By Lyla Mehta and Harriet Dudley

This was our third World Water Forum, and compared with the other ones we’ve attended it was pretty tame, far more low-key and lacked open protest and contestation. The overall theme – Le temps des solutions – seemed rather bombastic given that solutions to addressing water and sanitation problems cannot come from a global forum in Marseille hosted by the World Water Council which has no official UN recognition. These instead clearly need to be context specific and stem from local communities who will have their own visions of water justice and sustainability. Like several others, we are sceptical of such global jamborees but still attended a few days in order to get a sense of what’s new (or not) and to network and meet up with old and new watery colleagues and friends.

There were plenty of opportunities to do this at Marseille for in true French style the lunches were elaborate with wine flowing. So how much was new and how much was old wine in new bottles? Some issues appear to be repackaged in new lingo – so instead of large dams we have ‘infrastructure’, and one wonders where all this is going ten years on from the World Commission on Dams report.

Old players such as the World Bank and other conventional players are no longer involved in dam building. Instead, it’s China, Brazil and others who are the new forces which may explain their large and elaborate Forum stalls (though of course the Brazilian stand was the only one with live music).

Dams are also part of the so called ‘Green Economy’ discussion of which also dominated this Forum, not surprisingly in the run up to to Rio+20. The ‘Green Economy’ seems to be slowly replacing ‘Sustainable Development’ as the new mantra. It is equally fuzzy and blanks out contestation, power and politics. Apart from the activists, very few people were asking ‘Green for whom?’ And ‘how do we get beyond business as usual?’

The big corporations seem to be recognising the role of water as big business in this Green Economy, be it for waste water re-use or for legitimising their role in the water sector. It allows them to be green and ‘responsible’ whilst at the same time grabbing water and trampling on poor people’s rights and livelihoods.
One refreshing change at this meeting was the mainstreaming of sanitation, and STEPS Centre friend Kamal Kar, the pioneer of community-led total sanitation was in demand everywhere. There were many sessions on sanitation and even one on menstrual hygiene.

The other development we were pleased to observe was the mainstreaming of the human right to water. Ten years ago there was so much resistance to discussion of this right. Sadly though, the official Ministerial declaration still does not explicitly recognise human right to water. This is no doubt due to the influence of powerful North American players such as Canada and the US, and their traditional resistance to socio-economic rights.

Not surprisingly, the post-MDG agenda and what will happen after 2015 was the topic of many sessions. It was interesting to hear speakers from the WHO / Joint Monitoring Programme. WaterAid and others admit that the current water and sanitation indicators are inadequate. There are currently three working groups (on water, sanitation and hygiene) that are seeking to develop more comprehensive and sophisticated indicators around monitoring access to water and sanitation.

It is good that normative issues such as non- discrimination, equity and rights are on the agenda (whether they will stay on the agenda until the end is up for grabs). The current water MDG for example ignores water quality, sustainability, gender dynamics, regional variation and equity as well as rapidly growing urban and peri-urban centres. This makes us think that last week’s celebrations of meeting the water MDG were a bit premature.

Will the new water and sanitation target regime be any better? Or will it also overly focus on the process of number counting and indicator definition and monitoring? We believe that targets tell us little of what’s happening on the ground, don’t capture the diversity of local people’s choices and preferences and ignore diverse pathways to sustainable access to water and sanitation that could be drawn upon and improved.

While targets galvanise action, help monitor progress and help politicians, do they make a difference to poor women and men? They are neither accountable nor justifiable. Is it time to say, no more targets? We unfortunately didn’t make it to the Alternative Forum which is a shame. We were rather busy organising our own side event  to launch the IDS Bulletin ‘Some for All? Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation’, based on outcomes from the second STEPS Centre Water and Sanitation Symposium, which traces the politics and pathways of water and sanitation since New Delhi 1990.