

A group of protesters display a banner at the Sutluce Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, March 16, 2009, during the opening ceremony of the 5th World Water forum. A global conference on water resources is opening in Turkey, with sanitation, climate change and increasing demand emerging as key themes on the agenda. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

ISTANBUL - Political leaders, specialists and activists will today attend a vast gathering in Istanbul officially aimed at averting an impending world water shortage but denounced by critics as a front for multinational companies seeking profits and promoting privatisation.

An estimated 20,000 delegates are expected at the world water forum, taking place on the banks of the Golden Horn and appropriately within sight of the Bosphorus, one of the world's most famous waterways. It is the fifth such forum organised by the Marseilles-based World Water Council, following previous events in Mexico, Holland, Japan and Morocco.

The council was founded to exchange ideas about conservation and the development of water resources. Group members include the World Bank, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the US Corps of Engineers.

"The water situation in the world is not going in the right direction," said Ger Bergkamp, director general of the council. "There is a matter of urgency to act."

This week's gathering has been given added urgency by the global economic recession and climate change.

A Swiss-based environmental group, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has warned that two-thirds of the world's population will face water shortages by 2025 resulting from demographic change and deteriorating ecosystems.

The five-day forum will highlight the damage done to developing world water and sanitation projects by the international credit crunch. "The current economic meltdown has dried up the easy credit and trade that poorer nations have come to depend on. The [forum] will address this challenge, seeking to improve the quantity and quality of investments in water," said a report on the council's website.

However, that pledge is likely to heighten the suspicions of anti-forum pressure groups, some of which have dismissed the event as a "lords of water" jamboree.

"It's organised to look like a UN-type event but it's not," said Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, a Canadian-based group dedicated to protecting fresh water.

"It's really just a big trade show put on by the big water companies. There is going to be no mention of water as a human right. They don't want to support that because they see water as a commodity to be sold on the open market. There is mounting evidence that privatisation has failed. We believe water should be a public trust."

Critics have promised demonstrations and are staging an alternative forum at Istanbul's Bilgi University to promote public sector solutions.

They say that the council, aided by the World Bank, has driven projects that have raised water costs and worsened scarcities in the developing world.

There have also been complaints about the costs of attending. Turkish visa restrictions and a £280 entrance fee have made the forum prohibitive for delegates from poorer countries.

"I think this forum is very hypocritical," said Wenonah Hauter, of the US-based Food and Water Watch. She added: "If the organisers were serious, the delegates would get in free and they also wouldn't have held it in a city that's very difficult to get to."

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