World Water Forum diary

Floods, mega-disasters, climate change, bored fish and other post-conference musings.

    Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera's reporter in Istanbul, has been writing daily dispatches from the World Water Forum in Istanbul from Monday, March 16 to Friday, March 20.

    12:00 GMT, Friday, March 20, 2009:  Session on natural disasters

    'The Dutch are the Bangladesh of Europe, living on land mostly below sea level' [EPA]
    These things catch your eye. Taped to the wall, with a big arrow in marker pen: Special Session on Mega-Disasters This Way.

    The room is full. The Chinese are chairing the session. Are we about to see some unprecedented transparency here?

    The interpreters in their glass booths are looking harried. Tineke Huizinga, the Dutch environment minister, is on the podium.

    "I am doing everything I can to save my country from disaster."

    She has my complete attention.

    The Dutch have a reassuring mien, but if we are honest they are the Bangladesh of Europe, living on borrowed land mostly well below sea level, more than half of their GDP produced from terrain which Mother Nature is intent on repossessing right now.

    Put it this way: You would not tick the NL box if you were a Bangladeshi climate refugee.

    "We are preparing for the worst. There is little use in bracing ourselves and playing tough," she says.

    I am glad the Chinese are running this because my understanding of the planet right now is that it does not matter what any of the rest of us do to mitigate the effects of global warming.

    If the Chinese do not stop building coal-fired power stations, we are all going down together.

    So our future is in Chinese hands and the Chinese minister for water resources Chen Lei does agree, without dissembling, in response to a question from the floor, that global warming is a fact.

    But that was not what they had come to talk about. They had come to talk about bursting dams. Which will not burst in China because they have a central plan and Flood Control Commanding Centres.

    And as far as flash floods go, they have reservoirs to catch the excess. Around 176,000 of them.

    Sure, there were a few that needed fixing because right now they were too weak to hold much water, but they had a repair plan. They were working on the first 4,000 and have another 6,204 to go.

    The Japanese had a word about flash floods, too. They gave birth to Kyoto, after all, but that has not spared them the deluge.

    "We classify 50mm per hour as torrential," said the minister.

    "Several times last year, we had 100mm per hour. That's never happened before." 

    Then a clean-cut type from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) took the podium. I got quite excited because I thought he might be coming to talk about the Mosul Dam in Northern Iraq.

    I had gone there myself in 2008, when the rumours started flying in the Iraqi press that al-Qaeda had sent a team of 150 frogmen with limpet mines to blow it up.

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    In fact, Mosul Dam has so many engineering problems, it may not need al-Qaeda’s assistance to collapse. But it turned out the USACE man wanted to talk about lessons learned from New Orleans.

    Engineers, of course, do not do hyperbole.

    "We learned that evacuating a major city is not easy. You have to overcome the 'why should I leave now?' argument," he explained.

    Perhaps Americans would just rather hear it from Bruce Willis.

    It was time for 'Big Water'. Time to see what commercial deals were being done, far from the theory and the philosophy, public anxiety and good intentions.

    I made for the Big Expo Tent. It was, as some people had said, a trade fair, a style common the world over.

    Near the entrance is a booth for the magazine Global Water Intelligence. This is where you find out who is doing what with their water resources.

    I think Maude Barlow, a UN adviser, would consider this publication oxymoronic at best, as its commercial basis seems to be listing - for a hefty price to subscribers - all the water projects all over the world which are going out for international tender.

    Further along, the Norwegians had a lovely stand with lots of colour posters which rather left me pining for the fjords. 

    "Norwegian water to the world," said their slogan. Well, that was very generous of them, I said. How much were they planning to send to the world?

    "One million cubic metres per annum," was the answer.

    And how much of the Norwegian national total was that?

    "Only one-third," they said.

    "Our surface resource of three million cubic metres per annum is refreshed all the time. In fact, these days it's raining MORE in Norway."

    The tall blonde man shook his head sadly: "Global warming is not fair."

    So without giving away any trade secrets, their concept is to fill shipping containers with internal skins and a tap, each container holding 24 tonnes of fresh, sparkling Norwegian water, and pop them all on a container ship and send them anywhere the customer is willing to pay. A bit like wine-in-a-box but on a slightly bigger scale.

    I do wonder if the Norwegian public has been consulted about this.

    The expo is ordered in national groups. You start to see what their particular skills are.

    The Chinese are very good on hardware – valves, sprockets, pipes and pumps.

    Others, like the Italians, are a little further downstream, you might say, offering a range of services designed to restore places back to tourist-friendly pristine. 

    Meanwhile, I read in Weekly Water Report of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (OOSKA News) that Kyrgyzstan's ministry of extreme situations "intends to straighten a few hundred kilometres of riverbeds in the country this year".

    I'm worried the fish in Kyrgyzstan are going to get really bored.

    Intriguingly, that same magazine reports: "Nestle to cut investment in bottled water this year."

    This was, the article continues: "The only segment of the conglomerate that reported a loss in 2008." Nestle blamed the world economic downturn, and the fact the environmental groups were campaigning against bottled water which was a "healthy beverage".

    Paul Buckle, the Nestle chief executive, said: "Criticism of bottled water was irresponsible because it was pushing the consumer towards high calorie drinks."

    Ah, that is the problem then. Over in Sub-Saharan Africa they are all guzzling Fanta because they have been persuaded that bottled water is ethically bad.    

    I am no longer sure about transparency. Or philosophy. This World Water Forum is beginning to have a stream of surreality running through it.

    At the conference on Thursday, a suggestion from the Palestinian delegation to the Water Forum that Turkey might like to sell the Palestinian Territories some clean water. It is fair to assume the water supply in Gaza is not great right now.

    The Palestinians better get those negotiations happening quickly because before the conference even started officials from the Jewish National Fund in Tel Aviv announced that they were in discussion with the Turkish and Israeli governments – and Israeli companies – to revive the long-abandoned business proposal to import water to Israel from Turkey.

    The idea to either use tankers or a new pipeline, routed via Cyprus, had been dropped years ago because it was not economically feasible.

    It is all rather strange, because since then it is widely understood that with the aid of a big fence, Israel has managed to secure some rather good water sources previously considered to have been in Palestinian land.

    Israeli domestic per capita consumption of water is 295 litres a day, while Palestinians are among the lowest in the world at 78 litres a day, said Shaddad al- Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority.

    Another day, another test for the Turkey-Israel relationship in the post-Davos era. 


    09:30 GMT, Thursday, March 19, 2009: Monsieur Private Sector answers back

    Turkish police dispersed 'water justice' demonstrators with water cannons [AFP]

    I have not found the Moroccans yet. But my quest is not over. It is only Thursday, and there are many more seminars to come.

    However, the issue of water cannons - used so deftly by the Turkish security forces on Monday to deal with an unruly "water justice" demonstration - had been drifting through my head in my few idle moments here.

    Were the manufacturers of water cannons also exhibitors at the forum, along with all the other companies at the trade fair, like the specialist dam constructors, the drillers, the pump manufacturers, the water-level measurers and the pipe companies?

    If not, had the water cannon company, perhaps, missed a marketing oportunity?

    I also found myself pondering the Turkish sense of humour. Was the water cannon perhaps an ironic Turkish flourish? Or a defiant act of political IN-correctness, as seminar after seminar reminded us all of our mis-use of this vital element.

    Of course, I had also worried that this was gratuitous.

    Then, yesterday afternoon this story appeared on the Turkish wires:

    Water is the cheapest way to disperse demonstrators protesting the 5th WorldWater Forum held in Istanbul, Turkish police officials said on Wednesday

    Police department officials told the Anatolian Agency they preferred the use water canons to disperse groups of demonstrators as it does not cause serious harm and it is also the cheapest method.

    Police used 13-14 tons of water to disperse a crowded demonstration at a cost of 400 TL ($235), officials said. Police authorities said when they used tear gas in a similar demonstration, the cost was nearly 12,500 TL ($7,350).

    Clearly, the Turkish police had put a lot of thought into this. Water cannons must have a smaller carbon footprint than tear gas.

    "I hope [the police] pumped water out the Golden Horn," remarked a colleague. "I mean, it wouldn't be sensible to use drinking water for that job."

    "I hope they pumped that water out the Golden Horn," remarked a colleague. "I mean, it wouldn't be sensible to use drinking water for that job."

    The Water Forum is most definitely having an influence on thinking here in Istanbul.

    I strolled through the bustling halls of the forum after lunch, browsing discussion groups.

    In the seminar on how new technology might save agriculture in a tighter water environment, a charismatic middle-aged male Russian delivers a passionate appeal for more leadership training for women holding the farm together in many countries as their men flee to the cities in search of different work.
    "We have a saying in my country: 'Woman boss. I stupid'." 

    A group of women from Bangladesh in the audience looked unsurprised.

    Meanwhile in the interests of hearing from all participants in the forum, I went in search of someone from the private sector. 

    They are taking a little ideological abuse at this event from some quarters, which may account for the fact that most of the specialised business and water themed events are held in a separate set of exhibition halls on the other side of the Golden Horn inlet.

    I am regretting having already missed Beyond BriberyShow me the Money! Financial sustainability - importance, progress and emerging issues, and Get real! A strategic approach to financing water and sanitation services.

    Monsieur Private Sector

    Instead, I teed-up a meeting with Gerard Payen, from AQUAFED, the main association for private operators of water systems in areas as diverse as Chile, Brazil, Malaysia, China and Africa.

    He introduces himself: "I am Monsieur Private Sector."

    He is also, intriguingly, a special adviser to UN chief Ban Ki Moon on water and sanitation.

    "Je porte deux chapeaux," he explains. He is French.

    How does that work?

    "Well, we are not a lobby group. I would never say, personally, that private companies do a better job than public, because I know it’s wrong. There are many good publicly managed utilities, and some not.

    "Its the same in the private sector. Some are good, and some have problems delivering the services expected of them.

    "There are many similarities between the two. I want to stop the artificial divide between public and private.

    "My mission from Ban Ki Moon is consistent with the goals of AQUAFED, to stimulate government to do more for access to water and sanitation and to improve awareness among decision-makers.

    "I try to advise and shape good policies and I'm very good about not mixing things. Every time, I ask myself: Which hat am I wearing?"

    At this point, I have a slightly crazed flight of fancy.

    When he goes to see Ban, what hat does he imagine he is wearing? What does his UN hat look like? If his AQUAFED hat is, perhaps an engineer's helmet, then is the UN hat something softer, a hat of the people? A Panama? A gallic beret? 

    Gerard Payen looks at me, appalled. I realise one should not embark on games of creative visualisation with technically-focused professionals.

    Profit and investment

    "When private companies make a profit, the profit is a result of increased efficiency. It does not take a penny from anybody."

    Gerard Payen, aka Monsieur Private Sector

    Time to move back onto safer ground: Profit. Surely the big difference with publicly-managed utilities is that profits made are reinvested in the community or country, whereas with private companies profits go to foreign shareholders?

    "Profit," declares Gerard Payen, "is not what many people think it is."

    We are getting philosphical here, I venture. Not at all, insists Monsieur Payen.

    "Some governments might use it [profit] for building infrastructure, but other governments might use it for building swimming pools or buying arms."

    He continues: "When private companies make a profit, the profit is a result of increased efficiency. It does not take a penny from anybody."

    I suggest if efficiencies in these devoloping countries are achieved by cutting the labour force, then it takes their jobs instead.

    "Look," says Gerard Payen, "in the past 15 years, private companies have provided water to 25 million people, mostly poor. Their lives have been changed. In most cases, water is less expensive for them."

    And what does water operator industry association AQUAFED do, I ask, when one of its members does not get it right, and is criticised or even fined locally for its work?

    "These are not our subsidiaries, they are our members. There is no reason for dismissing a company if it encounters local difficulties. In most cases, difficulties have many causes."

    It is getting late. Monsieur Private Sector gets up to leave. He is not entirely happy with the interview.

    "In your philosophical concerns, try to remember when the priorities lie," he says.

    This Water Forum IS an intriguing cocktail of the practical and the philosophical. Take the End of the World, for example. 

    To discuss this trifling matter, I tracked down eminent Canadian Maude Barlow, who I had first seen in action on Monday. 

    She is another UN adviser. There are a few of them out there, it would seem, and they are all very different. Quite a collection of chapeaux, you might say.

    Barlow is a force of nature. No treading water here – she is jet-propelled. Which is just as well, because she would have to be one of the most sought-after people at the conference, where her message of urgency, social and environmental collapse, justice and the need to focus political thinking is finding a thirsty audience.

    But do not just take it from me. Well, not from me right here. Click here to watch Inside Story on Al Jazeera, where I talk to Maude Barlow about the End of the World As We Know It, and then there is a panel discussion. 

    Now, I am off to find the Moroccans...

    14:00 GMT, Wednesday, March 18, 2009: The privatisation debate

    Protestors have said the water crisis is mostly about a failure to properly invest [AFP]
    PollyAnna would not last long around here.

    At the World Water Forum the contest is over who has the biggest crisis, and the end of the world is, if not nigh, most certainly dry.

    Instead, we find Peter, policy director of environmental and human rights organisation International Rivers, gamely handing out press releases.

    His group acquired heroic notoriety here for having the first two delegates deported for peacefully unfurling a medium-sized hand-painted cloth protest banner in the auditorium at the official opening.

    "Ahhh", I observe, scanning the release. "There's a few of you left."

    "Only me. I'm the last man standing," Peter explains, with a nervous smile. He is a slight, bookish, bespectacled type, looking every inch the PhD printed on his card.

    In video

    - Water forum provokes water worries in Istanbul
    - Watch Inside Story: Running out of water

    What we had discovered, in the wake of the speedy deportations of his two colleagues, was that there is an act in Turkish legislation - the Turkish Meetings Law - which states quite clearly that any foreigner engaged in unauthorised protest action is liable to immediate deportation.

    The two unfurlers of International Rivers were charged with "trying to influence public opinion". They were given two choices: immediate removal or charges laid with a possible sentence of more than one year in jail. They left.

    All of this is, of course, a gratuitous distraction from the important matters at hand. Like the End of the World.  But more on that in tomorrow's diary.

    It had been niggling at me for some time, that somewhere in the crowd of 20,000 experts, scientists, philosophers, researchers, policymakers, company directors, campaigners and unfurlers at the forum, there must be someone, somewhere who could tell me whether it has been conclusively established, one way or another, if the "business model" worked in water management.

    Business getting 'a bad rap'?

    Business, after all, gets a bad rap these days. It would be unfair to blame untrammelled, unregulated, under-inspected runaway capitalism for the entire global financial meltdown, surely?

    Then I come across a biography in a conference-related email, make a call to the University of Greenwich, England, and managed to summon up the sort of person most beloved of journalists: Someone Who Has Done the Research and Has the Answer.

    Here also, I find the closest I'm going to get to PollyAnna.

    "Investigations by the World Bank, us and others have shown that the private sector, when involved in utilities like water, failed to deliver any significant capital investment"

    David Hall

    David Hall is a trained engineer, turned academic. His papers on the private sector and the water industry, private-public partnerships, public finance and public-public partnerships are all about what has worked, and what has not, and why.

    And he is the first person I have met for a while, who is happy about the global financial crisis.

    "It's a terrific opportunity", he explains to me, eyes twinkling under thick specs. "Public spending is no longer a problem, but a solution."

    Stimulus packages get spent on infrastructure, he explains. The only time most governments have spent serious money on essential services is when they have needed to keep the workforce busy.

    And for him, the global water crisis is mostly about a failure to make proper investments; in pipes, sewers catchment and storage. 

    There are only two main things the world's water delivery system really needs to dramatically improve access for all, David Hall continues.

    "The first is finance for decent infrastructure, the second is institutions capable of  providing transparent, honest and efficient provision of water.

    "Investigations by the World Bank, us and others have shown that the private sector, when involved in utilities like water, failed to deliver any significant capital investment.

    "They [private companies] were widely promoted 20 years ago as the answer. They would come in an invest lots of money. The simple reason why they didn't was because they couldn't make enough profit."

    As for the issue of transparency, see my previous diary entry further down the page.

    Hall continues: "In terms of contributions to efficiency, overall the evidence on the performance of the private sector comes out neutral, I would say.

    "A World Bank 2009 study says there are some improvements, but local people still don't benefit in terms of lower prices or investments. If there was a gain, it all went to company shareholders, and 'efficiency gains' were mostly achieved by cutting local jobs."

    So what does work in water policy, David? I ask.

    And here he hands me a business card, saying rather conspiratorially: "I want you to find the Moroccans."

    Have I entered the 'Water Matrix', perhaps?  There are a few men here who look a bit like Agent Smith...

    For the business point of view on investing in water supply management, read Anita's diary entry on Thursday, March 19.

    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.

    In video

    - Turkish dam project threatens historic sites

    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.

    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


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