Its true that Stockholm World Water Week (WWW) is without doubt one of the most significant events in the water conference circuit. It attracts over 2500 delegates (many of whom the foremost experts in their field) from over 100 countries. It’s clear and fairly obvious that amongst other things it’s an important forum for debate and the swapping of new ideas, scientific concepts and technical expertise. On the face of it this activity must make WWW a good thing though – right? Well yes, of course, in order to improve the quantity of those provided with clean water and sanitation and its quality its good that there are people and organisations working towards that goal, and WWW for getting people together to discuss such things must be given some credit.
Yet… the concentration on the technocratic can make WWW a flat and dispiriting experience. Especially, for those working towards the consideration of alternatives to the dominance of the current shade of politics and governance: yes the one that preaches self-interest and markets no matter the social and environmental impacts. Little analysis is given at WWW to the political systems, choices and policies that perpetuate the crisis of inequitable water allocation and lack of provision in the world. It is a very uncritical and unquestioning environment in this context… however, that’s not to say its not political – it is! It is a certain brand however, one that lingers beneath the surface….and which will be discussed below.
When reflecting about WWW 2008 it has taken me some time to grapple and think about what was taking place this week. Sadly the conclusions from this year mirror once again those of las year. Nonetheless, last year was still a bit simpler to report; a small group punched well above its weight with a great bit of activism and campaigning. Notably against Nestle, who were welcomed back this year again – I’m afraid a clear sign of where SIWI, (the organisers of WWW) stands and indeed overall where the WWW does too. At the final plenary Anders Berntell, the Director of WWW, took time in his speech to respond to criticisms of Nestles sponsorship, stating that as one of the worlds biggest food supplier’s it was important to engage with such companies. He omitted to speak of the legitimacy WWW welcoming Nestle gives their CSR strategy. Neither, unsurprisingly! did he raise the ‘slightly’ thorny, but true, issue of the ‘couple of elephants’ in the living room: that its because of the likes of Nestle seizing private ownership of land and freshwater and their driving up of demand and consumption that leads to people doing without water and the exploitation of people and the environment. But…I digress…i should explain the empty void that I often felt during my time in Stockholm.
This feeling was not what I hoped for. 5 days in a beautiful city, surrounded by islands and water researching a subject close to my heart was not meant to lead to feelings of weariness as I made my way from my hotel to the venue at Stockholm International Fairs. It was not just conference fatigue either. A clue to why my mood was what it was is found in the comments of Mr Berntell. For despite the technocratic nature of WWW it masks the underpinning ideology pervading throughout WWW in the conference halls, seminars, workshops, side events, discussions and public areas and as such that which is found in the very influential actors active in the water sector. It is the value system which avoids the politics of progressive alternatives: embraces the politics of free markets; supports the public bad private good ethos; often blames bad governance on – more often than not - public utilities; speaks and writes of corruption in countries of the south whilst ignoring that in the north (for instance there is nothing in the WIN report on corruption about the practice of overestimating costs and then overcharging customers in the UK which has led to prosecutions of some of the major privatised companies in the UK) and which lectures those suggesting progressive alternatives about being ideological dreamers and how they are merely ‘pragmatic’ realists .
However, it was one of these so called dreams – the Global Water Operator Partnership Alliance (GWOPA) process –that lifted this observer’s spirits! This process is not just simple idealism however, its purely common sense. To help address the MDG’s it is entirely rational and logical too, or at least try to, include the 90% or so of the worlds water utilities who are still public in doing so. Ideally, the GWOPA - borne from the concept of Public Public Partnerships - is also about tackling the scandal of unequal water allocation based on principles of social solidarity and cooperation, participation and democracy. There are clear dangers to such an initiative, especially as the Private Water TNC’s reconfigure and look for new markets and opportunities, but the hope and the light that GWOPA provide is something worth fighting for and clinging to. Nowhere during WWW was anybody or anything else discussing genuine participation by civic society in the form of trade unions, NGO’s, public utility manager’s (strikingly these managers were nowhere to be seen during WWW) or citizen participation. This is why when times are difficult and feelings of political impotency are omnipresent that we should and indeed have to carry on. Where else will the ideas and vision come from? Where else the alternatives to the current prevailing ideology and proposals? Where else the strength and the fight against private self interest and exploitation? I reminded myself of this when leaving WWW for the last time this week: and is why, ultimately, I left not dispirited but alive and re-energised: reactivated to the fact that it’s important to witness and to hear and to remind ourselves of the fight for what we are against but much more importantly of what we are for