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Ferdinand Gaite brought a little piece of home with him to the World Water Forum.

Gaite wasn’t carrying a treasured memento – a photo of a loved one, or a leaf carefully pressed between the pages of a book. He was carrying evidence – a container of dodgy-looking drinking water he says proves water privatization has been a failure in his home country, the Philippines.

I’d like to see the executives of Lyonnaise des Eaux drink this murky water,” he said.

Gaite, a member of the Philippine public sector union COURAGE (Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advance-ment of Government Employees), was part of an international delegation of activists who came to The Hague to derail the Forum’s agenda of public private partnerships for water projects in the developing world.

The Manila water deal was rammed down our throats. It was negotiated in secret, and the people are worse off than before,” said Gaite.

Communities that had water six to eight hours every day now have water for only two hours every second day. That’s not progress.”

Yet the water giants, led by Vivendi and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, were peddling just this sort of ‘partnership’ at the water forum. The forum was littered with workshops, plenaries, declarations and vision statements – all limited by the tunnel vision of privatization.

Dissenting delegates, led by CUPE, the Council of Canadians and coalition partners from around the globe, intervened at every turn. With each day that passed a growing number of delegates questioned privatization. By the end of the week, the forum had been exposed as a front for multinationals and the World Bank, permanently undermining its credibility.

We shone the spotlight on the corporations behind the forum. The multinationals are banking on desperation to peddle their wares. We managed to deliver the message that the only real solutions to the world’s water problems are public solutions – and delegates listened,” said CUPE Québec president Claude Généreux, who led CUPE’s delegation at the forum and ministerial meeting.

We can’t believe the arrogance of the multinationals in pretending they’re part of the solution when in fact they’re increasingly part of the problem,” said Hans Engelberts, General Secretary of the trade union umbrella group Public Services International (PSI), which counts CUPE members among its 20 million members worldwide. “When you look at these companies and who they’re targeting, it’s colonialism all over again.”

The subsequent ministerial meeting of governments from around the globe couldn’t ignore the pressure from trade unions and non-governmental organizations either. Their final joint statement was seriously watered down when it came to privatization, though they failed to recognize water as a basic human right, classing it instead as a ‘need’.

The forum marks the emergence of a new international movement to defend public water – one that CUPE is committed to keeping alive.

We’ve built solid links with communities and organizations around the globe to protect public water from multinationals. Water is a basic human right, not a commodity to be bought, sold and traded,” said Généreux.

Not surprisingly, no one took up Gaite’s challenge. When offered the chance to sample his company’s wares in a session promoting water P3s, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux’s marketing director declined.

Karin Jordan