It had been billed as a summit to push for universal access to
water, but attending the Budapest Water Summit held last week felt like
grasping at a mirage of water in a desert. The slogans and appearance
were attractive, but held no prospect of delivering the human right to
water for all.
Behind the mirage of the Budapest Water Summit, held in Hungary
from 8-11 October 2013, lay the same corporate players and
market-driven processes that continue to deny access to the world’s most
critical resource to millions of people.
The mirage was evident firstly in the process. The conference
constantly emphasised its participatory nature, encouraging different
stakeholders to produce recommendations for the 'Budapest Water Summit
statement' that could also act as a basis for governments’ commitments
to the Sustainable Development Goals (due to replace the Millennium
Development Goals in 2016). But this façade of consultation merely hid
the real drivers of discussions and debates.
For a start the conference was hosted by the Hungarian government
partnering not only with the neoliberal thinktank the World Water
Council, but also with controversial companies like Nestle and CocaCola who are notorious for their unsustainable use of water that has deprived poor communities as a result.
In discussion after discussion, those who chaired or facilitated
sessions were themselves responsible for policies and practices that
have excluded peoples’ access to water. The Youth Forum and the civil
society forum’s discussions on pricing of water, for example, were
facilitated by Global Water Partnerships (GWP), led by the World Bank.
This multilateral institution’s record is controversial, given the role
they played in enforcing failed privatisation projects around the
world. The failure of their approach - that has led to a wave of communities taking privatised water firms back into public hands
- did not seem to affect the World Bank’s faith and advocacy that
water prices are most efficiently determined by 'the market'.
Similarly, the governance session during the civil society forum was
chaired by the 'NGO' Oieau, established by French water multinationals
Suez and Veolia. Suez is currently accused by civil society groups in
Jakarta of bullying local authorities; In Barcelona Suez doesn’t even
operate with a proper contract. None of the organisers, it seemed,
appeared to question why companies that have been constantly ejected
from communities for price-hikes and profiteering, might not be
considered the best facilitators for discussions of governance.
Obscuring the politics of power
The topics on the conference agenda - universal access to water and
sanitation, integrated resources management, water-energy-food nexus,
water governance, “green economy”, and financing water and sanitation –
also obscured real discussions about power: about those profiting and
those excluded from decisions around water.
The results were a fuzzy and slippery debate. Discussions about water
governance, for instance, failed to focus on the obligations of
governments to regulate polluting and water- grabbing companies and the
obligation of public authorities to ensure access to water for all.
Instead discussions centred around 'innovative' approaches such as
partnerships between multi-stakeholders (to find joint solutions) and a
discourse of “green economy”, which is about letting markets decide the
most efficient allocation of water resources.
In discussions about water scarcity, only solutions involving new
technologies, large investments and new market opportunities seemed to
be considered relevant. Locally-managed, low-cost solutions got far less
attention than they deserve. There was far more interest in talking
about how much corporations can contribute to cleaning up polluted water
to re-use, rather than how to make industry stop polluting water in the
Representing TNI, I worked closely with other water justice activists
from groups likes Blue Planet Project, Food and Water Europe, Public
Services International and the Indonesian NGO coalition Kruha, to
constantly make critical interventions in different sessions.
People and democracy need to be at the heart of decisions over water
To counter a narrative that leaves water decisions to the market –
and therefore to the powerful companies that are motivated by profit
rather than the human right to water – we argued that water tariffs
should be determined democratically. It is a political decision how to
finance water provision. As water is life and right to access to water
can not be denied, we proposed public policies such as progressive
tariff structures with cross subsidisation and taxation as the keys to
finance water provision. We argued that “multi stakeholder
participation” - a popular narrative in the conference – are invariably
designed by actors who hold power.
Ultimately our experience of working with communities worldwide
seeking to reclaim control of public water showed that summits like
Budapest are the opposite of democratic participation in decision
making. These communities struggling for control of water, often
against corporations, were noticeably absent from the plush conference
surroundings in Budapest. However it is these communities – rather than
markets or fuzzy multi stakeholder events – that need to be leading the
discussions on choice of technology, priority of investments and
allocation of water. Until that happens, we will continue to grasp at
Also read Blunt speaking opens up important debate at water summit
Media release, Budapest Water Summit offers mirage of water for all, Satoko KISHIMOTO, TNI, http://www.tni.org/article/budapest-water-summit-offers-mirage-water-all (17-10-2013).