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Debating the drought

In Istanbul, Water Forum participants and protesters disagree on how to address the coming shortages.

A villager carries empty plastic containers as he walks through a dried water dam to collect water for his livestock in Lamongan, east Java province, Indonesia, on Aug. 20, 2008. (Sigit Pamungkas/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — The future of water may sound mundane as a conference topic, but it can inflame passions.

Turkey has tightened security for this week’s 5th World Water Forum, and insisted on maintaining tight control over which reporters gets to cover it. A similar conference three years ago in Mexico ended with riots in the streets.

Water is a polarizing topic. Maude Barlow, an activist who managed to get herself picked as senior advisor on water to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, is planning to join protesters here in Istanbul, despite the fact that the U.N. is a main sponsor of the forum.

Barlow and other opponents complain that the forum is slanted in favor of private companies who want to turn water into a business instead of a basic human right. Their suspicions are based on the fact that the World Bank and a number of private companies, such as Price Waterhouse, support the World Water Council, which coordinates the conference.

Commercial bottlers of water, such as Nestle, have added to concerns over privatization by buying up rights to bottled water in quantities that opponents insist could damage local aquifers. An attempt to allow Bechtel to privatize the municipal water of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, in 2000, ended in an open rebellion that eventually forced the government to reverse itself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, proponents of privatizing water argue that without incentives much of the infrastructure needed to provide safe water simply doesn’t get built. Bottled water, they argue, is the quickest way to provide safe water in places where it is difficult to get financing for more involved projects. And, finally, making the public understand the true cost of water is a crucial step to promoting badly needed conservation.