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How Marseilles hosted two World Water Forums in one week

By Babatope Babalobi who was in Marseilles

France’s second largest city- Marseilles, coordinates 43° 17′ 47.04″ N, 5° 22′ 12,   last month hosted two week long global meetings to discuss the challenges in the water and sanitation sector; specifically to identify management options that breeds inequity and crisis in water resource allocation and sanitation service delivery, and proffer solutions to prevent water related issues from causing a prophetic third world war.

Officially, what was supposed to be held in Marseille between March 11th and 17th    2012, was the World Water Forum (WWF), the sixth. Previous WWFs were held in Morocco 1997, Netherlands 2000, Japan 2003, Mexico 2006, and Turkey 2009.

The WWF is organised every three years by the World Water Council (WWC) which describes itself as a an international multi-stakeholder platform, established in 1996 “to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels, including the highest decision-making level, to facilitate the efficient conservation, protection, development, planning, management and use of water in all its dimensions on an environmentally sustainable basis for the benefit of all life on earth”.

The World Water Forum prides itself as the biggest water event in the world recognised by the United Nations. Its organisers- the World Water Council for instance enjoys ECOSOC status with the UN, and its objectives, as stated in its Constitution, are:

  1. To identify critical water issues of local, regional and global importance on the basis of ongoing assessments of the state of water;
  2. To raise awareness about critical water issues at all levels of decision making, from the highest authorities to the general public;
  3. To develop a common strategic vision on integrated water resources management on a sustainable basis, and to promote the implementation of effective policies and strategies worldwide;
  4. To provide advice and relevant information to institutions and decision-makers on the development and implementation of policies and strategies for sustainable water resources management, with due respect for the environment and social and gender equity; and
  5. To contribute to the resolution of issues related to transboundary waters.

The World Water Forum 2012 was organised to present best practices that have been implemented and tested by participants allowing stakeholders to learn about solutions that could be implemented to solve water issues in the world.  According to the President of the 6th WWF Forum’s International Committee Benedito Braga, the 6th Forum, the event aims “giving voice to water and providing concrete solutions to the challenges of the water sector. It was focused on sustainable solutions and suggests effective and concrete goals that could also be used at other major, global events, such as Rio +20”

But several social justice movements and water activists opposed to the principles and strategies of the official event, ceased the opportunity of the gathering of major water and sanitation actors in Marseilles to simultaneously organise the ‘Alternative World Water Forum’; in French, the Forum Alternative Mondial de l’Eau (FAME), between March 14-17, 2012 in Marseille.

Outlining its objectives, the FAME said it was set up to pursue and amplify the water movement by “creating and promoting an alternative vision of water management which is based on ecological and democratic values; and continuing research to find solutions to the worldwide water crisis making the water movement structure sustainable”

A statement on outlines the objective of the FAME 2012 as being to create a concrete alternative to the sixth World Water Forum (WWF) which is organized by the World Water Council.

This Council is a mouthpiece for transnational companies and the World Bank and they falsely claim to head the global governance of water”, said the FAME whose promoters are majorly   trade union groups, non governmental organisations, academics, researches, indigenous groups, social jus


tice movements.

While all followers and observers in the sector agree that the crisis in the sector which includes lack of access, scarcity, corruption, and bad governance need to be frontally tackled, delegates to the Marseilles 2012 events could not agree on the causes and solutions of the crisis.


The over 20,000 water sector actors that travelled to Marseille mid March 2012 were therefore torn between attending either or both events- the 6th WWF or the FAME. Where you choose to go was most likely influenced by your political and ideological convictions although, the official forum attracted a bigger crowd because its organisers and supporters had greater access to financial resources to bring people to Marseille.

The points of converge

nce of both forums was that they were focussed in finding solutions to the challenges in the water sector; but the lines of divergence were on -what should be the solutions and how these solutions should be implemented.

The 6th WWF and FAME 2012 were diametrically opposed to each other on almost all matters, including who should participate in a global summit on water issues, which body should organise such an event, where such an event should be hosted, how such event should be organised, the issues that should be discussed, and event the format of discussions.

Organisers of the FAME 2012 raised several issues over the 6th WWF. Apart from querying the legitimacy of the WWC to organise the triennial event, they objected t

o the  holding of the this year’s event in Marseille, the described the registration fee as outrageous,  slammed the Ministerial declaration- one of the highlights of the WWF as watering down the Right to water declaration, condemned the exhibition of products and services by various water firms in the WWF as turning the WWF into a ‘trade fair’, and capped up their protestations by organising a street protest in the streets of Marseille on the last day March 17  against what they called ‘water profiteering and finacialisation of nature’.

Objectives of the 6th WWF and the FAME 2012

The theme of both events and issues discussed were at opposite. The 6th WWF had a simple, but poignant theme: “Time for Solutions”. The choice of the theme was informed by the premise that the nature of the crisis in the sector had been adequately addressed in previous WWFs and several other international meetings. In order not to turn the 6th WWF into another talk shop, the theme “Time for Solutions” was developed to emphasise the fact that the March meeting would be focussed on finding and debating best practices and new innovations.

In contrast, the Forum Alternative Mondial de l’Eau (FAME) had a screaming theme: “Water for life not for profit”, a statement that succinctly exemplifies its ideological underpinnings. Organisers of the FAME are known for their uncompressing and virulent opposition to the ‘commodification and privatisation of water’.  They are also known for campaigning against the role of International Financial Institutions especially the World Bank in water management.


In a declaration released shortly before the kick off of the event, members of the FAME declared:

“We reject all forms of privatization and declare that the management and control of water must be public or community-owned, social, cooperative, participatory, equitable, and not for profit; we uphold the fundamental and inalienable human right to water and sanitation”.

Organisers of the WWF and the FAME

The two World Water Forums also differed in the nature of organising bodies and participants. While participants at the 6th WWF were mainly Government delegations, International organisations, UN bodies, private sector firms, civil society groups, the media, and the International Financial organisations, the FAME 2012  mainly featured members of the water justice movement and deliberately shut our Government delegations, diplomatic bodies, private firms, and multilateral bodies.


The main organisers of the 6th World Water Forum were City of Marseille and the World Water Council; supported by several partners that included African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), Global Environment Facility, Global Water Partnership (GWP) United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Development Programme Water Governance Facility, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) ,Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, World Bank ,World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), World Health Organisation (WHO), and a coalition of over 80 civil society organisations tagged the ‘Butterfly effect’.

Organisers of the FAME 2012 described themselves as “social justice organizations, indigenous peoples, trade unions, environmental groups, farmers, writers, academics, human rights advocates, community activists and networks which share a vision of water as a fundamental human right”.

FAME 2012 organisers were drawn from labour groups, non governmental organisations, the academia, the media, indigenous groups and various pro poor water advocacy groups. These bodies include the Municipal Services Project, Transnational Institute, Public Services International, Food and Water Watch, France Liberties, African Water Network, and the Amnesty International.

In shutting out some categories of actors from its activities, the FAME in its charter announced that:

“The Alternative World Water Forum will always be open to pluralism and a diversity of commitments and actions of participating organizations and movements. The Alternative World Water Forum welcomes people of all ages, ethnic background, culture, generations, and having different physical abilities, as long as the participants respect the Charter of Principles. Governments, military organizations, international economics institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization), diplomat representatives and political parties as such are not allowed to participate. However government leaders, members of legislature or member of political parties are able to participate in a personal capacity if they respect this charter”

The organisers of the FAME 2012  also took up their ‘counterparts’ in the 6th WWF over its registration fees that was considered too prohibitive and shut out many potential participants.

Information on the official site of the 6th WWF shows that the cost of registration for participants from OECD countries/Developed countries was 700 €, while delegates from developing country paid 350 Euros. A day’s participation 250 Euros for developed countries and 150 Euros for developing countries.  The cost of renting a space to organise a session was higher. Public Services International, a federation of public sector trade unions with affiliates in over 140 countries reportedly had to cough out 598 Euros to host a non-official session for one hour “side event” during the 6th WWF

Groups opposed to the 6th WWF are of the view that the forum can not honestly pretend to be finding water solutions for the poor while the poor are shut out of the discussions through high cost of registration. In the words of one of the groups, the Food and Water Watch: ‘We believe people do not have to pay exorbitant rates to come and discuss solutions to water problems’.


In contrast, participation at FAME 2012 which took place at a less fanciful venue- Dock des Suds, a Dock warehouse- was free. All you need to do was to register online or onsite and a badge would be issued to you on arrival.

Venue of the 6th WWF and the FAME 2012

Another issue of contention was the decision of the WCC and its partners to organise the 6th WWF in Marseille, France’s largest city, located on the southeast coast of France, on the Mediterranean coast. Marseille was chosen to host the event because the organisers consider the city the ‘Water Capital of the World’, hosting the secretariat of the WWC and being the city where the “Géolide”, the largest underground water treatment system in the world is situated. 

But organisers of the FAME 2012 had a different opinion. In a strongly worded statement, they said the choice of Marseille was more informed by its strategic geographical role in advancing private and multinational interests in the water sector:

 “The choice of Marseille as a host city for the 6th World Water Forum is significant. Marseille is home to the World Water Council, the corporate think tank and lobby group that convenes the World Water Forum. Among its founders are the multinational water corporations, Suez and Veolia, as well as the World Bank. Marseille has long been a financial supporter of the Council itself and France is considered by many to be the birthplace of water privatization.

As they convene in Marseille, Veolia, Suez and SAUR, three of the world’s biggest water corporations are under investigation by the European Union’s anti-trust regulator for working as a cartel to fix the price of water and wastewater services in France. Together the three multinationals control 69 per cent of the France’s water distribution systems and 55 per cent of the water treatment systems.  It is as a result of such scandals that many French municipalities from Grenoble to Paris have joined communities around the world to remunicipalize their water and wastewater systems.”

Activities in the 6th WWF and the FAME 2012

The two World Water Forums also differed in the content of their programmes.

The 6th WWF had three strategic directions- “ensure everyone’s well being, contribute to economic development, and keep the planet blue”; within these three thematic encapsulate twelve key priorities which includes ‘Guarantee access to water for all and the Right to water, Improve access to integrated sanitation for all, promote green growth and value ecosystem services, and respond to climate and global changes in an urbanizing world’

Hundreds of sessions, workshops and presentations took place around this theme. At the 6th WWF, virtually all issues related to water supply and sanitation were including Right to water, water resources management, water supply, sanitation and hygiene, climate change, water and food security, water policy, Integrated water resources management, Green economy, water quality, financing tools, water communications, spirituality in water, water quality, gender issues, river basins management and water governance.

Also the exhibition hall at the 6th WWF featured several global players with water and sanitation related products and services.

The 6th WWF also featured several pavilions called ‘Village of Solutions’ within the Part Chanoc venue of the forum. Unlike other sessions of the forum that were held in Conference rooms with high tech equipments-Projectors, Speakers, Bug screens, and translation devices, the ‘Village of Solutions’ was an informal atmosphere in an eco friendly village pavilions. The Slum village attracted the highest interest for reflecting the harsh realities of life in a typical slum and how residents are overcoming challenges of lack of access to safe water supply and sanitation.

Generally, the programmes of the WWF were much more formal, presented with high tech equipments and under heavy security checks at various entrances to the venues.

The  FAME 2012 workshops on the other hand were on various ‘radical’ and populist  themes such as ‘Public Community Water Management and Partnerships’ organised by Transnational Institute; ‘Alternatives to Privatisation and New meanings of Public’ organised by the Municipal Service Project;  ‘Community Solutions to water management’‘Exposing and Challenging the World Bank’s changing water strategies’the financialisation of water and the road to RIO +20’; ‘Resistance and Struggles against Privatisation’; ‘Public Public Partnerships’; and ‘Implementation of the Right to Water’.

Film shows were the only side events of the FAME 2012, and they were on no less burning issues such as ‘Water is Life’‘Bottled life’; ‘Toxico Texaco Toxico’; and ‘Carbon for water’.

The venue of the FAME 2012 was more friendly and informal and far less grandiose than the 6th WWF, and there was near absence of high tech presentation equipments, while entrance and exit to the venue was devoid of several security checks associated with the 6th WWF.

Outcomes of the 6th WWF and the FAME 2012

Not surprising, the outcomes of the two events differ. The two burning issues between the two events are the Rght to water and the public or private management of water systems.

While the FAME 2012 rounded up by restating their support for full implementation of the right to water and a wholly public or community led water management, most participants at the 6th WWF group which were an admixture of private and public water actors, endorsed Public-Private Partnerships.

The Alternative World Water Forum in its final statements said: “water should be a recognized as a common good for all of Humanity;  national constitutions should officially recognize that all citizens have the right to drinking water and sanitation; public services should manage water in a participatory manner and protect water resources from agricultural pollution, industrial pollution, pollution from medication, and overexploitation; and domestic water consumption should be priced using progressive rates to make water use really affordable and abuse penalized, and without any profit for the capital invested”.

They also called on upon all organizations and governments at the 6th World Water Forum, to withdraw their support from the corporate-controlled water forum and called on the UN General Assembly as the legitimate global convener of multilateral forums, to formally commit to hosting a forum on water that is accountable to the global community and that is linked to state obligations under the human right to water and sanitation by October 2014. This forum must enable meaningful and open discussions with impacted communities, workers, indigenous peoples and civil society.

The Ministerial declaration signed by 84 Government delegations was one of the most important policy outcomes of the 6th WWF. In it the Governments amongst others committed  themselves to the “acceleration of the implementation of human right obligations relating to access to safe drinking water and sanitation for everyone’s well-being and health, in particular for the most vulnerable, and improving wastewater management; the incorporation of water in all its economic, social and environmental dimensions in a framework of governance, financing and cooperation, taking into account the progress achieved towards the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and beyond”.

As the two events closed on Saturday March 17 2012,  some observers  were of the view while groups and individuals had a right to organise parallel events on similar topics, the sector would have benefited  better if at a point they two groups decided to compare notes or talk to each other. In the words of the Tatiana Fedovota, a Geneva based Communications Specialist: “I am worried that each group believes it has the best solutions to solve the challenges in the sector, and the two groups are not talking to each other. This attitude will not benefit sector”

While the controversy between public and private management of water utilities was raging between the two forums, the urban and rural poor that were not covered by conventional water supply and sanitation systems were left out of the debate. It seems that the organisers of the two events wrongly assumed that all citizens are able to access water and sanitation services through public or privately owned or managed conventional water system which unfortunately is not the case particularly in most parts of Asia and Sub Saharan Africa.

As the two forums engaged in hot debates over the appropriate nomenclature of the right to water, and best form of water management- public partnerships or private- public partnerships, the poor who neither have access to any safe water nor have any body to partner with to access safe drinking water and sanitation services, are ignored and left to their fate.



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