With a team of collegues from Africa, Asia, and Europe, Wetlands International was present at the World Water Forum with full programme of presentations and contributions to panels. A main ambition was to lead a part of the so-called ‘Thematic Sessions’ of the Forum, covering the issue of Water and Ecosystems.
Via an extensive preparatory process and seven events at the Forum, our aim was (and is) to push for commitments of river basin authorities, companies involved in water use or provision and authorities.
Next to these series of sessions, we sought attention for the increasingly fierce and often unfair competition for water and water rich areas in especially the drier parts of the developing world: a trend we have branded as ‘water grabbing'. In a press event and side event, we presented the issue; while giving examples by telling the stories of threatened wetlands areas we are working in: the Tana Delta in Kenya and the Inner Niger Delta in Mali.
I have been to many similar global events and also was at the Water Forum in Mexico. The first remarkable difference was the size of the Forum. In Mexico, people were cueing up for a full day to get their registration organized. Several big halls were filled with exhibitions of companies, governments and NGOs. Side event rooms were packed. One big hall was totally dedicated to support the hundreds of journalists from all over the world. All major NGOs were present and were holding actions to call for ambitious commitments from governments.
Marseille was a shadow of this. Two small exhibit spaces; often half empty side events, a class room sized press area and a striking absence of visible NGOs. Some quick Google actions for news prove this trend; the eyes of the world are clearly not focusing on the World Water Forum.
There will be several reasons for this decline in attention; for instance the economic crisis combined with the hefty fees for entrance or exhibits. More important may be the political insignificance of the Forum. There isn’t a real global UN Convention covering international water issues. There is an urgent international policy dimension to water issues; as illustrated by vivid event I attended on the ‘water grab ‘of Turkey of the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iraq has been confronted with a decline of water flows of about 60%. How to solve this without international rules for the game? The Forum tends to compensate for the lack of a global platform, global guidelines, principles. The Forum always delivers a ministerial declaration; which has no legal status but could be seen as a political commitment.
This statement has always remained a quite predictable piece of paper. For years, NGOs and experts called for clear and strong statements with more ambition. For years, we saw a wave of disappointed press releases from NGOs. This year, NGOs and also press do not even seem to bother anymore. The Ministerial Declaration was such a parallel issue that it remained for most visitors even invisible. As communications manager, I am not going to waste my breath on it this time.
The thematic sessions mentioned above are in fact compensating for the closed process of the ministerial declaration. All attending the forum were invited to join the discussions in the meeting. The final commitments at the end of these sessions of those representing relevant bodies like companies and river basin authorities are though abstract and bit predictable. Not much excitement for a commitment of a basin authority, to consider ecosystems in further planning.
The minimal step that can be made during a global forum illustrate where the real change has to be made; on the ground; at the level of a delta, a river, a catchment. With a breath of many, many years to bring farmers, fishermen, conservation organisations and different authorities together for a long term, fair and sustainable planning.
Once successful, such a case should be shown to those working in the many areas of our world were conflicts on water are increasing, were small holders loose in the completion for water from hydropower companies, large agribusinesses or city interests. Or where downstream countries are just confronted with water diversion in an upstream country. Not for solving but for sharing these challenges and experiences, the Forum is an excellent place.