Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera's reporter in Istanbul, will be filing daily dispatches from the World Water Forum held in Istanbul from Monday, March 16 to Friday, March 20.

06:00 GMT, Tuesday, March 17, 2009: The battle lines are drawn

Turkish police fired tear gas to disperse protesters outside the water forum venue [Reuters]
Istanbul's hosting of the fifth World Water Forum began on a slightly less triumphal note than the Turkish government had planned.

The much-heralded Leaders' Summit – Turkey had reportedly invited the leaders of all the nations attending, perhaps more than 150 - was whittled down to a handful with the final list being released quietly, overnight on Sunday.

The World Water Forum may have been quite a desirable invite, till a change of plans by Barack Obama, the US president, suddenly made the formerly obscure Istanbul Alliance of Civilisations Forum in April the hottest ticket on the planet.

Still, Turkish President Abdullah Gul managed a 300-kilowatt smile as he strode into the conference room, flanked by Prince Albert of Monaco, the presidents of Somalia and Tajikistan and the prime ministers of Tuvalu, South Korea and Azerbaijan.

With a large portion of the nearly 2,000-strong international press corps trying not to fall asleep in the stifling heat of the main auditorium, the welcoming speeches kicked off.

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A small protest group, the International Rivers Network, unfurled a banner calling for Turkey's rivers to be saved from what they say are exploitative multinational water companies. They were quietly hustled out of the dress circle.

I later discovered they were deported.

The same delicacy was not exercised when a crowd of 50 protesters arrived an hour or so later outside the venue to demand a stop to the water privatisation agenda. They were greeted by the full armoured force of the Turkish Gendarmerie, who had been rehearsing this moment for weeks.

Defending national honour, they moved in on the protesters when – as seen in an AP news agency video – some demonstrators began using slings to hurl rocks at the massed security forces.

"'We need to understand why companies under-report,' declared one researcher, without a trace of cynicism"

It was at this point that more genteel participants claim they were quite seriously roughed up. Seventeen were detained, and a shocked group made it back to the forum to register their outrage at a lunchtime press conference.

Ger Bergkamp, director of the World Water Council and convenor of the forum responded by saying there was scope for people to make their views known within the context of the forum discussion sessions.

But, at 100 euros a ticket for admission, there were always going to be a lot of people left outside.

Meanwhile, the sessions rolled on throughout the building, some displaying an impressive degree of pragmatic optimism: "Running dry! How to turn droughts into opportunities for better management."

'Lack of transparency'

The United Nation's sobering report on the world's dwindling water supplies was released later in the afternoon. We interviewed the head of the UN's world water assessment programme, who admitted on air that one of the foremost problems they faced was getting adequate data on how bad the crisis really is.

"The reliable data in many places," Olcay Onver said "is really not there".

So does that mean the situation is even worse than the UN says it is?

"We don't really have enough data to tell," he replied.

"Water must...  belong to everyone. No one should be allowed to appropriate it for private profit while others are dying for the lack of it."

Maude Barlow, UN

There was much more discussion about missing data at a forum session at the end of the day, on how transparent companies were being about the environmental footprint of their businesses.

Under the umbrella of a UN initiative on corporate responsibility, companies are embarking on a process of environmental accountability. Or at least, that is what they are supposed to be doing; posting regular internal audits of their conduct, whether environmentally sound and sustainable, or not.

Except that getting meaningful data from most of them, according to the authors of the research report, was proving more than a little tricky. Especially on the issue of water.

"We need to understand why companies under-report," declared one of the researchers, without a trace of cynicism.

One of the other speakers, the head of an ethical investment consultancy, put it more bluntly: "The lack of  transparency is abysmal ... private water utilities have lamentable reporting" and 'commercially senstive' was no longer a get-out clause.

"Where water is concerned, there is no such thing as proprietary information. We believe that there should be a data commons for water, open to all," she continued.

One 'water justice' activist took it further: "How does anyone know what companies say in your reports is true?" he asked.

'Testy exchange'

After a testy exchange, the researcher conceded "companies' water-related disclosure is shockingly bad". But, he said, back in his research chair, "we need to give guidance to companies" on how to improve.

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It was soon after this, Greg Coch, managing director of Coca-Cola's Global Water Stewardship and Environmental Water Resource programme, leapt to his feet, declaring that the issue of water was a special case, that everyone cared too much about it, which was why discussions became so heated and passionate.

UN water elder-stateswoman, Maude Barlow, then offered her views on the corporate world's relationship with the dwindling water supply.

"Water must be a public trust and belong to everyone. No one should be allowed to appropriate it for private profit while others are dying for the lack of it."

The issues, she said, were conservation and water justice. 

"If you are in the 'water business', you cannot move towards those two goals," she said.

Coch from Coca-cola observed to me afterwards: "It's good to look the enemy in the eye."

It is only day one and already the battle lines are being drawn.

Source: Al Jazeera