On March 16, I attended the Alternative World Water Forum. The Forum Alternatif Modial de L’Eau (‘FAME’ for short) is situated at the Dock des Suds, and my first impression upon arriving was how buzzing the place was. This was no ‘occupy’ movement of the kind you tend to see lately in your local city plaza attended by fewer than ten people, most of whom look like unwashed hippies. FAME, in contrast, was crowded. Approximately six different sessions ran at any given time, and there were enough translators and earphones to accommodate several languages. Whatever might be said about the political ideologies behind the event, the popularity and organization of it was impressive considering it relies entirely on donations for its funding.
While WWF6 attempts to be apolitical, FAME definitely has an agenda, which is both its most positive and most negative feature. I was pleased to see corporations banned from attending. I also felt it was valuable to hear speakers who critiqued the system and institutions that are root causes of water problems. We can complicate the issues as much as we like, in conference session after conference session, with jargon and gobbledegook, but surely few will deny that many nation’s water problems are ultimately blamable on institutional failures. So why aren’t more people at WWF6 openly discussing this?
I heard Mikhail Gorbachev during his WWF6 speech criticize our world economic system for putting too much faith in laissez faire market mechanisms – but questioning the system in this way was rare, and it took a communist to do it. Most people at WWF6 surprise me by appearing to believe that more market innovation alone, merely a few more clever ‘solutions,’ will overcome a problem as deep-rooted as how the world manages and shares water. Since our water problems are clearly systemic and structural, why is it difficult for most people to admit that challenging the system, that protest, or even rebellion, might be legitimate and necessary?
On the negative side, the political agenda of the speakers at FAME, while initially refreshing for its candid attack on First World greed and institutions, soon became tiring. As I listened to speaker after speaker, images of Che Guevara and quotes from the Communist Manifesto mysteriously started to float into my head. Much of what was being said soon started to remind me of socialism. Speakers kept echoing one another in their unquestioning support for public sector control of… well, almost everything. And conversely, privatisation consistently popped up in their talks as the villain behind all water problems. Forget bad governance or war in sub-Saharan Africa, privatisation is causing all the world’s water problems. Really? I wasn’t convinced.
The speakers at FAME impressed me with the depth of their knowledge about individual countries. Additionally, I was impressed by the valid criticisms regarding the World Bank and its failure to use its power and funding to improve access to safe drinking water for people in developing countries as urgently and effectively as is needed. However, speakers’ knowledge of basic economics struck me as falling well short of what I expected from discussions about an issue that is inextricably linked to economics. I have read some Karl Marx, but had any of these presenters also read Frederick Hayek or Milton Friedman? Not likely from the way I heard them talk about the economy. I soon felt like the most widely read person on economics, which is a major concern considering the paucity of my economics knowledge!
The great benefit of WWF6 is that you leave with a lot of valuable new knowledge. You get to listen to experts from a variety of fields who you might never otherwise have the opportunity to learn from. FAME, on the other hand, felt like nothing more than a long political lecture at times. Though lots of selected ‘facts’ were brought to bear, the talks were clearly more didactic than informative.
Despite all of the shortcomings of the alternative water forum, I think a statement needed to be made against the hypocrisy of the 6th World Water Forum. It reminds me of a quote from a very rebellious individual from history who even challenged an empire. I think his name was Ghandi or something like that – you might have heard of him – and he said that we should: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We at WWF6 cannot hope to gain support for the ‘solutions’ we pontificate about as long as we use water as a convenience and amusement at the very conference we preach from. Challenging the Forum in as brazen a manner as FAME has done may seem radical, but we should recall that many of the greatest leaders in history were rebels.
I argue that it is not only right for me to discuss the alternative forum in this blog – but that it was an obligation. Journalistic integrity aside, we have a responsibility to criticize institutions and structures that repeatedly discuss ‘solutions’ but refuse to provide the money needed to implement them, while all the while poor people in the world die of dehydration, diarrhoea, and illnesses that result from lack of access to water and sanitation. In a world where you and I may enjoy relative prosperity, while 25% of the world’s population live on less US $1 a day, we ought to be prepared to criticize. Yet often all I read and hear about the WWF6 is how inspired people are; we should shun this self-indulgent ‘feel good’ kind of attitude. I am the first to admit the many faults with FAME. But I think it is simply too easy to lampoon it and be dismissive, while I am sure we would be bigger people if we looked at the alternative forum as an opportunity for some honest self-reflection on our part.
I want to conclude by bringing us back to what was said at the very beginning of the 6th World Water Forum at the opening ceremony when young Malians Mai Walette and Sid Ahmed AG Ahmouden said:
“But since you have been saying everywhere that in Marseille, you would not only talk but finally bring solutions, we have come to collect them. I am referring to true and real solutions, not just rhetorical speeches which are forgotten as soon as they are applauded [my italics]… I am talking about acts which will ease access to water for us too… You claim you have solutions? Then so much the better. Bring them, but listen also to ours. And promise that you are going to commit yourself to implement them. Promise that tomorrow, not in one hundred years from now, not even in ten years, but tomorrow, there will be no schools without drinking water taps and latrines in my country.”