Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From Istanbul to Cincinnati: Growing Concerns Over Access to Water

It has been said by many that the wars of the future will be fought over water. Such a statement is often far from our minds as we turn on our tap to wash our hands or flush our toilets to remove waste from our homes. Water, to many of us, is simply a resource that we have ample access to whenever we need it. From time to time we hear statistics from organizations such as the World Health Organization that tell us that over 1 billion people on our planet lack access to safe drinking water and we may not register exactly what this means or the implications that this may have on the rest of the world's population. Pictures of African children gathering jars of filthy water may tug at our heart strings and we may feel blessed that we are the fortunate ones who don't have to worry about detecting diseases from a resource that we must have in order to survive. We may even understand that a water crisis is a realistic possibility as our planet's population continues to increase while our access to drinkable water remains a constant challenge, but it may still seem like an issue that is far removed from our everyday lives.

Every three years, the World Water Council puts on a World Water Forum at which leaders from around the globe meet to have discussions with an end goal of presenting a unified front on the many issues that surround accessibility to this precious resource. This past weekend, the fifth World Water Forum was held in Istanbul, Turkey which led to leaders of various countries signing a traditional ministerial statement at the conclusion of the forum. This year's statement described water as a "basic human need" and called for "new and adequate resources" for the water sector.

Labeling water as a "basic human need" was met with intense backlash from both activists and dissenting countries who took part in the World Water Forum. The major point of contention was the Forum's refusal to distinguish water as a human right versus a human need. What appears to be simply an issue of semantics is actually a point of contention that carries much greater implication. Jeff Conant of Alternet.org explains in his recent piece:

If water is "a human need," it implies no obligation on the part of governments to ensure access to it. If it is "a human right," on the other hand, a series of policy procedures follow suit to make compliance obligatory.
Conant also quotes Juan Carlos Alurralde, an advisor to the Ministry of Environment and Water of Boliva, in his piece as saying that the ministers of Egypt, Brazil, and the United States were strongly opposed to language that would label water as a human right.

As this language was stricken from the final ministerial statement, a large number of countries including Chile, Switzerland, Bolivia, South Africa, and Venezuela filed dissenting statements that supported viewing water as a fundamental human right and their commitment to "all necessary actions for the progressive implementation of this right". Endorsing the dissenting views was the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann. He stated:

"Water is a public trust, a common heritage of people and nature, and a fundamental human right. I am convinced that we must challenge the notion that water is a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market."
Dissenting nations, as well as other members of the UN, also criticized the World Water Council as a group of "water lords" and called for additional discussions on the issue of water under the direction of the United Nations.

Also voicing their opposition were hundreds of activists that took to the streets to protest the World Water Forum as a "corporate driven fraud". Police clashed violently with the protesters, charging the crowd while firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and ironically, water cannons. Many of the activists and representatives of alternative organizations voiced their concern that the World Water Forum was not a forum that encouraged participation from the public. David Boys, a member of the NGO Public Services International, was quoted in an article by the AFP saying that "transparency, accountability, and participation" were absent from the forum.

From Istanbul to Cincinnati, activists who are at the center of this debate are largely concerned with the question of control. As the bottled water industry continues to boom and cities around the United States have experimented in selling off what was once a publicly controlled resource to private corporations, we see the issue of ownership play out again and again. Communities from California, to Illinois, to New York have experienced water privatization first hand and there are some citizens in Cincinnati who are concerned about the future of their water supply.

As has been reported previously at the Cincinnati Beacon, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has formed an advisory group to study whether to transform the Greater Cincinnati Water Works into the Greater Cincinnati Water District. While very few details have emerged about how this would be done or why this option is even under consideration, a water district would move operational control away from a Director appointed by the City Manager to a regionally appointed board.

As the advisory group is believed to be submitting their recommendation to Dohoney within the next six weeks, a citizens group called "Protect Our Water" has created a website which expresses concern about public accountability of a proposed water district and why such a change needs to take place. Taken from their website:

Today the City of Cincinnati enjoys reasonable and relatively low water prices compared to other cities in our region and throughout the country. If the Water Works is sold to a Water District which we will no longer control, there is no guarantee that water rates will remain low. Water rates could rise.


Today the City of Cincinnati Water Works provides us with water service and quality that is among the best in the nation. If the Water Works is sold to a Water District, we have no guarantee that service and quality will remain the same.

The concerns expressed by "Protect Our Water" echo the concerns of activists and citizens from around the world who view water not as simply a human need, but as a human right. These citizens largely believe in public control of a resource that plays such a fundamental role in promoting life upon this planet.

As this feasibility study is prepared and a recommendation is delivered to City Manager Dohoney, citizens of Cincinnati are going to have some very real questions about this proposed endeavor. These issues are coming to a head in cities all over this country and around the world. When there are simultaneous increases in the scarcity of water, the interests of corporations to profit from water, and concerned citizens who are worried about losing control of their water, something has to give.

As Cincinnati continues to study the feasibility of selling their publicly controlled Water Works to a Water District, the citizens are beginning to take notice. Like the activists in Istanbul during the World Water Forum and like the alternative organizations to the World Water Council, the local citizens are going to want a seat at the table to have their say as this issue continues to develop.

This article is also posted at: http://www.cincinnatibeacon.com

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