Creating Spaces of Resistance: Jornadas in the Defense of Water

People from aross the globe gathered in Mexico City from March 16-22, 2006
to discuss the “fate of the world’s water.” The World Water Forum is a
formal gathering of governments, international water experts and
professionals, development aid institutions, water corporations and other
agencies designed to address the issues and concerns around one of the most
vital resource of our planet-water. Parallel to the WWF was the
International Forum in the Defense of Water which was the “counter event”
organized by social movements and civil society organizations. Drawing the
participation of around 600 activists, students, NGOs, indigenous women,
rural and urban organizations, from around the world, the IFDW was a "good
space to highlight the struggles of peoples around the world to defend
water, against privatization and commodification."

Every three years, the World Water Council (WWC), a Marseilles-based policy
think tank run by the World Bank, development aid agencies like the United
Nations, the major water corporations such as Vivendi and Suez, water
ministries of a number of Northern countries, and water experts and
professionals, hosts the World Water Forum (WWF). The forum is a formal
gathering of governments, international water experts and professionals,
development aid institutions, water corporations and other agencies to
discuss the fate of the world’s water, likening itself to a United Nations
conference. Its fourth edition was recently concluded in Mexico City, which
ran from March 16 to 22.

The WWC has appropriated itself as the “Voice of Water” [2] in the
international community, determining how the earth’s diminishing freshwater
resources will be governed, while local communities and the poor majority
are effectively excluded due to the forum’s inaccessibility and high
entrance fees. Further, the World Water Forums, from Marrakech to Mexico,
had been nothing but trade fairs showcasing corporations moving in on the
global business of water service provision backed by the finance, trade and
development agencies. Rather than the ’voice of water’, "voice of the
corporations" is a more apt description for the WWC.

Civil society resistance to the WWF has been growing. Thousands of ’water
warriors’, including rural and urban communities, students, trade unions,
social movements, indigenous peoples, women groups, and NGOs, from various
parts of the world gathered in Mexico City to take part in a week-long
mobilization to defend the world’s water. Dubbed as the Jornadas [1] in the
Defense of Water, the activities ranged from Mexican social movements camps
and peoples’ water tribunals to alternative forums, symposiums and protests.
Jornadas are spaces to highlight local struggles against corporate control
of their water, spaces for activists and movements to share their struggles,
learn from each other and strategize together, and collectively build
alternatives. Maude Barlow, National Chair of the Council of Canadians and
co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, calls the Jornadas the "real world
water forum".

 Battles for and over Water

More than one billion or 2 out of 10 people in the world lack access to safe
water supply; 2.4 billion or 4 out of 10 people lack access to proper
sanitation; 3,900 children die every year of preventable water-borne
diseases such as cholera and dysentery; and majority of these people come
from the rural areas.3 The water crisis has become global and so has its
governance. Water governance is a political process, informed and shaped by
issues of power and power relations. Water has become one of the most
contested resources, the last frontier of nature and the commons. It is a
political tool which provoked the “wars of the 21st century”. And like any
other war, it is replete with economic and political struggles. In some
cases, serious conflicts and deaths result from such wars. The basis of
distribution of water is no longer public interest or even universally
accepted principles of human rights but narrow economic and financial
factors, further increasing the gap between the “haves and have nots”.

These realities are condemned by the participants of the International Forum
in the Defense of Water organized by the Coalition of Mexican Organizations
in the Defense of Water (COMDA), from March 17-19 as part of the Jornadas.
From the Philippines to Ghana, Bolivia to Canada, experiences are shared:
widespread unequal access to safe water and sanitation, increasing
inequitable charging of water rates, local communities traditionally
nurturing this resource being cut off from its benefits, groundwater and
aquifer getting depleted and contaminated by extractive industries, water
scarcity, diversion and trapping of water from large dams, water becoming
commoditized and corporatized, and so on. Participants lamented the
failures of privatization efforts in their own communities, and how these
robbed communities of control and agency over water, and led, to the
destruction of long-held systems of resource tenure and stewardship in favor
of new systems centered on modern economic priorities. The results have been
ever-increasing conflicts.

Clamors for the de-commodification of water, improved access, people’s
control over the use, management and protection of water resources, better
condition for public water laborers, appropriate ecological-management
systems, appropriate technology and infrastructure, among others, have been
clear. The week-long event proved that water has become one of the pivotal
arenas around which social mobilizations and campaigns are launched.
Cochabamba, El Alto and Accra, are testimonies to the growing global
resistance to water privatization. People now fight back.

 “Public Water for All”

From the Jornadas emerged a consensus that privatization is a comprehensive
and multi-pronged strategy driven by the desires and profit motives of
transnational corporations - and met by a counter-discourse focusing on
alternatives. The Jornadas’ vision[iii] strongly upholds water as a human
right. As a public trust and part of the ’global commons’, corporations have
no business profiting from the peoples’ need for water. It recognizes that
governments are failing to fulfill their responsibilities to their
constituencies and the environment. To address this, emphasis is given to
democratization in water governance, social participation and integrated
water management respectful of traditional and mindful of the sustainability
issues.

An essential component of the Jornadas vision is the promotion of water
Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs)[iv] as a counterbalance to privatization
and Public-Private Partnerships. After all, 90% of the water supply
worldwide is still operated and managed by public water utilities and
deserves much attention and support. Eighty-three percent of global
financing for water supply and sanitation in 2000[v] was obtained from
national sources and majority of which from public coffers, while only 12%
and 5% were from multilateral and bilateral donors and international private
sector, respectively. The failed privatization projects also show that money
is not coming in as staunch advocates like the World Bank promised.

Evidence that it is possible to improve public water delivery, and that
their weaknesses and deficiencies are not terminal, abounds. In the town of
Varages in France, home to big French water companies such as Suez and
Vivendi, the trend is towards re-municipalization of the water system. The
town canceled their contract with Suez and other water multinationals. In
Penang, Malaysia, the most efficient water utility provides the cheapest
water rates yet still earns millions of dollars in revenues; and it is
public. The Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE) in El Alto,
Bolivia is about to introduce the proposal towards a “public-social” company
in the city, sans the private sector. PUPs do not only debunk the myth that
private sector participation is needed to improve access to clean water and
sanitation in developing countries, these models also are testimonies that
financing of water and actual investments are being done largely by the
public (either through user fees or taxpayers’ money). For example, people
in Xoxocotla, Mexico and Taguig, Philippines formed neighborhood
associations to invest in the pipelines and are organizing on the ground to
manage their water systems and resources.

The Jornadas also made the case for other concrete alternatives for the
building of water infrastructure for the poors. According to Patrick
McCully, Executive Director of the International Rivers Network, "there are
many technologically easy and relatively cheap options for water and energy
provision that can help lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty,
end widespread hunger, and reduce the daily workload of women and
children.“[vi] The message:”small is beautiful" and water strategies
focused on big infrastructure projects such as mega-dams cannot reduce
poverty, much more solve the looming global water crisis. Low-cost
technologies such as rainwater harvesting and treadle pumps are already
being implemented on the ground. Getting political and institutional support
for these innovations, however, is a challenge which the water justice
movements have to meet head on.

 Women at the Forefront of the Struggle

It is not only the UN which recognizes the ’special’ role and
responsibilities of women in water provision. More importantly, the
participants of the Jornadas acknowledged how water is “gendered”. Women’s
lives around the world are closely connected to water, from providing,
managing and safeguarding water for drinking, food preparation, crop
irrigation, personal hygiene, etc. to ensuring adequate sanitation for all
the family members. Women, especially indigenous women, have extensive
knowledge about water resources-location, quality, storage, conservation and
management.

These roles and responsibilities are often overlooked in water resources
management and decision-making processes. Yet as the experiences in Tamil
Nadu, La Lucha Parota, El Alto and Mazahua, among others showed, women are
at the forefront of struggles, continuously organizing people on the ground
to ensure equitable access to safe water and sanitation. The "Blue Agenda of
Mexican Women", is another women-initiated project that seeks to identify
the various water problems at home, in agriculture and in the environment,
and promotes solutions to conflicting claims over water while recognizing
the need for a new water culture. The project advances gender equity in
management of water resources. The Jornadas opened up a lot of spaces for
women’s voices to be heard. And for a lot of women, this in itself is
already empowerment.

 Global Movement to Defend Water

Mexico City is both a witness and testimony to the growing strength,
legitimacy and power of the water justice movements. The movements felt that
they are turning the tide, that they are on the ’offensive’. Inside the
World Water Forum, for instance, there is little talk of privatization.
Instead many participants in the forum emphasized reliance on the local
public utilities. It is doubtful, however, whether the World Water Council
and its coterie are serious about shelving its privatization efforts. For
sure, new tactics, mechanisms, and strategies on how to extract profit from
the people are already being explored. Investing in the water sector is a
risky business and they would not pour in money unless there are more public
guarantees, immunity and risk mitigation mechanisms in place.

The recognition that the world’s water is publicly owned is a temporary
retreat for corporations. Such recognition is by and large a product of the
water justice movements’ campaigns to expose the failures of water
privatization worldwide and how communities are fighting back.

With victories come more challenges. There is still a long way to go, much
to be done, especially in terms of international solidarity and
strengthening local struggles. Global support and solidarity are needed for
Bolivia, Argentina, the Philippines and other countries as efforts to
re-privatize water are renewed. Many communities are still vulnerable to the
commodification of water by cash-strapped governments and institutions that
back them up.

The crisis of water governance has indeed become global. A comprehensive and
holistic approach to solving the global water crisis is also necessary. The
participants of the Jornadas called for the linking of water services issues
to resource management; rural to urban issues; public health safety to
ecological and environmental issues; land and water issues; and the need to
bridge the gap between public financing, infrastructure and technology.

The struggle to defend and reclaim water must also be placed in the wider
struggle to defend the commons such as land, intellectual property, etc.,
the broader fight against corporate-driven globalization, and broader shifts
in political powers at the national and international contexts.

Given their experience and relative success, the global water justice
movements are no doubt up to the challenge.

Notes

[1] Jornadas is a Mexican word which stands for rallies or mobilizations. It
was organized by the National Peoples’ Assembly of Mexico.

[ii] Jornadas is a Mexican word which stands for rallies or mobilizations.
It was organized by the National Peoples’ Assembly of Mexico.

2 See Loic Fauchon, President of the World Water Council, Foreword, in the
Mexico 2006: 4th World Water Forum’s Official Delegate Publication.

3 See United Nations-Water, Water for Life Decade publication, 2006. Also
see Spreading the Wealth: Making Infrastructure Work for the Poor,
International Rivers Network, 2006.

4 For more information about the global water movement on the "Right to
Water“, see Maude Barlow’s article,”The World Water Forum and its Civil
Society Opposition" in www.blueplanetproject.net
<http://www.blueplanetproject.net/> .

5 See “Public Water for All: The Role of Public-Public Partnerships”, A
Reclaiming Public Water discussion paper, published by the Transnational
Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory, March 2006.

6 See Jenina Joy Chavez-Malaluan’s "The Question of Water: Notes on Regional
and International Issues", power point presented for the Water Commons
Institute, Quezon City, January 27, 2006.

7 Spreading the Wealth: Making Infrastructure Work for the Poor,
International Rivers Network, March 2006.


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*From Focus on the Philippines (FOP) Number 4.

* Mary Ann Manahan is a researcher with Focus on the Global South, Philippines
Programme. She attended the World Water Forum events and the Jornadas for
the Defense of Water in Mexico City as representative of Bantay Tubig
(Philippine Water Vigilance Network), a citizen’s network advocating for
universal access to safe and affordable water and sanitation. She may be
reached at mbmanahan focusweb.org.

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