Is Another World Possible? A Water Activist Reports from Porto Alegre

The Sunday morning workshop on forced privatization of water and power began like so many other World Social Forum events: no one from the sponsoring organization was there at 9 a.m., thirty minutes after the workshop was supposed to start. A dozen or two dozen people sat around in the lean-to structure chatting in several languages.

As this was the fourth day of Forum workshops, participants were by then accustomed to events that didn't start on time or didn't take place at all. I found myself with three North American students and offered to share what I knew about water privatization.

Water was a major theme for the Forum. Just in Terrain E, the zone designated for discussions of "Assuring and Defending Earth and People's Common Goods -- as an Alternative to Commodification and Control by the Transnationals," I counted 27 workshops listed in the program with explicit reference to water. These included sessions with such complex names as "Strategies from the social movements to defend water against the free trade agreements and international finance organizations" and "From the Water War in Bolivia to the constitutional reform in Uruguay: Resistance to water's private appropriation and the struggle in favor of public goods." Others had simpler titles, like "Water Planet," and "Reclaiming public water." No doubt, there were other workshops on related topics in the other eleven "terrains" stretched along the Guaiba River in Porto Alegre.

There was so much going on, in fact, that it would have taken hours just to read through the program, printed in four tabloids and totaling more than 300 pages. Terrain A was for discussions of "Autonomous Thought, Reappropriation and Socialization of Knowledge and Technologies." Terrain D was for "Communication: Counter-hegemonic Practices, Rights, and Alternatives." Terrain G was "Peace and Demilitarization: Struggles against War, Free Trade, and Debt." Other terrains dealt with diversity, arts, human rights, "sovereign economies," alternatives to neo-liberalism, and ethics. In each area, anywhere from five to twenty-five separate sessions were scheduled for each of three 3-hour time slots a day for four days. In addition, the Youth Encampment in the middle of the WSF "campus," where 35,000 people were camping, had its own schedule of events.

According to organizers, more than 155,000 people from 135 countries participated in the Forum. Nearly 7000 presenters led 2500 separate activities, not even counting the marches which took place each day. The scale would have been overwhelming, even if daytime temperatures had kept below 100 degrees.

At the macro level, the World Social Forum is both a laboratory and an expression of the movement to create alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism and imperialist war. But proclaiming "Another World Is Possible" is far easier, of course, than bringing it into being. By the end of this year's Forum, the fifth annual and the fourth held in Porto Alegre, a split had emerged among those who have led what is called the "World Social Forum Process." On the last day of the Forum, a group of 19 prominent intellectuals -- including Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, and Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South -- released a 12-point platform which might serve as a consensus statement of the WSF. In effect, by releasing the "Porto Alegre Manifesto," the group of 19 was calling for the Forum to go beyond its role as a place for discussion to become a global body with an action agenda. The twelve points, including debt relief for poor nations, the imposition of a tax on international financial transactions, an end to foreign military bases, and the cessation of water privatization, were not controversial or even especially radical. But the notion that the World Social Forum might advance such positions contradicts the Forum's stated principles, and clearly is still opposed by many Forum insiders. The only actual decisions that seemed to be forthcoming from the Forum's International Council were that there would be no World Social Forum in 2006, that there would be regional forums instead, and that the next World Social Forum will be somewhere in Africa in 2007.

If the Forum is not -- or not yet -- able to chart a course for the broad agenda of "other worlders," it still can be an important gathering point for the more focused movements, such as the growing web of campaigns to stop the corporate takeover of the world's water. Three years ago, there was not much discussion of water at the Forum, said Tony Clarke, co-author of Blue Gold and director of the Polaris Institute. Then, last year at Mumbai, "it took off," and became a unifying issue.

For water activists, Mumbai was not just a point of wider recognition of their struggle; they also organized themselves for further discussion and action, such as a joint project to explore successful models of democratic delivery of water services. The result is a book, Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World, released to the public in Porto Alegre (published by the Transnational institute and the Corporate Europe Observatory; visit or for more information). "Almost without exception, global water corporations have failed to deliver the promised improvements and have, instead, raised water tariffs far beyond the reach of poor households," writes the international editorial team in the book's foreword. "The rise of grassroots anti-privatization campaigns in countries around the world, increasingly linked in regional and global networks, is starting to turn the tide against free-market fundamentalism. The time has come to refocus the global water debate on the key question: how to improve and expand public water delivery around the world?"

The authors aim to answer that question with examples from Brazil, Bolivia, India, Malaysia, France, the USA, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Ghana, South Africa, Uruguay, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico. Their articles in turn served as the basis for presentations and discussions at the Forum.

Another set of discussions focused on how water activists can prepare for the next meeting of the World Water Forum (WWF), a project of the World Water Council, which was formed under United Nations auspices. The WWF meets every three years to discuss how to make healthy water more available around the world, an urgent goal. But since its first session in 1997, the WWF has been dominated by the World Bank and trans-national water corporations which would like to promote private water utilities and "public-private partnerships" as the preferred solution.

But a small number of water activists crashed WWF party in The Hague in 2000, followed by a larger number at the WWF in Tokyo in 2003. There, wearing bright blue headbands that said "Water Is Life" in several languages, they challenged the proposals being put forward by CEOs of 22 big companies. If any WWF observers came to Tokyo thinking there was a global consensus behind privatization as the solution to the world's water problems, that notion was smashed by the session's end.

Now, activists are preparing for the next World Water Forum, which will be in Mexico City next year. At a session held on the final afternoon of the Social Forum, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians opened discussion by saying "This is a planning meeting for us to take over the World Water Forum in 2006." More than a hundred people squeezed into the small cabin for the discussion, with more clustered in the doorways and just outside.

Over nearly three hours, water activists from at least fourteen countries contributed their ideas on how to make the movement's voices carry greater clout. Some speakers gave specific suggestions, such as a proposal to raise funds on-line to mobilize Mexican campesinos and indigenous groups. Other proposals, such as calling privatizers to account before an international tribunal, were worthy of discussion at another time. Some participants made speeches about their own local struggles without tying them to the Mexico City meeting at all.

On balance, there were perhaps more speeches than proposals. "But we lit a spark under some important people and groups," commented Maude Barlow.

My own conversation with the North American students had just started when we were interrupted by a Brazilian man. Seemingly undisturbed by the absence of the workshop organizers, he suggested we organize the workshop ourselves. The Brazilian turned out to be Dieter Wartchow, a former director of Porto Alegre's public water system and a member of Red VIDA, a Latin American network of activist groups fighting water privatization. With his outgoing personality and ability to speak English, Portuguese, and Spanish, Dieter soon had us organized and ready to begin. In the lean-to were people from Brazil, France, Paraguay, Costa Rica, France, and the USA.

Dieter introduced the discussion by saying it is necessary to construct a social movement to force our governments to improve public water systems. With Dieter translating, mostly between English and Spanish, several people gave short presentations. First, Carlos Todeschini, another former director of Porto Alegre's municipal department of water and wastewater, explained how his city showed it is possible to provide public water with low rates and high quality. Then, Julio Cesar, from Paraguay, described efforts there to stop privatization and protect the Guarani aquifer, one of the world's largest. I described three components of the US movement: struggles against bottled water companies, anti-privatization efforts, and campaigns to stop trade agreements which would promote privatization and de-regulation through "liberalization" of services.

As we spoke the building filled up with more people. Soon, Dieter had help from other volunteer translators between Spanish, Portuguese, and English, while a little cluster of French speakers met off to one side. Additional comments came from participants from Brazil, Costa Rica, Spain, and France. Dieter brought us toward a close by making three points. First, we must make information more widely available. Second, we must unite globally. Third, we must organize in our communities everywhere. Finally, he led a chant, "Water is life," in several languages. By the end we were chanting in Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, German, Hebrew, Guarani, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. That there is a global movement against corporate control of water is now indisputable. Brazilian activists are getting help from Swiss church groups to help them stop Nestle from sucking their aquifers dry. Farmers in India are linking up with Colombian trade unionists to put pressure on Coca Cola. Anti-privatization activists in Kentucky are drawing inspiration from indigenous people in Bolivia. The role of the World Bank as a promoter of the corporate agenda is well understood through case studies shared between countries by networks like Jubilee South. Likewise, the ways in which "free trade" agreements would force the de-regulation and privatization of water is a topic for analysis shared among groups trying to derail the WTO. And with publication of books like Reclaiming Public Water, alternative means of providing water to a thirsty world are getting explored and developed.

Similar discussions are taking place with regard to anti-war organizing, human rights, indigenous struggles, the role of the arts, and other topics. Perhaps another world really is possible.

Much of the communication needed to propel movement toward "another world" is accomplished by e-mail networks and websites. One leading fair trade organizer with whom I spoke said, "I hate the World Social Forum. It's a waste of time and money." But as Maude Barlow told me, "One cannot overestimate the value of sitting down in these groups and interacting on a human level." With all its limitations, the World Social Forum has become the primary opportunity for such discussions to occur.

Arnie Alpert attended the World Social Forum in January, 2005, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.