On the Water Front

Tuesday 1 April 2003, by Alex HILL

PHOTO: C.Rozen/J.-A. I.

This year, marching against war in Iraq was likely the best way to commemorate the International Day of Water (March 22). Few took notice of Water Day events, or noted that Iraq’s substantial supply of fresh water may be as much a motivation for the war as its oil.

But the march was another chance to speak out against oppression and imperialism, the biggest threats to peace as well as to the equitable supply and distribution of the world’s water. It may be the people of Montreal’s willingness to speak out against empire building that was behind our governments’ recent refusal to hold a major international conference on water here in 2006.
March 22 also marked the final day of the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan. Over 8,000 people from all sectors met for a week to debate topics such as the privatisation and commodification of water, maintaining access to clean water as a human right, and protecting the world’s natural waterways.

During last week’s forum, organisers accepted the proposal to hold the 2006 Forum in Montreal. The Canadian government refused the offer, with the backing of Montreal municipal bureaucrats, citing a lack of time to prepare. Perhaps we have been sold down the river, as many other nations and cities quickly lined up to host the conference that we were refused.

Despite the Canadian and Quebec governments’ statements against the bulk export and privatisation of water, evidence suggests that we are heading in just that direction. Canada does not support the UN position that access to clean water is a human right and is currently negotiating private access to our water in the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS). Provisions in the NAFTA make it impossible to stop the export of a commodity, such as water, once it has begun. Finally Canada and Quebec’s history of environmental destruction from mega-dam projects and industrial water pollution does not inspire confidence that we are ready to protect our water from export.

The outcomes of last week’s World Water Forum, both positive and negative, wield significant force over the direction of international, national, and local water policy. The world is in for a long struggle to protect public management of water and establish the human right to clean water. In Kyoto a large pro-privatisation lobby leaned hard on the delegates, leading to a statement from African delegates inviting privatisation across the continent. Successful examples of public water management systems were not being promoted with the necessary energy. Among other lobbies working hard at the forum were the mega-dam builders and water commodity traders. Unfortunately, the voice of local communities was once again lost behind the sound of ringing cash registers.

Bringing an international conference on water to Montreal would force Canada and Quebec to make clear their international negotiating positions clear at home. Canada, Quebec, and Montreal could have taken the lead to show the world our commitment to public water provision. While the debate on water ownership goes on, we could have explained the reasons against making the essence of life yet another commodity. Our expertise in alternative technologies coupled with our strong civil society could have brought the world to a discussion giving fair weight to new technologies and community-based approaches. But maybe this is exactly what worried the Canadian delegation in Kyoto.

Alex Hill, special collaboration

The author is project officer / environment at Alternatives.

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