What is this 'Big Water Meeting'? Day One at the World Water Forum in Istanbul

welcome sign world water forum istanbul photo

The week-long global gathering kicked off today. Photo via IISD Reporting Services

Even journalists living in this year's host city of Istanbul are a bit perplexed about the event we've dubbed "waterpalooza." Local advertisements describe it as "A big water meeting in Istanbul!" and that seems about as specific of an explanation as most people can muster.

The chief organizing body, the World Water Council, calls it "the main water-related event in the world, aimed at putting water firmly on the international agenda" and "a stepping stone towards global collaboration on water problems." Protesters say it's an undemocratic way for big business to push water privatization. What everyone seems to agree on is that water is more important than ever.

Water = Life
"We created out of a drop of water, everything that is alive," Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi said at the opening ceremony this morning, quoting the Koran. The 2.5 billion people around the world living in conditions of water scarcity know all too well how their lives depend on access to clean water. So too, these days, do our efforts to meet our energy needs, feed a growing global population, ensure peace and security, and fight poverty and disease rely on wisely managing water resources that we can no longer treat as limitless.

The urgency of the matter -- and yes, certainly, in some cases the opportunity to make a buck or self-promote -- is expected to draw almost 30,000 people from 182 countries, including more than 100 ministerial delegations, to the 5th World Water Forum, held this week from March 16-22. Sessions organized throughout the event around six themes will get into the nitty-gritty of everything from water-related disaster management and trans-boundary water cooperation to ensuring the right to sanitation and building a "corruption-resistant water sector."

'Everyone Must Be An Environmentalist'
Today, though, was a day for lofty generalizations and bold proclamations. "In the past, being an environmentalist was seen as a political choice, but today, we must all be environmentalists," Turkish President Abdullah Gül said in his welcome speech. "Water is not just a technical issue, but pertains to the future of mankind and must be addressed at the highest levels."

Turkish Environment & Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu conjured up images of old Constantinople, where water-bearers called out to potential customers in the streets, and spoke of how the historic fountains and hamams (Turkish baths) still found around the city showed the importance of water to the Ottoman Empire. "Where water flows, great civilizations have thrived," he said. For many speakers, there seemed no better example of this than Istanbul, an almost 3,000-year-old city cut through by two waterways and bordered by a pair of seas.

Are Dams A Necessity?
In one of the day's first hints of potential controversy, though, Eroğlu also called building dams "an absolute necessity" for water-poor Turkey, though such projects face stiff opposition from environmentalists and preservationists. Quoting the poet Pablo Neruda's words, "a world without trees and water is a voice... doomed to silence," Eroğlu said that the forum participants were "assembled to hear that voice." What remains to be seen is who will be doing the speaking.

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