NGOs Turn Up Pressure Against Water Privatisation

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Jan 19 (IPS) - An alliance of development groups is
challenging the European Union and developed countries over their plans to promote water privatisation in developing countries at a key international meeting later this year.

Some ten development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have
agreed on a plan of action to put "optimal pressure" on European
Union (EU) negotiators as they make preparations for the World Water Forum (WWF) to be held in Mexico City March 16 to 22.

The forum, a key global event which aims to raise the awareness on water issues, will be hosted by the World Water Council (WWC), an international water policy think-tank.

The NGO consortium, which includes Corporate Europe Observatory,
Bread for the World, Public Services International and the
Transnational Institute, fears that the WWC has a "strong preference" for water privatisation, which the NGOs strongly oppose..

"The Mexico World Water Forum happens at a time when the tide is
clearly turning against water privatisation and the need to instead support public water solutions is becoming increasingly clear,"
Olivier Hoedeman, research coordinator with the Dutch campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) told IPS Thursday.

"Although the privatisation wave has lost a lot of momentum in recent years due to the many failures, not least in cities in developing countries, there is still a strong ideological push to promote private sector management, including from the World Water Council," he added.

The Mexican government will host a negotiating session in Geneva
Monday (Jan. 23) ahead of the March gathering in a last ditch attempt to agree on a ministerial declaration for the Water Forum.

Negotiations over the declaration broke down last summer, apparently over differences of opinion about the role of the private sector in water delivery.

The EU's working party on international environmental issues will meet Friday (Jan. 20) to formulate its message for the Forum. Civil society groups are urging EU negotiators to deliver a strong message both at Monday's meeting and at the WWF itself.

"We represent a growing coalition of civil society groups concerned about the way in which European aid money and political influence is being used to promote policies that are not working and hinge on providing extra money to European companies, rather than meeting real development needs in water and sanitation," said Hoedeman.

The development groups are writing to EU negotiators in advance of the meetings to highlight what they think the EU's approach to the global water crisis should be.

They are calling on negotiators to acknowledge that water should be recognised as a human right, that a wide range of water privatisation initiatives have not delivered in developing countries, and that while some public water companies perform poorly, public sector reform can lead to major improvements.

"Public-public partnerships which match up well-performing public utilities with those that are performing less well should share expertise so as to drive up standards, on a not-for-profit basis,"the groups said in a statement. Such a move deserves "ambitious political and financial support from European governments."

The alliance of NGOs is also concerned about poor country
representation at the negotiations and fear that developing countries will be dominated by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) governments, a group of 30 rich countries.

"The vague status of the task in Geneva reflects the fact that the World Water Forum is not embedded in the UN system, but controlled by the World Water Council, a private think tank, which, to add insult to injury, is strongly biased towards the interests of private water corporations," said Hoedeman.

Added to this, the group says is apprehension that Gerard Payen, a private water lobbyist and president of the recently established International Federation of Private Water Operators (AquaFed), will play a key role in drafting the "European input" for the Mexico event.

CEO says that over the last year, Suez and other water multinationals have been forced to withdraw from cities in Bolivia, Argentina, Tanzania and elsewhere after failing to deliver promised improvements, while raising water tariffs far beyond the reach of poor households.

It says such developments have created a "growing momentum" behind alternatives to private sector participation, such as public-public partnerships.

NGOs are urging European governments to use the opportunity of the Mexico forum to acknowledge that their high expectations in PPPs have failed to materialise.

"If they are genuinely committed to the Millennium Development Goals they must express their support for public water supply and public- public partnerships," said Hoedeman. (END/2006)

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