Waters of March
Santiago Arconada Rodríguez
The V World Water Forum, held in Istanbul (Turkey) from the 16th to the 22nd of March this
year, was the new stage of the ongoing struggle between transnational water corporations
and many diverse organizations and grass-root groups from all around the world resisting
water privatization. The previous confrontations had taken place in Marrakech (1997), The
Hague (2000), Kyoto (2003) and Mexico City (2006).
We expect and will do our best to make sure that this V World Water Forum will be the last
one organized by the corporations that form part of the so-called World Water Council. We
hope to put an end to the diplomatic alibi used by most of the governments of the world who
claim they are attending a Forum at the invitation of the host country. The truth is that water
companies organize, pay for the event, and set the agenda according to their own interests.
I say confrontation because from the first of the “Water Davos” held in Marrakech,
international movements against water privatization have denounced its privatization and
mercantile agenda. This was done quite weakly at the beginning, but since the IV Forum held
in Mexico City the presence of the people has been significant and could no longer be
ignored. The Activities in Defense of Water and Life, organized by the Coalition of Mexican
Organizations in Defense of Water and Life (COMDA) resulted in an important counter forum
in opposition to the one organized be the so-called World Water Council.
In Istanbul, the Turkish social movements who oppose the privatization and commodification
of water and favour a public model of water and sanitation management voiced their concerns
in two counter forums: the Platform Against Water Privatization and Commodification, and
The Campaign for an Alternative Public Model of Water and Sanitation Services. The various
mobilizations of international social movements present in Istanbul backed both of these
campaigns, expressed their solidarity and shared their opposition to attempts by global
corporations to grab hold of Turkey’s aquifers which are of strategic importance, not only for
Turkey, but for the whole of the Middle East.
The first solidarity mobilization took place in the morning of Monday the 16 th of March, when
we backed a non-violent demonstration by the Turkish organizations at the entrance of the
venue where the opening session of the imposture called V World Water Forum was to take
place. We were witness to the brutal repression with which the Turkish police reacted to that
protest. Sixteen people were arrested, and several were injured, some with rubber bullets.
Inside the opening session room, two international activists, Kathrin Schneider from Germany,
and Payal Parekh from the United States were arrested, put in jail and then deported back to
their own countries, all for displaying a banner that said: “No risky dams”.
The water privatization and commodification companies were thus well protected.
Unsurprisingly, up to this World Water Forum they have always behaved like foxes guarding
the henhouse, or as vultures overseeing rotten meat. As they set up shop in different
countries, prepaid water meters spring up as if by magic, and public water systems are
outsourced until almost everything is in the hands of private operators. Their philosophy can
be summed up by VIVENDI's slogan: “Environment is an industrial challenge”.
These corporations claim to know everything; they assume they can do it all since they have
both money and technology. According to them, without them clean water and sanitation
would be unviable. They talk as if everybody shared their claim that, by definition, the public
sector is inefficient and corrupt. They, on the other hand, claim to be efficient and transparent.
Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, they were never liable for a fraudulent bank failure in
order to be rescued by the government, they have never been ENRON, they are, after all: the
The battle of words
The global peoples’ movements who resist the privatization of water and the transnational
corporations that seek to privatize water and sanitation services around the world are
engaged in a battle of words and meanings. We claim water as a Human Right; they only
admit that it is a basic need (with no capital letters). The latest battleground of this struggle
was the Ministerial Declaration of the V World Water Forum. The World Water Council lacks
the legitimacy to convene official representatives of the world’s governments. Within this
illegitimate forum the government representatives hold a “ministerial segment” in which the
ministers or their representatives sign a so-called “Ministerial Declaration” whose content is
cooked weeks before the forum. Beyond all the high-sounding words about water scarcity and
concern for the millions of people without access to clean water, the interests of these
corporations are safeguarded and a “consensus” is achieved to further the process of water
and sanitation privatization around the world. The only way to avoid forming part of this
smiling group portrait is to publicly state a firm disagreement with the Ministerial Declaration,
as was shown by the experience of the IV World Water Forum (Mexico 2006), when four
countries, Bolivia, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela signed a declaration that was called by the
World Water Forum a “complementary declaration”, even thought it was not meant to
complement anything. Quite the opposite, it declared water as a Human Right, and expressed
concern about the consequences of Free Trade Agreements for water and sanitation
services. It also called for countries to discuss water within the framework of the United
Nations, and not in one set up by transnational corporations.
Before going into the details of this new battle in Istanbul it is worth dwelling on the opposing
interests that are expressed in the different words that are used. To say that water is a
Human Right means that water is not a commodity that can be exchanged for money or for
any another commodity. As a Human Right, water has to be dealt with using different
instruments to those used to deal with commodities. Thus, the funding of infrastructures that
guarantee access to clean water and sanitation services is a very special type of financing
that deals with a basic Human Right. In this case the criterium of “full cost recovery” cannot
People who are opposed to the acknowledgment of water as a Human Right and seek to
define it as a “basic need” (without capital letters) show the futility of their argument by making
the ridiculous claim that since water is a “need” then it is not a “right”, it can thus be handled
through competitive commercialization. Even if this might seem not to be the case, the
possibility that the countries of the world approach the problems of water in terms as urgent,
as “now or never” is highly dependent on the result of this battle of words.
The international movements against the privatization of water arrived at Istanbul following
the preparatory discussions we had at the IX World Social Forum held in Belém do Pará,
Brazil (January 2009). We had even discussed the possibility that the World Water Council -
faced with the difficulty of insisting that access to water is not a Human Right- might carry out
a semantic maneuver, agreeing to define water as a Human Right while at the same time
draining the concept of all its content. There is already a significant precedent: through its
official spokesperson, Pepsi Cola International has recognized Water as a Human Right.
Such a precaution turned out to be quite unnecessary. The governments of the United States,
Brazil and Egypt vetoed any possibility that the Ministerial Declaration might recognize, even
in vague terms, what is already contained in the constitution in several countries: that access
to water is a Human Right. Any reference to Human Rights was to be left out of the
declaration and that was that. Several important mobilizations were held in Brazil under a
common slogan: Water is a Human Right. People were out in the streets questioning their
government’s position. This was what we were told by the Brazilian delegates who attended
the assessment sessions held every night that week by the anti-privatization movements. The
notion of water as a Human Right continued to define the state of the art in the global struggle
against water privatization.
The ministerial segment of the V World Water Forum started on Friday, March 20. Before
noon, displaying badges that accredited them as part of the press corps, the official
delegations of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, along with well known representatives from
anti-privatization movements from across the world distributed the letter that Father Miguel
Éscoto Brockman had sent to the Forum in his capacity as President of the General Assembly
of the United Nations. This communication fully included all the main claims of the anti water
privatization movements. Protesting against the “innocent” intention of the Forum’s organizers
that the whole of Latin America should be represented by a single presentation from Brazil,
we managed to get Ecuador and Bolivia to speak as well. Thus began the campaign against
the ominous omissions of the so-called Ministerial Declaration.
By Saturday, March 21 we knew that there was a gathering feeling against the Ministerial
Declaration but didn’t know how to bring it together. The well planned inertia of the Ministerial
meeting was meant to keep the heads of the countries’ delegations engrossed in “very
important” panels where nothing was decided. So, instead of going to the debates on the
pressing problems of irrigation for food production, the prevention of water-related natural
disasters, or debates aimed at denying climate change, the Venezuelan delegation made it its
task to go to every room, workshop and seminar to summon a meeting in order to discuss the
position of the countries that were not willing to accept the content of the declaration, at least
not without a fight.
In a room occupied without permission, with the chairs placed in circle like in any self-
respecting Water Table, without any hierarchy, a meeting was held during lunch time with the
presence of representatives from Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and
Spain, from south to north. Maude Barlow, adviser to the President of the General Assembly
of Nations United for water issues and a well known activist in the world-wide struggles
against water privatization also participated. The presentations were to the point and it took
less than an hour to decide the two items that were to be included in the Governmental
Declaration of Water as a Human Right. A working group was put in charge of writing the
declaration. The delegations returned to their respective meetings and at four o’clock, during
the coffee break, the document was distributed. The signatory countries recognized access to
clean water and sanitation services as a Human Right and called on governments to meet to
discuss water-related issues within the framework of the United Nations.
In the last session of that day, Saturday, March 21st, comrade René Orellana, the Bolivian
minister for the Environment, on behalf of all the countries that had met earlier that afternoon
read the Declaration of Governments for the Human Right to Water1 and made an appeal for
all countries to sign it. The World Water Council was not amused and did not wait to voice his
irate dismay. Its chairman, Mr. Loic Fouchon, stated that the declaration was out of order,
but... it was too late.
On the following day, Sunday, March 22nd, before the closing session, 25 countries had
signed the Declaration of Governments for the Human Right to Water, and of those 25
signatory countries, 16 had signed the call for countries to summon a global space for debate
of water issues within the framework of the United Nations system. Twenty-five countries from
four continents have signed in favor of declaring access to clean water a Human Right. This is
more than the World Water Council can withstand. That sixteen countries demand that
debates be organized within a United Nations framework can hardly be deemed a whim. After
these results and given the communication sent by the President of the General Assembly,
the United Nations can no longer ignore this message. We want to make this clear. It’s not
that the United Nations is a territory free from imperial domination. What is obvious is that for
the peoples of the world it was, and is, necessary to rescue the debates about water from the
clutches of privatizing, predatory corporations.
The activities on Sunday culminated at the end of afternoon in the General Consulate of the
Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Istanbul. This venue had been volunteered by the
Venezuelan Consul Jose Gabriel Bracho Reyes so that the heads of the Bolivian and
Venezuelan delegations could summon a press conference. The conference attracted a
crowd, particularly among the alternative and community media. The announcement that 25
governments had signed the Declaration of Governments for the Human Right to Water was a
victory for the international movement against privatization and commodification of water. It
was a step forward in the struggle for the recognition of access to clean water and sanitation
services as a fundamental Human Right.
With its personnel that Sunday taking care of every minimal detail relating to the press
conference, the General Consulate of Venezuela in Istanbul brought to a close a week of
sharing in a common struggle that included homemade meals and the fraternity of the dining
This document can been see at:
room and the kitchen, work meetings every morning before going out for the tasks of the day,
as well as a willingness to evaluate the Forum process along the way in order to decide what
ever was considered necessary. Here I take the opportunity to express my recognition and
gratitude to the team working at the Venezuelan Consulate in Istanbul, and in particular to the
Consul, Dr. Bracho Reyes.
All this has been undoubtedly a resounding victory for the world wide movement against
water privatization. Our immediate task is now to get the countries that signed the Dissident
Declaration to start coordinating in order to convene a “global forum to discuss water within
the framework of the United Nations system”.
This report, like the one I wrote about the IV World Water Forum organized by the water
corporations in Mexico, and about the counter-Forum Activities in Defense of Water and Life
that were convened by COMDA, is once again called Waters of March, like the Ellis Regina
song, may God have her in his glory, because Brazil continues to give us “saudade”.
To argue that participation in the movement that claims water as a Human Right would
threaten Brazilian sovereignty over the Brazilian Amazon is a very weak argument. What
should hurt Brazilian patriotic sensibilities is the fact that Aguas del Amazonas, a front cover
for that transnational shark intent on privatizing water all over the world, Suez-Lyonaisse des
Eaux, is in charge of the aqueduct of Manaus, capital of the Brazilian Amazon. Now, this is
something that the Lula government should worry about.