Act or Perish: Message from Brasilia is loud and clear

As water crisis looms large across nations, creating water-secure societies is the need of the hour

Deepak Parvatiyar | March 30, 2018

#World Water Council   #Nestle   #Coca Cola   #Brasilia   #Environment   #Water   #Water Crisis   #Brazil  
Photo courtesy: Twitter/WaterForum8
Photo courtesy: Twitter/WaterForum8

On the eve of the 8th World Water Forum (WWF), held in March, social media was abuzz with ‘news’ that the Brazilian government had handed over its two large aquifers to private companies – Coca Cola and Nestle. This raised the concerns of water conservationists across the globe and led to signature campaigns on the social media against such a move.

There were fears that the move would further hasten the process of commodification of water – an issue that water activists have been concerned about particularly after they labelled the World Water Council (WWC), which organises the WWF every three years, as pro big business houses involved in ‘overexploiting’ water resources.

It is no coincidence that the ‘news’ did rounds at a time when the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, was hosting the 8th WWF and the fact that a Brazilian, Dr Benedito Braga, who is also secretary of state for sanitation and water resources for the Brazilian state of Sao Paolo, is the president of the World Water Council.

“I don’t have the clue what the origin [of this propaganda] is but it certainly is fake news. Why is that... because our federal constitution [of Brazil] is very clear: Water is a public good. It cannot be sold to anybody – the public, a private party or whoever. So if anyone wants to explore an aquifer, he or she will need to have authorisation from a governmental agency…so private companies can use of course, but they have to apply to the governmental agency in order to have authorisation to use the water.

They won’t own the property of water. Thus selling aquifers is an impossible event,” Braga told Governance Now on the sidelines of the 8th WWF in Brasilia.

Brazil is the land of the world’s longest river, Amazon, and Guarani aquifer, the world’s second largest known aquifer system located beneath Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, besides Brazil! A recent discovery of the Amazon aquifer – a groundwater reservoir that extends up to Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, and believed to be three times greater than the Guarani aquifer – makes Brazil a storehouse of water.

Hence the propaganda such as the country selling its aquifers do make an immediate impact before an important world event such as the WWF – the world’s biggest water-related event that plays an important role in developing a common strategic vision on water resources and water services management amongst all stakeholders in the water community by providing a “democratic platform for dialogue of the decision-making process on water at the global level, seeking to achieve the rational and sustainable use of this resource”.

But what gives fillip to hearsay such as Brazil selling its aquifers is the very image of WWC as an industry-friendly organisation. A Brazilian heading it – Braga is its president since 2012 – only gave such propaganda a new dimension. More so after a dire UN warning that some 5.7 billion people may be left without drinking water by 2050.

This is the first time when the forum was being held in the Southern Hemisphere and in a country which has strong water reserve. Brazilian president Michel Temer said at the forum, “This is the consensus…Life on earth is threatened if we don’t respect nature’s limits.”

But the increasing use of the WWC platform for commodification of water ever since the WWF in Kyoto in 2003 had sharply divided water conservationists. This had even led to the formation of an alternative forum – Forum Alternativo Mundial da Agua – in Mexico in 2006. Taking a strong stand that water should only be treated as a natural resource and not as a commodity as it cannot be manufactured in factories, the alternative forum has ever since been simultaneously held with WWF in the same city. It is held in Brasilia too “aiming to gather organisations and social movements from all over the world that struggle in defence of water as an elementary right to life”. In Brasilia several international and Brazilian organisations gathered in the promotion of the forum as a continuity of the previous alternative forums.

Sudarshan Das, convener, Mahanadi Bachao Andolan in Odisha, who attended both the WWF as well as the alternative forum in Brasilia, remarked: “Attended the Alternate Water Forum. It was really nice one that exposes the corporate clutches over our natural wealth, water and ways and means to fight it out by forging the unity among movements across the globe. Water in the capitalist era has become a commodity used to maximise profit and we need to combat it.”

Explains Magsaysay Award and Stockholm Water Prize winner Dr Rajendra Singh, who has been a part of all the eight WWFs:  “When the forum was held for the first time in Marrakesh in Morocco in 1997, public, leaders, social activists and media were more participative. At that time the voice of community leaders was heard and they were actively involved in the decision-making process. This in a way continued till Kyoto, Japan, where the forum was held in 2003. But in Kyoto, for the first time the issue of privatisation of water surfaced and water was seen as a commodity. Thereafter, in subsequent forums, companies involved in multinational water business started dominating the discourse. The focus of discussions therefore shifted to water market, technology and engineering. More and more leaders and people started believing that water should be seen as a commodity. As a result talks on community-driven water conservation were left behind. Only a few people like us continued harping on the issue of water conservation and the community’s vision of water.”

Lioc Fauchon, founder and honorary president of WWC, was of the view that though water is a human right that everybody has to receive, “It’s a public service. Even if private companies are working, it’s a public service...”

Professor Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at Stockholm International Water Institute, too felt that in some respect “it is important to have a price on water services. The society is spending a lot of money on water collection, water treatment…someone has to pay for it. I think that the thing is not paying for water but paying for the water services that are very costly.”

These are the issues which need careful analyses. It is understandable therefore that why despite such distinctions, the WWF has remained the most influential water event. In Brasilia too it has attracted over 40,000 participants and seen participation of at least 15 heads of state and government, 300 mayors and scores of experts under the slogan “sharing water”.

But one conspicuous non-participant is the Indian government. For reasons unknown, the Indian government has kept itself away from the past and present WWFs. The only Indian minister to have ever attended a WWF in official capacity was Saifuddin Soz in Istanbul in 2009.

“It is for the ministry to decide,” said a source in the Indian embassy in Brasilia. According to this official, there was initial confirmation of the minister of state for water resources leading the Indian side, but it could not materialise.

Unlike in the past forums, where at least a few Indian NGOs such as Jal Bhagirathi Foundation used to have its own pavilion, in Brasilia there is none. Yet, the participation of Indians here is the largest ever from the country with 50 registering themselves for the event.

A significant development for India though is that for the first time an Indian, Prithvi Raj Singh from Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, is on the WWC’s board of governors and another Indian, Kanupriya from JBF, is the first from the country to be a member of the executive committee of the WWC which is responsible for the day-to-day operations.

Says Kanupriya: “Prithvi Raj Singh as a governor became a member of the Governance Commission which is a high-level group responsible for the governance structure of the council. The result of the changes made by JBF representation in the council has led to the membership of India to increase from eight members to 43 members with more coming as members in the next few months. India has already become the largest country group in the WWC and if the future induction of new members is approved by the board, India will become the single most important pillar of strength in the council.”

This has been a perceptible change in the WWC organisational structure and the Indian government needs to relook its strategy on international waters and the forum. Besides, what is more significant is the perceptible change in the WWF approach first evident in the last forum in Gyeongju and Daegu, where the forum emphasised on working jointly to prevent disasters because of drought and floods.

“Brasilia in my opinion will be a landmark as it deliberates on the legal framework that respects nature and conserve water,” Rajendra Singh said.

Singh’s own role in the deliberation process too has been remarkable. From Daegu, he had launched his World Water Peace march in 2015. Since then he has covered 60 countries and released ‘Water & Peace’, a book on his findings in Brasilia.

As Narendra Chugh of Jal Biradari, Pune, said, the Indian delegation led by Dr Rajendra Singh, was “extremely thrilled and very optimistic that the current water crises in the world can be overcome by the communities who think globally and act locally, providing solutions for creating water secure societies. This movement will bring about world peace and avert the impending Third World War that this water crisis can lead to.”

It is in this regard that Brasilia could be a benchmark. Much hope is pinned on the Brasilia summit particularly after the world seems to be gradually reconciling over treating water as life.

There has been a marked departure from successive post-Kyoto fora when companies involved in multinational water business had hijacked the discourse trajectory to water market, technology and engineering, to hardsell water as commodity that resulted in issues such as community driven water conservation being largely ignored.

Now after Brasilia, the question is whether there should be an integrated effort or a coordinated effort to resolve the water crises particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Now people cannot sustain themselves by exploiting water, but they need to protect water.  This message is loud and clear, and so is the voice of the Indian delegates in Brasilia. There has now been a big change in the forum. Topics like making links between water stress and human migration have become more prominent – something that Dr Singh has been propagating for quite some time now.

(The article appears in the April 15, 2018 issue)



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