Third World Water Forum: An agenda for public (risk) and private (profit) partnership!!! Mohan G Francis

The Third World Water Forum was held in the three neighboring Japanese cities of Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka from March 16th to the 23rd, on various interlocking themes dealing with water, especially on how to bring safe water and sanitation to the entire world.

Some 24,000 participants from 182 countries attended the sessions. “The key issues addressed revolved around balancing increasing human requirements for adequate water supplies and improved health and sanitation with food production, transportation, energy and environmental needs. The forum in its conclusion while drawing up more than 100 new commitments felt that most countries would require more effective governance, improved capacity and adequate financing.”(From the concluding statement of the forum; highlights as given in the statement).

Was it a conference genuinely aiming to solve the water problems by drawing up implementable plans or was it one huge public relations exercise serving to advance the image of the huge multinational water companies? Which figured more- the concern for the water needs of the millions around the world or the millions of dollars of the few large water companies around the world? Was there any opposition sounded to the ‘magical’ water solution called privatization, in spite of the backing of the IMF-WB, other international lending institutions and ‘democratic’ pressure groups of the water firms?

Last question first. Non-governmental organizations and pressure groups argued on the basis of past performances of the private water companies around the world that private companies are unlikely to provide the solutions for the millions of poor people without adequate clean water and decent sanitation.

International lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came in for scathing criticism, from various sections of the non-governmental and civic organizations, for their “obsession” with the private sector. The groups presented a report showing that international companies were not interested in working in very poor countries, except at very high rates of profits under sovereign guarantees of the governments of the concerned poor countries. The report further argued for the need for policy-makers to focus on enabling local and central governments to serve the poor through working with local communities, replacing their belief in privatization as the panacea for all water problems.

The report pointed out that international policy-makers and institutions like the World Bank and IMF are misguided in thinking that the private sector will have any real impact on reaching the 1.2 billion poorest people in the world who lack access to safe water. The report also expressed a crucial reality troubling much of the developing world, which is that, the international community must stop arm-twisting countries to give access to private sector companies as a condition for receiving development aid, grants and loans.

But the World Bank itself was not too far in putting up its own arguments as a counter to that put forth above. The World Bank claimed that it “simply wished” to encourage the most effective methods of delivering water services to the poor.

The bank’s vice-president for sustainable development, Ian Johnson said that the WB always had discussions with governments who in turn had to determine what the right combination of public and private sector roles should be in delivering services. It is only then that the WB works with the respective government. According to him, in his own words, “We do not have an ideological prima facie position that says that we must force privatization on anyone. We are not religious zealots when it comes to privatization.”

The words of the WB’s vice-president are not wrong per se. The World Bank does have discussions. But in terms of the stubbornness of what they require from the governments, in return for their financial assistance to help their struggling economies, the discussions are an enforcement of the dikaits of the World Bank. Further the ‘we-are-not-privatization-zealots’ realization has emerged not due to an ideological transformation at the World Bank, but has emerged from the need of private companies, who are finding their profits and positions threatened in the poor developing countries. The ‘public-private partnership’ is a partnership between the government and the private companies such that the government bears all the risk while the private companies reap all the rewards of profit of the government risk.

In short, there were ideological differences but very little space for dialogue as the international lending institutions and private companies dominated the discussion. Even in such a scenario, ideological differences were put forth. The expectations of true ideological differences being allowed to emerge and be debated at this forum are best reflected by the fact that an alternative forum was simultaneously held at Florence in Italy as the First People’s World Water Forum. This meet in Italy gathered to protest at the direction of current water policies – which it believes are dominated by private corporations who favour large projects such as dams, instead of simpler technologies. They met to carry forward the Porto Alegre World Social Forum’s call in January for a new democratic world water parliament and a halt to water privatization.

The ‘ideological battles’ were hardly an issue as the private water companies went out of their way with marketing techniques to get to the civic and non-governmental organizations with their newfound ideological transformation to ‘private-public’ partnership. But the underlying theme was the same- Help secure private profits from water and the water problem will be solved the world over. Water profits were the issue and not water problems per se. The call for public-private partnership is to make the government undertake the risks in the water business while the private companies rake in the profits. This answers the second question.

“After eight days of discussions involving 12,000 participants, mountains of paper and lakes of coffee, beer and sake, the Third World Water Forum ended with this ringing endorsement from the World Conservation Union: The (ministerial) declaration will have virtually no impact on national policies. There is nothing in the text which will make a difference.” This was the opinion of the BBC correspondent on the water forum. BBC report went further to say that “international conferences are often described as talking shops. But not this one. This was a giant talking hypermarket.”

It can be argued that the world’s attention was distracted by the war on Iraq, but it still is doubtful if the forum would have merited more interest than it actually received. In terms of solid outcomes it certainly would not have deserved any more attention than it got. The six-page declaration agreed by ministers on the final day is a model of blandness, at best repeating commitments made at previous conferences and in some respects moving backwards.

The environmental groups were frustrated by the scant attention paid by ministers of governments to the importance of using natural environments to conserve the supply of fresh water – with the emphasis instead on big building projects such as dams and pipelines. Many questioned the credibility of a forum where the governments do not draw on the 12,000 water specialists gathered together to identify common sense solutions to water problems, but instead continue to promote massive infrastructure as the sole solution to the world’s water crisis.

So has the whole thing been a waste of time and money? Well, not completely. It would be a pessimist indeed who did not believe that amongst the thousands of discussions, formal and informal, amongst such a huge array of water experts, some practical solutions would be taken back to communities around the world and put into practice.

Some NGOs seemed wrong-footed during the forum as they launched attacks on their enemies in institutions such as the World Bank for advocating wholesale privatisation of water – only to find that that the international institutions had moved the goalposts. Even the most market-oriented participants now concede that the vast majority of services to poor communities will continue to be provided by the public sector, partly because those water companies venturing into the developing world have often had their fingers badly burned and have suffered financial or reputational disasters.

There was also agreement at the forum that the 40% of the world’s population who live in river basins shared by more than one country required their governments to come to sensible arrangements with one another on how to share out the water – though of course that is easier said than done. But in any case, cross-boundary national issues can be solved only through active community participation involving the state and not through profit-driven private companies. Some had hoped that the forum would set out a coherent route map for the world to follow in order to avoid a growing crisis in the availability of fresh water, but what emerged was a confused set of directions on the back of an ‘private –public’ partnership agenda.