By Lyla Mehta, STEPS Centre Member

The World Water Forum means many different things to different people. For the many so called water warriors and activists attending the event and organising alternative water justice events at Taksim Square, the Forum lacks legitimacy because it is organised by the World Water Council, a private think tank with close links with the World Bank and large French water companies. Their credibility suffered further, due to the way in which a peaceful protest was crushed.

Unpromising start

Indeed, the Forum started with police brutality and repression. Peaceful protests against the commodification of water were crushed by the Turkish police. About 17 Turkish activists are languishing in prison and two foreign activists have already been deported from the country. Their crime: They unfurled a banner saying ‘No risky dams.’ Turkey, like India and China, is a big promoter of large dams and has been clearly against democratic debate on alternatives.

For the more cynical and blasé participants, this year’s Forum is like its predecessors. The same phrases are being repeated and it’s nothing more than a talking shop. This is particularly true of the large sessions which are lacklustre and endorse mainstream discourses and narratives of water and the water and sanitation crisis.

Right to Sanitation?

Some exceptions are the side events and sessions where some new issues are being debated and discussed. It is encouraging to see more attention being given to sanitation, usually neglected in big water forums. Unfortunately, I have not heard many references to community-led total sanitation which has attracted a lot of attention in recent years (see While critics feel that not enough is taking place to endorse the right to water, even less is being done regarding the right to sanitation. For one, it is still very ill defined and its scope is not clear. Does the right to sanitation only encompass having a place to shit and endowing people, especially women, with dignity or does it encompass second and third generation issues such as solid waste management, sewers and so on. What is the role of the state in implementing the right to sanitation when the current discourse is community-based initiatives and organisations, behaviour change and no subsidies? Who should be responsible for this right and which bit of government (e.g. Ministry of Health, Education, Public Works etc) should implement it and provide institutional back-up?

Environmental considerations and climate change

Climate change has also been given a lot of importance. The effect of climate change on water has been the main subject at the ministerial segment of the Forum. Clearly, droughts, floods, storms and rising sea level all impact on access to water and there are increased risks to low-lying river deltas in places like Bangladesh and Holland. Thus, the need to adapt to rapid changes and to create robust water management practices that can cope with variability and new extremes. All these are very important issues`. However, it is important for the water community not to reinvent the wheel and forget all the rich empirical research that has been undertaken on local adaptation and coping with uncertainty and variability. Indigenous knowledge about uncertain environments also needs to be built on and its potential and limitations recognised. It is also important to avoid getting lost in the world of modelling and positing simplistic links about conflicts and the scarcity that climate change is likely to bring about.

Water Footprints

A cotton T Shirt has a water footprint of 2,700 litres of water and a cup of coffee 140 litres. We are now being encouraged to think about the links between consumption in one place and the impacts on water systems elsewhere. The water footprint looks at rainwater (green), surface and groundwater (blue), as well as at polluted water (grey). Researchers from Spain and Holland in a session on water footprints provided us with detailed data on individual and national footprints and have maps with scarcity hotspots charting on the so called environmental water scarcity index. What is the value of this? Clearly, being more aware of the water we consume and the impacts of our consumption on the environment is important. But is gathering all this data merely an end in itself? How useful is this analysis for many poor nations? Is it politically naïve? What about the socio-political dimension of the water footprint? Does this analysis distinguish adequately between high end and low end consumers when it talks about a national footprint? Furthermore, in trying to reduce water footprints, technocratic and market-based solutions are evoked which can generate new scarcity myths.