Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for March, 2009

Mar 22 2009

Water Forum Declines To Declare Access to Water A Human Right

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ISTANBUL, March 22 – The leaders of the World Water Forum decided once again not to declare that access to water is an inalienable human right.

As the fifth of the triennial Forums of government officials, business leaders and members of non-governmental organizations closed here Sunday, the water organization said it would continue to debate the pros and cons of the human rights issue.

More than 25,000 people from more than 190 countries attended the week-long conference. Maude Barlow, a water advocate from Canada and others, held an alternative conference across town and condemned the World Water Forum as being closely aligned with business, to the detriment of the poor. Officials of the Forum did not respond and Ms. Barlow remained on the sidelines.

One World Water Forum official said that the human rights issue, which has been on the agenda since the first Forum in 1997, had gained momentum this year, but not enough to put it over the top.

“A large majority of participants recognize the right to water as a human right,” the official said. “However several countries refused to give water that status” again this year.

In addition, most of the business people at the Forum continued to be against the issue.

Water experts say that businesses and most countries around the world have been working to prevent water from being endorsed as a human right by groups like the World Water Forum and from becoming a part of international law.

“If water is a human right the countries have to provide it,” said one United Nations official. “The private sector wants to make business. But if water were a human right, businesses would be limited in how much they could charge.”

Governments and business contend that they are working hard to get water and toilets to people who do not have them. But neither wants to sign a written agreement on water that might make them vulnerable to legal claims from people who could contend that they had not received adequate water. South Africa’s constitution asserts that water is a human right and diplomats here said several lawsuits over water have been filed against the Pretoria government.

About one billion people around the world do not have regular access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion have no toilets. Corporations contend that only they have the money to take on substantial water projects. Critics of business, however, say the private water companies often price water beyond the reach of the poorest people.

The United States and Canada are among the countries contending that recognizing water as a human right could possibly pose requirements that they could not fulfill. About 30 countries favor recognizing water as a human right, including Germany, Britain, Uruguay, Bolivia and several other Latin American countries.

In one of the main wrap up sessions Sunday, Jack Moss of Business Action for Water, a group of international businesses dealing in water, said that his members had been “pleased to have participated in the rich debate” on water and human rights and added: “It is clear the debate must go on.”

In their final declaration, the leaders of the World Water Forum steered clear of controversy. Instead, they appealed “to all national governments, international organizations and other stakeholders to generate a common vision and framework to develop and manage water resources in a sustainable manner and to guarantee access to safe water and sanitation for all.” Their declaration, of course, was non-binding and imposed none of the legal requirements that would be imposed if access to water were ever legally recognized as an inalienable human right. #

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Mar 22 2009

Water Forum Ends On World Water Day

ISTANBUL, March 21 – The end is nearing for the week-long World Water Forum.
Formal statements are being issued on Sunday – World Water Day. No breakthroughs are expected. And that comes as no surprise to many participants.

The Forum, which is held every three years, and World Water Day, an annual event, are both ceremonial. They draw a certain amount of attention to worldwide water problems. But they do not appear to be keys to fixing things.

More than 25,000 water experts, government officials and diplomats attended the Forum this year. Many of them came for the networking and the private conversations.

It is hard to measure progress on water problems. But everyone I’ve spoken with here said things move very slowly in this field. Some problems are getting worse simply because the number of people in the world continues to grow.

Whatever may have been going on privately here, there was very little evidence in the public sessions of original thinking. And that was part of the plan. Saturday afternoon, I sat in on the final session of the group working on “Managing and Protecting Water Resources,” one of the main themes of the Forum.
Here are some of the points the group agreed upon after three years of discussions since the Forum in Mexico City in 2006:

*Fresh water resources are very limited on our planet.
*The world’s growing population is putting pressure on fresh water resources.
*Global Warming will make it much more difficult to supply water for everyone.
*Before embarking on infrastructure projects we should look at the cost-benefits.

These are direct quotes. Here was a group of water experts speaking to a room full of water experts. Stimulating? A United Nations representative next to me dozed off. I saw several people sleeping.

Several members of the panel acknowledged that their presentation was uninspiring. It had to be that way, one of them said. It was the United Nations focused on water. What you saw on stage was theater. If you saw through the facade, you saw how difficult it is to solve water problems.

“There are so many opposing views that, in public, you have to try to speak to reflect everybody’s view,” one member of the panel said. “In the private sessions there was no dialogue. No movement forward. We just went around and around.”

The optimists point out that hundreds of government officials got together here and that some of what they may have learned in the corridors and over lunches may lead them to dedicate more money and energy to taking care of the world’s water and the rest of the environment.

The most certain thing, though, is the symbolism of the World Water Forum. “It shows the amount of interest invested in water,” said Lena Salame, a program specialist in the Division of Water Sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. “At the second Forum in the Netherlands in 2000 there were about 6,000 people. There are 25,000 here. The Forum is not going to change the world all of a sudden. It’s a long process.” #

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Mar 20 2009

Cities Called “Battlefield” For World’s Water Problems

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Photo Courtesy International Association of Waterworks in the Danube Catchment Area -IAWD

ISTANBUL, March 20 – The cities around the world are where water policy becomes water reality.

“The cities have to put things in place, they really have to work on the issues,” said Walter Kling, the Director of Water Management in Vienna in an interview here at the World Water Forum where more than 25,000 water experts, government officials and diplomats are meeting this week.

More than 250 mayors from 43 countries are here at the Forum, which was last held in Mexico City three years ago. Many of the mayors are struggling with water and sanitation problems. Their cities have soaring populations of poor people. Their budgets don’t come close to meeting needs and, often, worries about water get put on hold. The mayors know that without adequate water, toilets and treatment of waste, their cities – or large sections of their cities – can become festering centers for disease. But many of the mayors feel hamstrung. Money has been tight in the past, and it is getting tighter.

The cities in Africa are under intense pressure. “Our capacities and resources for delivering adequate water and sanitation services to communities are becoming more and more strained,” said Stephen Kabuye, the mayor of Entebbe, on the edge of Kampala, the capital of the East African country of Uganda.

Loic Fauchon, the president of the World Water Council, the organizer of the World Water Forum, says cities are the battlefield where water problems are often most severe. These are the places where great reductions can be made in the nearly one billion people who do not have running water, the roughly 2.5 billion people who do not have toilets. Alternatively, cities can be the places where the negative numbers spin wildly out of control.

Water conditions in Istanbul are neither as dire as in Entebbe nor as good as in Vienna. Yet Kadir Topbas, the mayor of Istanbul, is concerned. “We no longer have the luxury of remaining indifferent to this problem” of providing clean water and sanitation, he said in a statement.

Istanbul, with it’s skyline of minarets and domes rising and falling on a ripple of low hills looking across the Straits of Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, is a picture postcard of a city. But many residents are afraid of the drinking water. The municipal water scores high on tests as it comes out of treatment plants. But, those who can afford it, rely on weekly deliveries of jugs of fresh clean water.

“My grand mother used to boil the water,” said Ozan Erel, 29, a computer technician in Istanbul. “Now we all buy water in big bottles.”

Vienna has plenty of clean drinking water. But Mr. Kling considers himself in a battle, too, to maintain water quality in the city’s pipes and in the Danube River as it flows past Vienna. Pollution in the Danube is modest around Vienna compared with the Rhine River in Germany, Mr. Kling said. But the Danube and its tributaries are lined with farms and factories, he said, and vigilance is required.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Kling and others formed the International Association of Waterworks in the Danube Catchment Area, IAWD, to pull together in taking care of the Danube. Cities from 14 of the 19 countries that touch on the Danube have joined the association, Mr. Kling said, including Budapest, Bucharest, Sophia and Belgrade, where residents say the water quality of the river is often poor.

Here at the Forum, Mr. Kline said he talked with people from the five countries, including Poland, that are not a part of the association. No new members signed up. But he plans to keep talking.

National and regional officials at the Forum, Mr. Kling said, have been discussing water in the context of a wide-range of other issues. That is the way it goes back home in Austria, also, he said.

“They have a long list of priorities,” Mr. Kling said. “The environment and water are among them.”

Vienna and the other cities, Mr. Kling said, have to narrow the discussion. “The cities,” he said, “have to help get water issues on the right scale of priorities.”

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Mar 19 2009

The Worldwide Water Gap; Looking For A Break-Through

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ISTANBUL, March 19 – Nearly one billion people without water.

It’s not literally true. But it is close enough to true to have just about everyone here at the World Water Forum buzzing. It’s been a persistent problem for decades.

The numbers change. But the numbers remain big. Somehow, while the world is spending billions on all kinds of projects, it cannot bring to bear enough money and intellectual firepower to get clean drinking water to everyone.

So in 2009, you have a very large number of people struggling every day to get enough water for survival. Often, when they get the water, it is unhealthy. It may look clean but it’s loaded with bacteria. Or if, by chance, the water starts out clean, it becomes contamınated sitting around rudimentary homes in contaıners. That is your roughly one billion people without water.

Good, honest people who want to solve the problem, just cannot get the job done. More money would probably help. But a lot of the water problem probably has to do with well-intentioned people. All kinds of things trip up their efforts.

“One of the problems of water is that there are different communities that don’t talk to each other,” said Dr. Marcus Barber of the Department of Anthropology at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, addressing a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization group at the Forum focused on cultural diversity.

More than 25 United Nations agencies are working on water. The United States and European countries have at least some diplomats and technicians working on it. Dozens of charitable groups see a problem worth addressing and many corporations see a way to make money.

Nobody is in charge and different strategies are at play. In the 1960s and 1970s, experts here say, the solution was thought to be big water treatment plants and big underground networks of pipes for distribution. But the plants broke down and were not repaired. Some plants have kept pumping water, but the water is no longer clean. Thieves often steal the water and sell it for as much as 100 times what the city would charge – if it only ran lines out to the poor areas. Able to buy only a fraction of what they would like to have, the poor often figure they can do without washing their hands. Now every hand shake becomes a conspirator in the spread of disease.

So much for the application of large-scale technology. Next, the water experts decided they had not put enough effort into managing water. Now, experts at the World Water Forum are talking about a soft approach. They are convinced that many solutions did not make sense to the poor. The idea of the hour is to try to get inside the heads of the customers.

Sam Parker is the chief executive of a non-profit company in London known as WSUP, for Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor. It brings together non-governmental organizations and businesses to get water to where it is most needed. He talked about applying marketing techniques.

“You might think you could go around to countries talking about health, about diahrrea and hand-washing,” he said at a session organized by Media 21, a Geneva group that trains journalists on international issues. “But we’re finding people are not responsive around health issues. It’s about dignity, privacy, status, prestige. Why do people have mobile phones in slums? Because it’s more important for them to have a phone than clean water.”

Urs Heierli, a Swiss economist, works for a company that uses a device that looks like a hair curler to manufacture cholorine. He wants to sell the devices to market women with the thought that they will then sell small doses of the cholorine to families to purify their water for about a penny a day. It creates small business opportunities, he said, and takes the bacteria out of water. But, so far, he says, he has been unable to compete with bottled water.

“Sales of bottle water are increasing 50 percent per annum in places like India,” he said. “It’s exploding. It’s 100 times more expensive. But it’s the convenience, the prestige.” #

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Mar 18 2009

Bathroom Sanitation Chronic Problem In Providing Clean Water

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

ISTANBUL, March 18 – There’s a lot of talk here this week at the World Water Forum about toilets.

The talk is not about unpleasant, smelly toilets or dirty toilets or ones without running water. The talk is about no toilets at all.

Nearly 40 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people simply do not have toilets. They grow up without toilets and they die without toilets.

Finding a way to take care of one’s bodily needs becomes a way of life and an enormous health problem. Water-borne diseases like hepatitis, cholera, typhoid fever and severe illnesses like chronic diahherea  that have been all but eliminated in much of the world are rampant where there are no toilets. People die and people fall ill and cannot work. There is personal suffering, heavy national spending on health care and a drag on economies.

Clean water can go a long way toward alleviating disease and the experts who have gathered here for the World Water Forum see toilets – or, in their terms, sanitation -  as part of their responsibility. And important to achieve goals for clean water. But until recently sanitation has been far lower on the scale of priorities than water. Water still gets much more money.

“Water is seen as a valuable life support,” said John Kuylenstierna, a United Nations water expert at a panel organized by Media 21, a Geneva organization that trains journalists in international issues. “Sanitation starts by being a taboo. It’s fecal matter.” 

Sanitation has been getting more attention with the recognition that if human waste is not contained and treated it  efforts to provide clean water. The waste often finds its way into rivers and lakes that are the source of drinking water. Often people living around contaminated lakes and rivers drink the water and are persistently sick. When the water is treated it has to be treated over and over because waste keeps flowing into it.

“You can’t have clean water without good sanitation,”  said Clarissa Brocklehurst, the chief officer on water at the United Nations Children’s Fund and a participant in the Media 21 panel discussion. “And you can’t have good sanitation without clean water.”

You might have thought that would be obvious, that experts would have jumped on the toilet problem much sooner. But there it is.

Economics and politics have had something to do with the lack of effort on sanitation, said Joakim Harlin, a senior adviser on water at the United Nations Development Program. It was easier to see how to make money on water projects, like dams and cleaning and selling water in bottles and in tanker trucks that make the rounds in many of the world’s slums. Governments also were able to charge for water. Of course some of that water flowed through toilets.  But many toilets that are considered healthy do not use water.

“It’s not as politically attractive to say you’re going to fix the toilets or the sewers,” Mr. Harlin said. “Water is a much broader issue. You have consumption, drinking. You have washing clothes, agriculture for growing food and for gardens.”

Now, Mr. Harlin said, experts believe that water and sanitation must be addressed simultaneously.

So far, early into the new strategy, the results have been disappointing. According to a United Nations report made public this week, the number of people without regular access to clean water has fallen to just under a billion from an estimated 1.1 billion three years ago. That is more impressive than it may seem at first glance, Mr. Harlin said, because the world population has continued to grow. But there has been no similar improvement on sanitation. Three years ago, 2.5 billion people were living without toilets. Today, the United Nations estimates, the number is the same. 

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Mar 17 2009

Crusading for Water For Rich and Poor; No One Left Out

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ISTANBUL, March 17 – Maude Barlow is a crusader.

She is here at the World Water Forum to campaign for her favorite thing:  Water for everyone, especially the poor. They must not be priced out by corporations that purify water but charge more than many can afford. She calls water a human right.

Lots of people agree with her. But she gives the corporate world a headache. By their nature, they must make a profit. They must charge for their good works, they say.

Ms. Barlow, who heads several advocacy groups including the Council of Canadians and is serving as the senior advisor on water to the president of the 63rd general assembly of the United Nations, is not against profit. She just wants to make sure that, when it comes to water, everyone gets what he or she needs.

People, she said, ought “to be guaranteed water for life.” Seems simply enough for most Americans and Europeans, where running water in every house is the norm. But it’s different elsewhere.

Ms. Barlow  knows that around the world about 1 billion people do not have regular access to clean water and that 2.5 billion do not have water for toilets. The lack of sanitation and the absence of water for frequent washing of hands leads to disease. Children suffer most. Every day about 5,000 of them die as a result of diseases that could be all but eliminated with adequate water supplies.

Ms. Barlow accuses the World Water Forum of being closely aligned with corporations and says it has “no right making decisions about dwindling water stocks.” There was no immediate response from the organizers of the Forum.

As the fifth World Water Forum moved through its second day, advocates, government officials, companies that make a business out of water and non-governmental organizations talked about ways involving water to make the  world a better place. They talked in panels, speeches, over coffee and in the marbled corridors of the grand Sutluce Congress and Cultural Center. They had different approaches and Ms. Barlow was among the most vocal of those who were at odds with corporations.

There were no protesters on the streets outside the conference center on Tuesday, possibly because when a few protesters came out on opening day, Monday, chanting that water should be free for everyone and waving handwritten posters, the Istanbul police smashed them into silence with water cannon, tear gas and clubs.

It was brutal, but, from a cool management perspective, it sent an unambiguous message: Mess up our conference and you’ll be sorry.

The police reaction may not have been pre-conceived. The Associated Press captured on film shots of people among the protesters firing rocks with slings, ala the street protests in Gaza.

Ms. Barlow was not in the streets, but she saw the police assault from the receiving end. “It was terrible,” she said, “total overkill.”

Tuesday night, the same groups that raised their voices in protest on Monday, planned what they called a candle-light vigil in one of the main squares in Istanbul.

Ms. Barlow said she planned to be doing her protesting from the podium. She was not formally invited to the World Water Forum, she said, but the organizers gave her the use of a room on Tuesday to hold a press conference. On Thursday she is holding her own conference on water in a hotel in Istanbul.  “We are not going to be breaking the law in anyway,” she said.

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Mar 16 2009

Police Disrupt Protest As World Water Forum Opens In Istanbul

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Photo by Amy Hart

POLICE IN RIOT GEAR in Istanbul as the World Water Forum begins on Monday, March 16 and protesters demand stepped up efforts to provide clean drinking water for everyone. More than 1 billion people around the world do not have regular access to clean water, the United Nations says, and 1.8 million people, mostly children, die each year from water-borne diseases.

ISTANBUL, March 16 – While the leaders of the World Water Forum were delivering pro-forma opening day addresses Monday morning at Istanbul’s new glass and marble convention center, a small group of protesters was scuffling with the police outside.

The Istanbul police in their fiberglass riot helmets and shields charged the protesters with batons, sprayed water cannons and fired tear gas canisters, witnesses said. Perhaps a dozen protesters were carted off in a police van.

It was not much of a protest. But the clash Monday morning was the most striking development as the fifth World Water Forum got started with extended welcomes and familiar statements on the need for greater conservation and greater support for dealing with water scarcity and other water problems from local and national governments.

People who attended the recent Forums in Kyoto and Mexico City say that the formal meetings are heavy with protocol and light on new information. But they say that the networking among water experts, government officials and United Nations agencies is great. And some sessions provide new insights on some themes.

Photo by Amy Hart

ISTANBUL POLICE OFFICERS confronting protesters at World Water Forum at the opening of the week-long World Water Forum.

One of the highlights of opening day was the release of a voluminous United Nations’ report on water conditions around the world. The report, issued every three years on the same schedule that the Forums are held, is an indispensable reference document, filled with statistics that capture the intensity of what some refer to as the worldwide water crisis. Example: As a result of disease-ridden water, about 1.8 million people, mostly children, died last year. That breaks down to 5,000 deaths a day or one every 17 seconds.

The figures are striking. But they are almost identical to those issued in the previous United Nations’ report. Other data and anecdotes in the latest report give a similar sense that not much has changed.

In a news conference on Sunday, Engin Koncagul, one of the senior members of the team that puts the triennial reports together, said “We are making slow progress.”

One theme of the Forum, so far, has been that the solutions to the world’s water problems are closely linked to governments. They usually have the money. But the worldwide economic troubles this year mean that every one is going to have less money. And 2009 may turn out to be a year of even less than the usual progress on water.

As the police tussled with protesters Monday morning, Adriana Marquisio, the head of the public water utility union in Montevideo was entering the Sutluce Congress and Cultural Center. “The police went at the people twice,” she said. “After the first time, some political leaders in fine suits went and talked to the police and the people. The political leaders left and the police pushed and gassed the people. Finally they took away 17 people.”

One photographer, Amy Hart, a New Yorker who is mainly a film maker, said that as she tried to focus her camera on an officer clubbing a protester, other officers grabbed at her. “A policeman was strangling me,” she said. “He had his hands around my throat. My hair was pulled. They tried to yank the camera out of my hands. I tried to get away but they were standing on my feet with combat boots. I slipped out of my shoes and got away barefoot.” #

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Mar 15 2009

Wars Over Water? Here’s A Bulletin

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ISTANBUL, March 15 – All that talk about water being the cause of future wars?

Very possibly unfounded, at least that’s the word from several experts here at the World Water Forum, the planet’s largest talkfest about water problems, held every three years.

After years of warnings from authorities like Kofi Annan, a former secretary general of the United Nations, that a finite supply of water and an ever growing world population made it only logical that disputes over water would escalate into wars, many people had begun to assume that cannon fire was inevitable. And it could still be. By all accounts water scarcity is increasing as polar caps melt, underground reserves are being depleted and population growth continues.     

But in a briefing and news conference hosted by the Earth Journalism Network on Sunday in a warm-up for the Forum, which opens on Monday, March 16, several of the best placed experts in world water affairs, said the fears of war were probably overstated.

Lena Salame, a program specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization who has been coordinating a nine-year research project on potential conflicts over water, said in a briefing that the findings of her group show much more international cooperation on water problems than conflict and that she does not expect the trend to change anytime soon.

Ms. Salame said researchers had reviewed 1,800 “interactions” between countries over water and that in “the majority  found cooperation rather than conflict.”

Uri Shamir, the chairman of the technical advisory committee of the United Nations organization that provides a status report on water conditions around the world every three years, said:  “The truth is, there are tensions and conflicts about water because it is a scarce resource. But water has been more a source of cooperation than conflict.”

 In trying to put other aspects of the World Water Forum into perspective, reporters asked what concrete outcomes were expected from the weeklong conference. The experts said the questions suggested the reporters did not understand the purpose of the Forum.

“You can’t expect measureable, finite conclusions,” said Robert G. Varady, the director of environmental programs at the University of Arizona and an enthusiastic supporter of the World Water Forum.

“Things get done here,” he said. “It’s phenomenal. People come together in the hallways. You find out about a project someone is doing in Norway and the person in Norway finds out about something happening in Zambia. You not only get good information, but lots of good advice.”

It was not clear why the experts disclosed the revised thinking on water and war Sunday to a relatively small group of journalists, partly in response to questions, before the formal start of the Forum.  Some international journalists at the news conference and the briefing said they felt they were hearing a scripted message that fit nicely with the Forum’s theme, “Bridging Divides for Water.”

Talking at the news conference Sunday about the long-standing concerns about wars over water, Dr.Varady said:  “There is conflict, but conflict is not war.”

Fuad Bateh, the legal advisor to the Palestinian Water Authority, said water could be “a highly aggravating factor,” but not “a source of war itself.”

As to what motivated Mr. Annan and others to predict that countries would go to war over water, the experts suggested on Sunday that they could only guess.  Perhaps, they suggested, the officials simply over-reached in an attempt to lend support to near universal appeals to conserve water and take steps to make water available in poor parts of the world where it is scarce and often disease-ridden.

“One suspects that if you’re trying to raise awareness, one way to do it is to say something drastic,” Dr. Shamir said.

In her briefing to reporters, Ms. Salame opened with quotations from Mr. Annan and others warning of wars breaking out because of disagreements over water. She concluded with this later quote from Mr. Annan: “But the water problems of our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for cooperation.

“If we work together,” Mr. Annan’s remark continues, “a secure and sustainable water future can be ours.” 

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Mar 14 2009

World Water Forum Concentrates On Raising Consciousness

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ISTANBUL, March 14 – More than 20,000 people with deep concerns about the environment are converging on Istanbul for the fifth World Water Forum.

The Forum, which begins on Monday, March 16, and runs for a week, was conceived 13 years ago by a small group of water specialists. It is held every three years and has become the world’s largest gathering focused on water.

The overarching goal of the Forum, officials say, is to draw attention to water problems and potential water problems around the world.  It addresses water on a grand scale and in microscopic detail.  Its leaders do not aim for specific results, but hope to generally add momentum to the growing water movement.

Experts on water say they find the Forums enable them to compare notes with counterparts around the world. They say they look forward to learning how others are addressing water problems and to perhaps forming alliances that may lead to new solutions.

Part of the Forum’s consciousness-raising includes workshops teaching journalists the main issues of what some call the Worldwide Water Crisis.  Besides reporting on the forum, I will be helping with workshops. I will also be moderating a panel on corporate involvement in water, including bottled water and hydro-electricity, both of which environmentalist say are bad for the environment.

All through the day on Saturday, planes landing at Istanbul’s international airport disgorged Forum participants.  A team of Forum staff members issued name tags and shuttle buses took the participants to hotels. One staff member said that 20,100 had paid registration fees and that several thousand more had completed early registration forms.

The city was gray and chilly, but the spires of Istanbul’s ancient mosques and the wailing calls to prayer through the day helped set the scene for a memorable meeting.

Since the first Forum was held in 1997 in Marrakesh, water has indeed risen on the public agenda. Dozens of non-profit organizations and universities are now addressing water issues.
But water is still widely taken for granted in developed countries like the United States and those of Europe. And only a fraction of the money needed is being allocated to improving conditions in many parts of  Africa, the Middle East and Asia where getting water for drinking, cooking and bathing is a daily struggle and where all too often the water is laced with detritus that fosters disease.

The Forum opens on Monday morning with formal ceremonies at the huge Sutluce Culture and Congress Center.

Representatives from United Nations agencies, more than 120 countries and more than 70 cities are expected along with leaders of non-governmental organizations, scientists, engineers, university professors and students. The one mayor coming from the United States is James Kennedy of Rahway, N.J.

The Forum’s high-level participants include Albert II, the prince of Monaco and Willem-Alexander, prince of the Netherlands, the presidents of Iraq and Tajikistan and the prime ministers of four countries including Morocco and Korea.

President Barack Obama is sending representatives of the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Forum’s leaders hope that greater awareness will result in greater action on conservation, reducing water scarcity and disease and better preparation for handling floods and droughts.

“Global awareness must be followed by action – such as legislation, funding, governance and empowerment - all of which are promoted through the Forum,” said Professor Oktay Tabasaran, the secretary-general of the conference. #

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Mar 12 2009

Obama Urged To Consider Water As Diplomatic Tool

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI - Long before Barack Obama moved into the White House, Erik Peterson was researching the problems of water around the world and how they can affect America’s relationships with other countries.

With a relatively modest investment, he concluded, the United States could make a huge dent in some of the gravest water problems.  In the process, it could greatly improve its image and influence in parts of the world where –pre-Obama – many people felt they had been all but written off by the United States.

In a proposal to be made public on March 18, Mr. Peterson, a senior official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is urging Mr. Obama to take a big step toward seizing water as a tool in United States foreign policy.

Mr. Peterson wants the President to centralize and sharply increase spending on the United States’ fragmented international efforts on water. His plan, obtained by, calls for the creation of a new Federal office on water. The head of the office would report directly to the President and, according to the plan, would be working with $1 billion annually.

The plan, which grows out of Mr. Peterson’s book with Rachel Posner, Global Water Futures, would elevate the issue of water from an obscure office in the State Department and more than triple spending.

In the places in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia where about a billion people struggle every day just to get survival levels of water for drinking and cooking, the impact could be tremendous.  Many neighborhoods and villages would see a big jump in living conditions with the simple expediency of drilling a couple of wells and installing manual pumps. Some health problems created by contaminated water in those places could be eliminated with medicine that costs only pennies per dose.

Yet whether the plan will get any traction is difficult to say.

On the doubtful side, one could argue that Mr. Obama is pretty busy with what is beginning to look like the Great Recession and with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the not so simple matter of getting a Federal budget through Congress. Surveys show also that with the economy collapsing around them, Americans are not clamoring for environmental reform.

But on the maybe-something-could-happen side, the President has already taken several steps that show him to be supportive of environmental issues. In his inaugural address, Mr.  Obama pledged to the people of poor nations “to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow” and he said the developed world could “no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders.”

Mr. Obama followed up by tagging $12 billion dollars in his $787 economic stimulus package for water projects – several times previous spending.

More recently Elisabeth Rosenthal reported in The New York Times that President Obama has thrust the United States into the forefront of international efforts to cope with global warming.

For Mr. Peterson, the dawning of a new presidency is the time to move. “We have a good chance of catching someone’s ear,” he said in an interview.

Even if his plan is not snapped up, Mr. Peterson is hoping, at the least, to raise consciousness on the issue a notch or two.

At a news conference at the Center For Strategic & International Studies in Washington on March 18, Mr. Peterson plans to present his proposal in the form of a declaration on “U.S.  Policy and the Global Challenge of Water.” (The day before, March 17, Mr. Peterson will be on a panel at the Russell Senate Office Building on “Renewing American Leadership On the Global Water Crisis.”

Mr. Peterson enlisted William H. Frist, the Tennessee Republican and former Senate majority leader,  and E. Neville Isdell, the chief executive of Coca Cola, as co-chairmen to advise on the declaration and to round up support among university presidents, environmental groups, religious organizations and others.

(Until recently Coca Cola has been one of the villains in the world of water because it wastes rivers of water in the process of producing soft drinks and because it is a leader in the sale of bottled water, which environmentalists say is over-priced. The manufacture of plastic bottles contributes to global warming and the bottles add mountains of garbage.  But Mr. Isdell, who is retiring from Coca Cola in July, began working with the World Wildlife Fund two years ago and has worked to improve water efficiency at the company.)

So far about 40 leaders have endorsed Mr. Peterson’s plan, including Donna E. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami, and Graham Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University.

“We want to promote thinking in leadership circles that water is a critical resource,” Mr. Peterson said, “and that it should be factored into the way we address the rest of the world.” #

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