World water war warning issued

Water is so scarce or polluted in some of the developing world that the poor might actually go to war to get their hands on it, say activists at a protest summit held in conjunction with the fourth World Water Forum here.

Gulf News

Mexico City: Water is so scarce or polluted in some of the developing world that the poor might actually go to war to get their hands on it, say activists at a protest summit held in conjunction with the fourth World Water Forum here.

That bellicose attitude might appear strange in rich nations, where water flows freely. But the precious liquid isn't nearly as accessible in the developing world.

Representatives of 130 nations are attending a series of meetings to discuss water management around the globe.

They have pledged to focus on the world's poor, many of whom live on less than 2 gallons of water per day one-thirtieth of the daily usage in some developed nations.

But those protesting at an alternative summit, also being held in Mexico City, say the official forum is little more than a cover for big corporations interested in selling bottled water and running water systems for profit.

Maria Cruz de Paz, a Mazahua Indian, told the alternative meeting that water wars are not merely an apocalyptic vision of the future.

She said she carried a rifle albeit a mock wooden one in angry 2004 protests that temporarily shut off part of Mexico City's water supply.

"Our wooden rifles are symbolic. They are symbols of the fact that we can still head off a war over water, there is still time to solve things through dialogue and compromise," Cruz de Paz told the alternative meeting.

The Mazahuas were angered "because pipes carrying water to the city cross our land ... but we didn't have a drop to drink". Others tell of similar struggles over a liquid most people take for granted.

"We've been beaten, we've been jailed, some of us have even been killed, but we're not going to give up," said Marco Suastegui, who marched alongside about 10,000 protesters outside a convention centre where the international fourth World Water Forum is being held.

Suastegui is leading the battle against a dam being built to supply water for the Pacific coastal resort of Acapulco. Opponents fear the dam will dry up the nearby Papagayo River.

"We will defend the water of the Papagayo river with our lives, if need be," Suastegui said.

Protesters organised the alternate forum miles away from the convention hall housing the official summit.

A small group of youths attacked a photographer and smashed a police car during an otherwise peaceful protest involving about 10,000 marchers, who chanted "no to privatisation".

Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of late French President Francois Mitterrand, noted that "French cities have rejected this model of private water management", despite the fact that many of the world's largest water companies are French.

"We are at an important moment, because everyone agrees that the current system of water management has failed," Mitterrand told the protest forum.

However, many of the battles over water in Mexico don't involve people who would otherwise be considered radicals.

Those on the front lines are residents of low-income neighbourhoods in Mexico City who get in fist fights over water-truck deliveries, or housewives who can no longer stand the stench of untreated sewage flowing beside their houses.

Local conflicts may flare-up

Local Mexico City legislator Aleida Alavez Ruiz says the conflicts may intensify, especially here in the capital, whose combination of floods and water shortages, urban sprawl, pollution and wasteful practices make it a sort of poster child for the world's water woes.

"It's getting critical, and if we don't recognise the problem now, when the dry season comes, the conflicts will get worse," Alavez Ruiz said of her district, where residents have fought over water trucks that make deliveries when tap water runs out.

Residents have to line up for hours to sign up for such a delivery, and tempers sometimes boil over when a neighbour tries to get water out of turn.

The concept of battles breaking out in the future over shrinking water supplies is gaining credence. Loic Fauchon, president of the non-governmental group the World Water Council, and a co-chair of the official water forum, has proposed the creation of a peacekeeping force to solve water conflicts as they erupt around the world. The force would be modelled after the UN "blue helmets".