A look at the programme of World Water Week here in Stockholm shows a large number of sessions hosted by financial heavyweights such as the World Bank and other development banks (and water-specific organizations set up by these banks) as well as northern aid agencies like USAID. Corporate lobbies are here in full force, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and Aquafed. Civil society is poorly represented except for wealthy US environmental NGOs such as Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Those directly involved in providing water, particular public utilities, are remarkably under-represented among the event organizers, whereas international thinktanks like the Global Water Partnership and the World Water Council, frequently criticised for their neoliberal, pro-privatisation leanings, are co-hosting many events. One reason for this imbalance is the heavy fees charged by the Stockholm Water Week for seminars and other events. I experienced this myself as the costs were a real hurdle for groups from the Reclaiming Public Water network to engage in co-organizing seminars at the Stockholm World Water Week. We did in the end manage and are co-organisers of the seminar on 'Pro-Poor Urban Water and Sanitation Provision: how can it be supported by participation, benchmarking and WOPs', which take place today, Monday 22 August.
In any case, the dominance of the programme by the most wealthy interests is a threat to Stockholm Water Week as an open space for debate about solutions to the water crisis. And also this year the conference has a large number of corporate sponsors, including many technology and engineering consultancy firms. Disturbingly, among the sponsors, as in previous years, is also Nestlé which is involved in water grabbing for its bottled water business in many countries around the world. Choosing Nestlé as a sponsor sends a very bad signal.
Luckily, during my first day at Stockholm Water Week I have heard several good speakers and had many good conversations with participants that are deeply engaged in work to promote the human right to water and sanitation and secure water provision for the poorest. And while it’s too early to draw conclusions, I have the feeling the tone of the debates in Stockholm has improved compared to previous years, with less focus on private sector expansion and more on genuine solutions. Perhaps this is a positive influence of the two UN resolutions for the human right to access to water and sanitation passed during the last year (in the general assembly and human rights council)?