Debating the drought

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.

Water is an especially sensitive issue for Turkey, which sells water to Syria and Iraq, but has problems supplying many of its own towns and cities. While Istanbul prides itself on being a city built on water, conference participants were advised against drinking water from their hotel taps.

“We know it is a problem, but you really don’t notice it in the cities,” said Chinese television journalist Manlin Xiang, one of 20,000 people, including 20 heads of state, attending the Forum.

For China and other developing countries, according to the U.N. report, “Water in a Changing World,” the future looks bleak. At least 60 percent of Chinese cities are now experiencing stress over water. According to the U.N.’s predictions, the world’s food supply could decrease by a third by 2030 as water becomes a scarcer commodity.

The U.N. report predicts that as the population explosion and climate change continue to put pressure on resources, the worldwide water crisis could eventually dwarf the current financial meltdown in terms of global disruption. According to the U.N., an estimated 2.8 billion people are now experiencing stress over water, but that figure is projected to increase to 3.9 billion by 2030. Roughly 80 percent of disease in developing countries and 10 percent of worldwide illness can be attributed to problems with access to clean drinking water.

A major focus at the Water Forum is the effect on health. An estimated three million people die from waterborne diseases each year, and about 5,000 children die each day — mostly from diarrhea. The figures are roughly equal to the total deaths from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, yet clean water only gets about 20 percent of the funding allotted to other health risks.

Many of the deaths are from poor or non-existent sanitation that pollutes the water that people drink. Jon Sauer, a spokesman for Washington-based Water Advocates, calls it the “no-plumbing” disease. The problem, as Sauer sees it, differs in different parts of the world. The U.S. is trying to cope with an out-moded, collapsing infrastructure, while much of the rest of the world has little or no infrastructure to deal with water at all. The absence of sanitation means that people are forced relieve themselves in the water they drink. In the U.S., in contrast, water is often simply wasted.

“Using fresh drinking water to flush a toilet is ridiculous,” said Sauer, “but 40 percent of the planet still doesn’t have a toilet. We all need to rethink this.”

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