IDS at the 6th World Water Forum, Marseilles

22 March 2012

The 6th World Water Forum took place last week in Marseille. The programme addressed a simple theme – Le temps des solutions which seemed rather bombastic given that solutions to addressing water and sanitation problems cannot come from a global forum in Marseille hosted by the World Water Council, an organisation with no official United Nations recognition.These instead clearly need to be context specific and stem from local communities who will have their own visions of water justice and sustainability.

Nylon water containers, India

Low key compared with the previous forums we have attended, unsurprisingly Rio+20 and the post Millennium Development Goal (MDG) world provided the backdrop for this event. Trendy concepts such as the green economy and the water-energy-food nexus were floating around. There was a widespread belief that we need to rethink and renovate the global water governance system. So how much was new and how much was old wine in new bottles? Some issues appear to be repackaged in new lingo – instead of large dams there were sessions on 'infrastructure' and we wondered what had happened to the conclusions of the 2000 World Commission on Dams report. Many donor organisations, such as the UK Department for International Development and the World Bank, were invisible. But the emerging economies, notably Brazil, Russia, China and South Korea were out in force with their stalls showcasing their water management expertise, raising questions about the future role of the established aid-academic-policy making environments in Europe and elsewhere in water debates.

Dams are also part of the so called 'green economy', discussions of which also dominated this Forum. Is the 'green economy' replacing 'sustainable development' as the new mantra? It is equally fuzzy and blanks out contestation, power and politics. Apart from the activists very few people were asking 'green for whom?' and 'how do we get beyond business as usual?' One refreshing change at this meeting was the mainstreaming of sanitation, evident from the high number of sessions on sanitation and even one on menstrual hygiene. There was also a significant presence of Palestinian academics, policymakers and activists highlighting the gross water injustices in Palestine. The other development we were pleased to observe was the mainstreaming of the human right to water. Ten years ago there was so much resistance to discussion of this right. Sadly though, the official Ministerial declaration still does not explicitly recognise the human right to water, no doubt due to the influence of Canada and the US, and their traditional resistance to socio-economic rights.

Not surprisingly, what will happen after 2015 was the topic of many sessions. It was interesting to hear speakers from the World Heath Organisation / Joint Monitoring Programme, WaterAid and elsewhere admit that the current water and sanitation indicators are inadequate. The current water MDG for example ignores water quality, sustainability, gender dynamics, regional variation and equity as well as rapidly growing urban and peri-urban centres which makes us think that last week's celebrations of meeting the water MDG were a bit premature. Finally, normative issues such as non-discrimination, equity and rights are on the agenda (and hopefully they will stay until the end).

IDS hosted a lively and reflective side event to launch the IDS Bulletin 'Some for All? Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation' featuring prominent players in water and sanitation, among them Kamal Kar (the pioneer of Community-led Total Sanitation), Tom Slaymaker (WaterAid) and  Archana Patkar (Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. The session reflected on pathways pursued (or not) since the since the 1990 United Nations conference and New Dehli Statement - ‘Some for All Rather than More for Some'. Panellists challenged the water and sanitation community to reflect on why the situation had not changed despite repeated global declarations and targets and why simplistic polarisations have failed to recognize the complexity and multi-dimensional aspects of water. While the new global consensus on the human right to water may provide a watershed in global citizens making claims on their governments to deliver on their rights much needs to be done in ensuring that the poorest of the poor are being reached and that exclusions and discrimination are eliminated. In the coming period, equity and sustainability should be given greater emphasis (over the achievement of 'numbers') in order to universalise access for all to water and sanitation.

Lyla Mehta, Jeremy Allouche, Harriet Dudley, Phemo Kgomotso and Alan Nicol

The authors are all with the IDS Water Justice Programme and the STEPS Centre.

Photo: Andy Johnstone / Panos