From 16th to 22nd of March over 25,000 people took part in yet another World Water Forum. This 5th Forum was held in Istanbul, Turkey. The four previous ones have been held in Mexico (2006), Kyoto (2003), The Hague (2000) and Marrakech (1997).

The Forum has been heavily criticised before. My favourite quips relate to the 3rd World Water Forum in 2003. As the Forum opened it optimistically declared it would not be yet another ‘talking shop’. Just days later, as the Forum closed, it was widely dismissed as a ‘giant talking shop’ whose final declaration would make no difference to water and sanitation deprived peoples around the world. The Forum’s bias to promote large infrastructure projects in the face of expert consensus was also broadly condemned.

This year similar criticisms were levelled against the Forum but with added concerns that it had not kept pace with developments such as community-led total sanitation and that it risked reinventing the wheel over climate change and water footprints.

The darkest moments for this 5th Forum however came from the official response to protests. The Forum was quickly branded as marred and undermined by ‘violence and repression‘. Fingers were pointed at the ‘private think tank with close links with the World Bank and large French water companies‘ behind the Forum, the World Water Council. The WWC’s credibility took a large blow as did the Forum’s claim to be ‘an open, all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process’. The Forum was also blasted for being modelled to resemble a ‘UN-type event‘ and yet being in reality more like a ‘lords of water jamboree’ and a ‘corporate trade show to promote privatisation‘. Visa restrictions and a £280 entrance fee also deterred participants attending from some countries most affected by the issues under discussion, in a further blow to the Forum’s stated aims.

Apparently the Forum’s pro-privatisation stance was one cause behind the protests, particularly as it clashes with a growing global consensus that access to water is a human right. These of course are mainly short and medium term effects of privatisation. They make me wonder what people might think if our research and observations on the longer term effects of privatisation were more widely known, such as inaction on climate change due to poor, short term incentives and a dismal, incremental approach to vital R&D and innovation (as we’ve already repeatedly stressed in our recent Cave Review and All Party Parliamentary Water Group evidence submissions).

The Forum was also overloaded. During the Forum the third World Water Development Report was introduced, celebrations for the 17th UN World Water Day took place, a truly staggering array of presentations, reports and press releases were distributed, and there was even a substantial artistic programme. Even if the astronomical costs of pulling all this together when the same money could be far better spent on actual projects on the ground does not offend you, one would be hard pressed to see the need for so many additional materials that generally tread quite familiar ground. To further stress this point some sources claim there have been over 200 water agreements in the past 60 years and yet there has still be a signal, international failure to deliver sanitation and water for all.

Many of the solutions to water-related problems have been understood in principle for decades. I received a sharp reminder of this back in 2005 when attending a stakeholder event in Budapest for the ongoing Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform. In between sessions that repeated familiar views on sanitation and water issues my eyes happened to settle upon a particularly large tome sitting on the impressive shelves of the venue at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. It turned out to be a 1980s UN publication cataloguing world problems and effective solutions. It included several encyclopaedic chapters on sanitation and water. Yet there it was sat on the shelf, ignored and unused while its contents were effectively rehashed all around us.

Even beyond this traditional problem of an obsession for meetings stuck in an endless cycle of problem diagnosis followed by dismal implementation efforts, perhaps most objectionable of all was the fact the 5th Forum did not produce a common, single declaration after a week of deliberations. I’m afraid this begs the obvious question. Do we really ever need another World Water Forum?

Perhaps the next Forum, if there has to be one, should take an altogether different approach? Should it be some form of ‘virtual’ affair where instead of expending vast sums of money on a ‘talking shop’ the participants engage in sanitation and water projects on the ground and report back their experiences via some global portal? This model would be particularly powerful indeed if it was the usual suspects from national governments and international organisations who got their hands dirty in the field instead of sitting in meetings, and experienced first hand the transformations in public health, education and economic prospects facilitated by improved sanitation and water conditions around the world.

Update (16/11/2016): Featured image added from this source (from the 6th World Water Forum).

Duncan Thomas

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