March 16, 2006

No safe water for 1 billion poor, companies wary

By Frank Jack Daniel

MEXICO CITY -- Ten years ago, many poor countries hoped private cash would bring safe water to the 1 billion people in the world who lack it, but now corporate interest is drying up.

After pumping about $25 billion into water supply and sanitation in developing countries in the 1990s, many companies have retreated or reduced their presence in places ranging from Bolivia to Indonesia.

Delegates at the World Water Forum that started in Mexico City on Thursday said new investments and ideas are needed to meet a U.N. goal of halving by 2015 the number of people without safe drinking water.

Relying on private business to reach that target, one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, is increasingly difficult, said Daniel Zimmer, a senior member of the body organizing the meeting.

"The hope that we had in the 1990s that the private money would really substantially help the achievements of the MDGs has obviously been seen now as something unrealistic because of the opposition to private participation," he said.

"We have to invent new partnerships, he said. "Only if we are able to have strong public services, only then can we have strong partnerships with the private sector."


Police outnumbered protesters gathering at the capital's Independence Angel monument for a march against the water meeting.

"We think the forum is being hijacked by the private sector and we're here to counteract that," said Steve Bloomfield, a British trade union representative.

Many of the protesters were colorfully dressed indigenous Mexicans demonstrating about local water issues, not anti-globalization protesters.

Several thousand riot police took over a lane of the busy Periferico ring road. Other main roads were closed.

Water forum critics say it is geared toward rich nations and large corporations, excludes developing countries and may be promoting privatization.

The World Water Forum's ruling body is made up of members from governments, international organizations like the World Bank, scientists and business people.

Public opposition is growing to water services being used as a profit-making activity, said Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist who has written a book criticizing water privatization.

"The kind of resistance they have run into really has given the big companies pause to think," she said.

Barlow said French company Suez failed to live up to expectations in providing fresh water and sewage systems to hundreds of thousands of people in Bolivia.

Protests in the town of El Alto against water charges in 2003 forced the government to scrap a contract with Suez.

The French company says privatizations it has carried out in Latin America have helped rescue crumbling water systems previously run poorly by public companies.

Loic Fauchon, president of the World Water Council, said aid agencies and business did not spend enough on water projects.

"Today only 5 percent of public aid is allocated to water. That is charity. Today only 5 percent of investments are dedicated to water. This is a major economic error," he said.

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich)