ISTANBUL - The fifth World Water Forum (WWF) held in Istanbul ended Sunday with wide-ranging differences among governments and groups with an interest in water.
The forum adopted a declaration calling for "new and adequate resources" for the water sector. It also stressed the need for increased vigilance against corruption, and for preparedness for climate change.
But the final declaration by close to 100 ministers made no mention of the hotly contested issue whether water is a human right or a commodity to be traded like oil, gas or gold. It only described access to safe drinking water and sanitation as "a basic human need."
This led to a counter declaration by delegations from Bolivia, Uruguay, Spain, Guatemala, Ecuador, Cuba and Chile, drawing support also from Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Ethiopia, Honduras, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Panama, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and South Africa. "We recognise that access to water and sanitation is a human right and we are committed to all necessary actions for the progressive implementation of this right," the dissident statement said.
The European Parliament also supported water as a "fundamental and universal right," according to a statement read by Cristina Gutierrez- Cortinez, Member of the European Parliament from Spain. About 250 parliamentarians and close to 100 mayors too said they recognised water as a basic human right.
The dissenting views received support from the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, who said in a message to the forum on the eve of its closure that "water is a public trust, a common heritage of people and nature, and a fundamental human right. I am convinced that we must challenge the notion that water is a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market."
Also dividing the forum was the issue who should call such meetings. So far it has been the World Water Council (WWC), an international organisation based in Marseille, France, which is not a part of the United Nations. The WWC has some 300 members from 60 countries representing governments and their agencies, international organisations including some UN agencies, water professionals, business interests and NGOs.
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The council considers itself a "multi-stakeholder" open to all those interested in the water sector. But its legitimacy was questioned by a coalition of labour and civil society groups from 70 countries at an alternative forum.
The coalition described the WWC as a creation of business interests seeking to privatise water for profit. It asked instead that "polices about water be decided in an open, transparent and democratic forum rather than a trade show for the world's largest water corporations." The WWC counts 40 business groups among its 300 members.
Maude Barlow, advisor to the UN General Assembly president, characterised WWC members as "water lords" without a legitimate mandate, and demanded that future forums be held under the auspices of the UN.
Benin, Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela called on "states to develop a global water forum within the framework of the United Nations, based on the principles of democracy, full participation, equity, transparency and social inclusion."
But business had its say. Jack Moss of the group Business Action for Water told the closing session: "Without water, there is no business. Without business, there is no water."
Despite divergences, both the forum and its opponents agreed on the severity of the water crisis and that this was likely to deteriorate once climate change hits water and leads to shortages where water is needed most and flooding where the need is least.
UN figures show that some 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. In 2025, roughly 40 percent of the world population will be living in water-scarce regions.