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Agitators throw wrench in water forum works

The water privateers should have taken it as a sign their plans were destined to go down the drain.

As the World Water Forum was opening in The Hague, news was breaking in nearby Milan that a senior Vivendi manager planned to bribe city politicians to win a multi-million dollar water supply and sanitation project. Not very good public relations when youre trying to cast yourself as the solution to the worlds water problems.

As if that wasnt bad enough, demonstrators brought the forums opening ceremonies to a grinding halt, protesting a dam mega-project in Basque territory, and condemning water privatization. Two protestors stripped in front of the Prince of Orange as he tried to deliver his opening speech.

The event made headlines around the world and highlighted water privatization as a key bone of contention, signalling the dissent that would only grow as the five-day forum progressed.

By the end of the meeting, anti-privatization activists had derailed the forum and ministerial meeting. Protestors at the forum made it clear the emperor had no clothes, leaving the corporate agenda stripped as bare as the protestors at the opening ceremonies.

Paving the way for privatization

The Forum, organized by a handful of powerful corporations and institutions, was billed as a place to shape a vision for the worlds water in the 21st century. The focus was on developing countries, where access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation remains a question of life and death for millions.

The vision being pushed by Forum organizers was tailor-made for those who wrote it the water corporations and the World Bank. There were many incarnations of the privateers agenda, put forward in action plans, reports, visions and statements. The goal of their plans: increase private sector control of water in developing countries a profitable new market with literally billions of customers. Having launched their water plans in Europe and North America, the water giants are now turning their attention to the developing world in what one union observer called the colonialism of the 21st century.

The water think tanks and financial institutions fronting for the corporations talk a good game. They claim water investment has to more than double to $180 billion per year, while pointing at declining aid from the North. So, they argue, governments must step out of the way and let the private sector fund and control these water projects.

While there is no doubt a pressing need for water investment for communities lacking basic water infrastructure, the doom and gloom of $180 billion did not wash with forum critics. Activists pointed out the experts were over-

stating investment needs to make private sector involvement seem inevitable.

CUPE part of dissenting group

Among the Forums 4,500 participants were a group of protestors who challenged the Forums official line at every turn, including CUPE general vice president Claude Gnreux. Gnreux intervened at the ministerial gathering which followed the forum, as part of a delegation led by Public Services International.

When the forum opened, unions werent on the agenda and certainly werent on the guest list. Public sector union members created the pressure needed to make themselves heard and

cast enough doubt on the forums credibility that government representatives from around the globe refused to rubber-stamp the water forums agenda.

Government officials couldnt ignore workers from around the world. We presented a watertight case rejecting privatization and promoting public solutions to the worlds water problems, said Gnreux.

CUPE demanded and got a meeting with the official Canadian government delegation, but while they agreed to meet, they were reluctant to take on privatization.

They listened, but they didnt act, said Gnreux. We need to increase the pressure on the Canadian government to recognize water privatization as a serious threat at home and abroad.

Planetary privatization challengers

CUPE was also part of a coalition of unions and non-governmental organizations brought together by the Council of Canadians. Armed with stories of privatization failures and public success stories members of the Blue Planet coalition attended almost every workshop, asking tough questions and refusing to be silent.

When youre at a conference where public sector solutions arent even on the agenda and organizers tell you so in no uncertain terms well, you take matters into your own hands, said Gnreux.

As participants heard the criticisms and alternatives to privatization they asked to join the group. New faces appeared around the table at each of the coalitions nightly meetings. By the end of the week, activists from seventeen countries, rich and poor, had formed a coalition opposing water privatization that promises to grow.

The coalition was instrumental in negotiating a strongly-worded statement from the non-governmental organizations condemning the forum as a closed meeting with a pre-determined outcome.

The forums vision document was based on the assumption that the public sector is by definition inefficient. They also have the nerve to use government corruption as a reason to reject public water projects and turn the keys over to the private sector, said Gnreux.

Well, lets not forget that when a government is corrupted, theres someone doing the corrupting. And usually the one handing over the briefcase of cash is a water multinational.

Corporate presence

Naked greed was nowhere clearer than at the panel of water chief executive officers. The CEO panel included a Gerry Springer-style host, who moved through the crowd with a microphone but cut short anyone who asked a difficult question.

Antony Burgmans, CEO of Unilever a relatively new entry into the water players asked the question on every CEOs lips: How do we accelerate the takeover of this resource?

When asked whether shareholders would agree to lower returns if excess profits went into environmental projects, Burgmans curtly replied: I dont acknowl-edge the idea of excess profits.

He then dodged a question about profiting off water, which is necessary for human survival: If we dont ensure we are profitable in the short or long term, then Unilever wont survive either.

Another telling moment came when the CEOs spoke about putting a price on water.

The problem is not a shortage problem, but an allocation problem. Water is one of the most basic commodities on the planet. Once its properly priced, shortages will go away, said Dick Heckmann, chair of Vivendis water division.

Yet with all the talk about prices, there was no concrete plan for people who cant afford to pay. However, one example shows the kind of frontier justice the poor may face.

At a key point in a slick PowerPoint presentation, Lyonnaise des Eauxs marketing director proudly displayed a photograph of two happy customers just outside Buenos Aires whod paid their first water bill. The two customers apparently moonlight as Lyonnaises collection agency. The story accompanying the photo was that they had organized to cut off the entire communitys water until one household that hadnt paid its bill paid up.

Neither the forum nor the Ministerial conference were prepared to recognize water as a basic human right, or assure access for all. As an author of one of the various corporate-sponsored visions said in response to a journalists questioning whether prices would make water a luxury, not a right, just because its a human right doesnt make it free.

And many are concerned another pressing issue didnt even make it on the agenda. International trade agreements such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) threaten to pry open the water services market for multinationals, leaving governments powerless to defend their water.

The GATS talks put water services squarely on the table. If corporate interests get their way, it will unleash a tidal wave of privatization around the world and the GATS will tie the hands of citizens and governments who want to defend public water, said Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians. Combine that with schemes for the bulk export of water that also could see nations forfeit control of their water, and its a recipe for disaster.

Despite losing any shreds of legitimacy they once had, forum organizers are forging ahead. The next forum is planned for Japan in 2003. And forum organizers, be warned: CUPE members will be out in full force when the forum comes to Montreal in 2006.

Karin Jordan