Grounds for deportation from Turkey. Photo via IISD Reporting Services
There weren't any naked protesters rushing the stage, or thousands marching in the streets, like there were at previous World Water Forums, but activists haven't wavered in their conviction that the triennial event is an "elitist," "undemocratic," and "illegitimate" venue for addressing the planet's urgent water problems.
On Monday, opening day of the 5th World Water Forum here in Istanbul, an estimated 150 to 300 people protesting outside the event venue were met by police wielding tear gas and (a bit ironically) water cannons. A few hours later, two staff members from the Berkeley-based environmental group International Rivers held up a banner reading "No Risky Dams" at the opening ceremony and were quickly detained and deported back to their home countries.
'UN Should Take The Lead'
Activists' opposition to the World Water Forum essentially centers on two issues: who's behind it and what they believe the organizers represent. "The World Water Council is an illegitimate body to be holding a ministerial on water," says Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch. "We want the U.N. to take real leadership with countries and governments. They need to recognize the crisis and do more than talk and hold meetings."
Hauter and others criticize the council, which includes major water and infrastructure companies among its members, for promoting the privatization of water systems, allowing corporations and governments to control the flow of water by building large dams, and failing to recognize access to water as a human right.
A protest at the protest event.
Dams, which the Turkish government is strongly pushing as a solution to the country's water concerns, were the topic of eight sessions at the Alternative Water Forum, organized under the theme "Another water management is possible" and being hosted this weekend at Bilgi University's santralistanbul campus, just down the road from the main water forum. Other panels and workshops focused on global climate change, agriculture and food security, and managing water as a common good. Activists from Chile, Venezuela, Spain, Uganda, India, Nepal, and, of course, Turkey, talked about their fights against dam construction and the damage it would cause to their communities.
"A dam is basically a wall across a river, so the person who runs the dam is the one who can control the rate at which the water flows," says Nick Hildyard of the U.K.-based NGO the Corner House. "Dams can be used as a weapon by one country against another. [The operators] can flood downstream areas or send them just a trickle. Even shorts stints without water can be ruinous for local people and ecosystems."
Dam Supporters 'On Trial'
Early in the month, a Water Tribunal also held in Istanbul put political and financial supporters of dams -- including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- "on trial" for endangering the environment and human rights. Accusing the Turkish government of "dam fetishism," the activists and academics behind the tribunal called on Erdoğan's administration to consider alternative sources of energy and allow local residents a voice in the decision-making process.
Speakers at the alternative forum sounded similar themes, stressing the need for more consultation and transparency in water politics and a new vision of water management based on human and ecological needs.
"Like the World Bank, the World Water Forum is all about big expensive technologies and corporations," says Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, an citizen advocacy group. "We believe in the soft path -- in conservation and watershed restoration as good water management. You can't both privatize and protect nature."
More Coverage Of The 5th World Water Forum
What is this 'Big Water Meeting'? Day 1 at the World Water Forum
Linking Water, Conflict, Gender, and Migration: Day 2 at the World Water Forum
Accounting for Every Drop: Day 3 at the World Water Forum
Images of Inundation: Day 4 at the World Water Forum
Understanding the Sacred Value of Water: Day 5 at the World Water Forum
More On Water Privatization And Dams
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Report on Business Reports on Water
India's PM: No Subsidies, More Local Water Conservation Strategies
A World of Reasons to Ditch Bottled Water
The Dirty Truth About Hydropower
The Ethics of Bottled Water