The 3rd World Water Forum: A Civil Society Backgrounder
by Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians
From March 16-22 of this year, an estimated 8,000 people from all
over the world will gather in Kyoto, Japan, to attend the 3rd World
Water Forum. There, decisions will be made about the future of the
world's freshwater resources that will affect every living being on
the planet. This memo is offered as a brief history of the events and
players instrumental in the lead-up to this forum and is a critique
of the private sector interests that have developed around the
control of water.
The world is running out of fresh water. Humanity is polluting,
diverting and depleting the finite wellspring of life at a startling
rate. Our per capita use of water is doubling every 20 years, at more
than twice the rate of human population growth. A legacy of factory
farming, flood irrigation, the construction of massive dams, toxic
dumping, wetland and forest destruction and urban and industrial
pollution has damaged the earth's surface water so badly that we are
now mining the underground water reserves far faster than nature can
Quite simply, unless we dramatically change our ways, between
one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with severe fresh
water shortages within the next quarter century. The global fresh
water crisis looms as one of the greatest threats ever to the
survival of our planet.
Tragically, this global call for action comes in an era guided by the
free-market principles of what has been called the "Washington
Consensus." This includes an unprecedented assault on the commons.
Everything is now for sale, even those areas of life, such as social
services and natural resources, that were once considered the common
heritage of humanity. Faced with the suddenly well-documented fresh
water crisis, governments and international institutions are
advocating the privatization and commodification of water. Price
water, they say in chorus; put it up for sale and let the market
determine its future.
At the same time, governments are signing away their control over
domestic water supplies to regional trade agreements like NAFTA and
the World Trade Organization (WTO). These global trade institutions
effectively give transnational corporations unprecedented access to
the fresh water resources of signatory countries. Already,
corporations have started to sue governments in order to gain access
to domestic water sources and, armed with the protection of these
international trade agreements, are setting their sights on the
commercialization of water.
The Corporate Players
There are ten major corporate players now delivering freshwater
services for profit. Between them, the two biggest - Vivendi and Suez
of France - deliver private water and wastewater services to over 200
million customers in 150 countries, and are in a race, along with the
others such as Bouygues SAUR, RWE-Thames Water and Bechtel-United
Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe.
The performance of these companies in Europe and the developing world
has been well documented: huge profits, higher prices for water,
cut-offs to customers who cannot pay, little transparency in their
dealings, reduced water quality, bribery and corruption. They are
aggressively accelerating their operations in Third World countries
where debt-struck governments are forced to abandon public water
services and hand over control of local water supplies to private
interests. Based on the market policy known as "full cost recovery,"
the water companies are able to impose rate hikes that are
devastating to millions of poor people who cannot afford privatized
A new type of water consortium has emerged in Germany which may be a
prototype for the future. Companies such as AquaMundo put together
giant investment pools using overseas government aid, private bank
investments and public utilities funds in the recipient country.
Then, in an arrangement called "cross-border leasing," they hire
local contractors to run the water services. Some keep their money in
tax havens, thus allowing them to avoid paying national taxes; this
lets them offer a "deal" to local cash-strapped municipalities.
Transnational water companies have become so powerful that they now
share in decision making with governments in international meetings.
United under the banner of the corporate lobby group, Business Action
for Sustainable Development, the water companies played a pivotal
role at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that was held in
Johannesburg, South Africa, last August 26-September 4. There, with
governments and the United Nations, they launched a "new" strategy
for the delivery of efficient water and sanitation services to the
world's poor which accelerates public-private partnerships,
guaranteeing the companies a steady profit from public funds.
Water for profit takes a number of other forms. The bottled water
industry is growing at an annual rate of 20 percent. Last year,
nearly 100 billion litres of bottled water were sold around the world
- most of it in non-reusable plastic containers, bringing in profits
of $22 billion to this highly-polluting industry. Fierce disputes,
especially in the Third World, are being waged between local
communities and companies like CocaCola and Nestle, aggressively
seeking new supplies of "boutique water." As one company explains,
water is now "a rationed necessity that may be taken by force."
Corporations are now involved in the construction of massive
pipelines to carry freshwater long distances for commercial sale
while others are constructing supertankers and giant sealed water
bags to transport vast amounts of water across the ocean to paying
customers. The mass movement of bulk water could have catalytic
environmental impacts. Nevertheless, the World Bank says that, "One
way or another, water will soon be moved around the world as oil is
The Institutional Players
Private water companies are aided and abetted by a number of powerful
international institutions with whom they work closely. The main
source of financing of private water services in the Third World
comes from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which demands
private water services in exchange for debt relief, the World Bank,
which can withhold project funds unless a country cooperates, and a
myriad of regional banks, such as the European Investment Bank, the
Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the
African Development Bank.
The World Bank serves the interests of water companies through the
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which provides
loans to governments and can impose conditions in exchange for money,
and the International Finance Corporation, which provides direct
The World Trade Organization is another powerful institution that
promotes the commodification of water. The WTO is mandated to remove
tariff and non-tariff barriers to the free flow of goods, including
water, across national borders and is negotiating free trade in water
services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
The big water corporations have strategically positioned themselves
to play an effective role in the WTO through two powerful lobby
groups - the U.S. Coalition of Service Industries and the European
Forum on Services.
The United Nations has also been working closely with the big water
corporations. In July, 2000, the UN announced a "Global Compact" with
a number of global transnational companies, including Suez. And it is
through UN conferences and forums that three important new
international organizations promoting water-for-profit have been
The Global Water Partnership was established in 1996 to reform water
utility systems and water resource management around the world and is
funded in part by the World Bank. The World Water Council, also
formed in 1996, sees itself as a policy think tank whose main task is
to provide decision makers with advice and assistance on global water
issues. Made up of 175 member groups, the WWC organized the 2nd World
Water Forum in The Hague in March, 2000.
The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, formed in 1998,
is composed of 21 "eminent" persons and is mandated with fostering
sustainable use of water resources.
Representatives of the global water corporations are strategically
placed at the top levels of all three of these agencies. Their
industry association, the International Private Water Association,
works closely with the World Water Council, the World Bank and the UN.
The 2nd World Water Forum
All of the above were major players at the 2nd World Water Forum held
in The Hague in March, 2000, and are intimately involved in
preparations for the 3rd World Water Forum to be held in Japan in
March, 2003. From the beginning, the 2nd World Water Forum, which was
attended by over 5,000 people, was designed to be a showcase for
public-private partnerships and to create a "consensus" among all the
"stakeholders" that privatization and full cost recovery are the
answers for the world's water crisis. World Bank and water
corporation officials dominated the positions of power in every
session; civil society groups were not even given a place to meet.
Translation services for the myriad of non-English speaking delegates
The World Water Council presented its pre-written World Water Vision
report endorsing an aggressive water-privatization agenda to the
Forum as a "fait accompli." The Vision, which also recommended a
corporate model of agriculture, was adopted by the powers that ran
the event, even though the statement was opposed by the majority of
civil society groups present.
As well, pushed by corporate representatives, the 140 governments
officials who attended the Ministerial Conference attached to the
Forum, agreed to weaken their final declaration. Instead of water
being declared a "basic human right" (which would mean that
governments were responsible for ensuring that all their citizens
have access to water on a not-for-profit basis), the government
delegates agreed only that water is a "basic human need," thereby
opening up the water market to companies on a for-profit basis.
However, it was not so simple for the organizers of the event. A new
international coalition of civil society organizations and trade
unions came together in the Hague to challenge the corporate
"consensus." The Blue Planet Project, made up of groups from many
countries, launched an "international effort to stop the
privatization of the world's fresh water" and challenged the Forum
organizers from the floor, at press conferences, and with a "NGO
Major Group Statement" to the Ministerial Conference. This statement
rejected the World Water Council's Vision, asserted that water is a
basic human right and called for the decommodification of water.
The 3rd World Water Forum
Since The Hague, civil society groups have been growing and
consolidating their work. They met at the World Social Forum in Porto
Alegre in January, 2002, and at the World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg, in August, 2002. With international
groups present, Japanese civil society organizations met in March,
2002, to plan their strategy toward the 3rd World Water Forum. There,
they agreed to participate in the Forum as long as the goal was to
put forward a clear alternative vision and strategy to the World
This planning was further evolved at an international strategy
meeting held in Ottawa in October, 2002. Here participants agreed
that the main goals would be to split the World Water Council
"consensus" on a corporate model of water governance and to promote a
new democracy model of water governance. It was understood that the
Forum, unlike a meeting of the World Bank or the WTO, will attract
thousands of people who might actually agree with the emerging civil
society consensus around water and that it is essential to put
forward an alternative vision at the event.
The 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto will play a major role in
determining the future of the world's freshwater resources. Civil
society must be there in strength. Future generations depend on it.