Thoughts on grammar at the World Water Forum

Ken Cline

I have developed an adjective-noun problem.  I wrote in an earlier entry that “words matter.”  I was thinking about that even more today.  It wasn’t even because we have been discussing the wording of proposed statements late into the night or that I have been spending time with Rachel (for whom  English grammar is a contact sport).  No, I was just sitting in a presentation listening to people talking about the “green economy”, “green growth”, ”sustainable development”, and “sustainable hydropower.”   This has been a week chock full of these kind of terms.  And they aren’t so bad; a green economy is better than a black or brown one and I understand why some would see these phrases as a great step forward.

But I can’t help but thinking that with all of these terms, the emphasis (sometimes silent, sometimes not) is always on the noun – economy, growth, development, hydropower.  It explicitly says that these are the things that we want, but we will try to temper their impact, thus the adjective.  To the extent that these phrases contain a vision, the vision seems to be only contained in the noun (with a little qualification added on).  As a result, the much celebrated Rio +20 conference this June is focusing on the (green) economy, not justice, not health, not the environment, not well-being.  The economy is important and green is my favorite color for economies and lots of other things.  But that is not my vision, that is not my emphasis and if we are going to bring together 50,000 people around an important vision – I want a different noun front and center.

Outlining the Panels

– Robin Owings

As I sit in long meetings on water privatization, scarcity, and ethics, I have taken to documenting panelists (government officials, NGO heads, citizen leaders) with blind contour drawings. I look directly at the subjects and record them using a continuous line. Each line forms a caricature, reflecting the elements of those figures such as slouching shoulders, facial expressions, and hand gestures which I perceive (often on a subconscious level) to be important. I am sharing these sketches with Earth in Brackets to describe the dynamics and experience of these panels through a different format, because they often illustrate more about the individuals than I could say through writing.

 Panel 1. Integrated Water Resource Management For All: Make Water Resource Planning a Reality by adopting IWRM (Master) Plan

 Panel 2. Water Debate: Private/Public Involvement in the Provision of Water and Sanitation Services

Panel 3: detail of Maria Theresa at the Alternative World Water Forum preparatory meeting

Panel 4. High Level Panel on Water and Food Security







The Perils of Privatization

-Rachel Briggs

Earlier in the week several of us attended a debate on whether water supply should be private or public: Is it appropriate for private, for-profit companies to allocate a resource essential to life, or is that a role only public providers can play ethically?  The panel included Gerrard Payen, president of AquaFed, a consortium of private water providers. As he suavely spun his way through the debate extolling the benefits of private control of water services,  I was struck by the counterexample the World Water Forum itself provided to his arguments.  Unlike UN-sponsored meetings, the World Water Forum is run by a private entity – the World Water Council.  At best, it is a public-private partnership with all the limitations that come with the territory.  For instance…

1.       Private provision is more efficient because companies have to be competitive.

The World Water forum does not function efficiently. Their WiFi lounges are guaranteed to lack wireless, and there are no computers available for public use. The Forum also has no Spanish translators, creating yet another barrier to participation. Although perhaps one could consider their first aid station efficient—they were quite thrifty, I had to carefully wheedle two band-aids from the medics this afternoon for Barbara’s blisters. They were, on the other hand, happy to give us mountains of plastic items with the WWF logo for free. I’m sure the costs balance out.

2.       Private providers are simply doing the job they were asked to do by the public sector, and only have jobs so long as they satisfy the needs of consumers.

As the above examples exemplify, the needs of participants—especially less affluent ones—are not fully met. This includes the dire need for discussion around issues of access, commodification, and the future of water governance. Events are structured as lectures rather than conversations, and more radical voices have been pushed out of the forum by high registration costs and highly regulated interactions. Youth have been repackaged as young professionals rather than voices for radical change. But these disenfranchised voices are not in position to shift the Forum structure, and they continue to do the job they were asked to do by the private sector.


Diluting the Human Right to Water

Lisa Bjerke & Ken Cline

Past World Water Forums have reverberated with NGO and youth calls for the recognition of water as a human right. After years of campaigning the UN General Assembly declared safe, clean drinking water and sanitation a human right “essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights” on July 28, 2010.  UNGA Resolution A/RES/64/292.

We thought this World Water Forum would be different—we weren’t going to fight about the existence of a right. We could now get down to the important business of arguing about how to implement the right and make it real. The program for the forum enticed with workshops like “Implementing the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water.” So, imagine our surprise when we heard Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, say that the ministerial statement from the forum was going to undermine the UN General Assembly Declaration and backtrack on the human right guarantee.

Ministerial statements from World Water Forums are interesting beasts.  Unlike most UN-sponsored negotiations, the ministers at the WWF feel no obligation to conduct their negotiations in public view. In fact, when we got an excited announcement that the ministerial draft was almost complete prior to the forum, we naively wrote and requested a copy. We were politely informed that the draft was not public and we could not obtain a copy.  Obviously for good reason.

It appears that that the US, Canada, and their corporate allies were not happy with the UN recognition of the Right to Water (the US abstained on the General Assembly vote.) So in the ministerial text they have insisted on a slight change in language that steps away from the UN recognized right to water. The language shift is subtle but powerful. Words matter. They especially matter in international legal texts (even soft and squishy ones).

Although the ministerial statement actually recognizes the UN Resolution, it doesn’t adopt or incorporate the human right obligations declared by the UN. Instead it gives a broad general recognition of generic human rights around water. In practice, the specifically recognized  “Human Right to Water and Sanitation” is different from a general protection of human rights to water.  This is especially important in the case of a right(s) violation. The distinction is similar to that between the general statement that your civil rights have been violated and a statement that your 1st Amendment Right to Free Speech was violated.   The right to water and sanitation should be as clear and defensible as the right to free speech. If water and sanitation are generally included in an undefined set of human rights (plural), then water and sanitation will not have their own legal status. This could mean that water is treated as a privatized good, and that human rights can be viewed as needs: needs satisfied by large corporations selling water to meet a market demand.

One might think that the extra “s” was simply an oversight or sloppy drafting (perhaps the corporate lawyers weren’t paying attention); and that when the mistake was pointed out the ministers would quickly change it. But we had no such luck. When questioned here in Marseille, the ministers argued that it doesn’t make a substantive difference, after saying the complete opposite at the UN. There may be an innocent way to read the ministerial statement. However, their subsequent arguments before the UNHRC belie such a generous interpretation.

They can’t have it both ways. It is no secret that water multinationals and governments of both the water-commodifying North and parts of the global south do not like the idea of a human right to water. For various reasons (among them the fact that UN General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding) they chose not to make public a stand against the right. However, the closed-door policies of the WWF lets them do in secret what public opinion won’t let them do out in the open. The secrecy of the political process at the World Water Forum is one of the reasons that NGO’s question the legitimacy of this as an international space for policy development.

That needs to change.


Water in the Context of Rio+20

-Rachel Briggs

The World Water Forum is organized by the World Water Council, an exclusive group of global water elites—it is not a United Nations process. However, a variety of groups are working to build connections between the Forum and the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Rio+20, falling twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Brazil, is a UN conference focused on Sustainable Development. The specific foci of Rio are the green economy in the context of poverty eradication and framework for environmental governance—and although water is not specifically mentioned in these goals it is a critical element of both.

Various sessions at the WWF have focused on this connection, and panels have been called upon to offer their thoughts on how the two conferences can connect. Yesterday Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment, shared that Brazil is planning a very explicit integration of the two. Between the final preparatory commission and the Rio conference itself,  Brazil will be hosting a series of round table dialogues between governments and civil society—unprecedented in the Commission on Sustainable Development. These round tables will focus on nine key issues related to sustainable development—including water and oceans. Both Teixeira and the President of the Forum, Ben Braga mentioned another element of this connection: The WWF text will feed directly into this Rio process.

Integrating  water into questions of sustainable development  both excites and terrifies to me.   Water is crucial to agriculture and industry, to sustaining the natural resources that form the basis of our economies. Therefore, any form of development—especially sustainable development—is dependent  upon sound water policy. However, the discussions thus far indicate that integrating water into sustainable development also presents an opportunity to reaffirm the notion of water as an economic good—this means that we will continue to distribute water through the market rather than based on need. Also, the WWF severely limits input to their text—only ministers and invited groups get to contribute. Feeding such a biased, one-dimensional text into a global process by-passes opportunities for input and shatters transparency. Assimilating this text into Rio gives an exaggerated platform to the already privileged voices of industry and government.

On the plus side, there seems to be a lot of energy and ambition in the buildup to Rio. Speakers from NGOs, the Brazilian government, and the UN all expressed a desire for action outcomes and for attention to equity as well as obligations. With the ambition and energy  I have witnessed, I hope that the nexus between the WWF and Rio+20 can be fruitful.