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Water Wars, and Warriors, in Istanbul

March 2009

The opening day of the World Water Forum (WWF) in Istanbul was emblematic of the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the WWF.  The WWF, like the World Economic Forum, is a virtual country club. Dominated by multinational corporations like Veolia and Suez, international financial institutions like the World Bank, and governments, it is run by an unelected body, the World Water Council (WWC), which charges exorbitant entry fees and goes further to silence opposition by nefarious means.

Twenty-six Turkish civilians who were peacefully protesting the meeting were shot at with rubber bullets, arrested, and held overnight before being released. Grassroots International’s ally International Rivers’ staff Payal Parekh and Ann-Kathrin Schneider were arrested, detained overnight in jail and then deported (the alternative was a year in jail) for peacefully unfurling a banner “No Risky Dams” during the opening ceremony of the WWF.

As she unfurled the banner, Schneider had called the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey (which is located in Turkey’s Kurdish region), “a symbol of outmoded water and energy policies which destroy communities and the environment.” She went on to “call on the participants of the World Water Forum to embrace smarter and cleaner solutions that are readily available.” Some 80,000 people (mostly Kurds) would be displaced as a result of Ilisu.

One might fault the repressive reaction – not a plus as far as Turkey’s entry into the European Union is concerned – by the Turkish authorities as over-reacting to the “sensitive” Kurdish issue. The Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey has long waged a struggle for autonomy (or independence in the case of some) that has been brutally repressed. The Ilisu dam is further attracting opposition because, according to the Kurdish Human Rights Project, it would submerge the world renowned ruins of Hasankeyf.

But the overall silencing of dissident voices in the WWF goes beyond what the government of a host country might be blamed for. Numerous water justice movement activists that had gained entry into the official forum space having to pay $135.00 per day reported that they were not allowed to speak, raise questions, leaflet or otherwise make their opposition to the privatization prescriptions of the World Bank and the pro-privatization message of the WWF public.

The WWF space was crawling with police and intelligence officials. Outside, there were armed and uniformed police. Inside, it was mostly plainclothesmen that were quick to move and prohibit people who looked like activists from asking questions. More than one eyewitness report was circulating about how plainclothesmen were moving through the media room to monitor what was being written and posted.

A number of governments-Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela, among others-had been making a strong case for recognizing the human right to water in the ministerial declaration. The United States (a policy unchanged under the Obama administration), Brazil and Egypt were prominent opponents of the right to water language. Not having been able to reach consensus in the preparatory meeting in Paris, the decision on formally incorporating this language had been deferred to Istanbul. Curiously, the Chair of the Istanbul sessions, the Turkish Minister for Environment refused to let a discussion on the right to water take place.

Switzerland’s government joined the four South American countries in complaining that this was not appropriate procedure. The response they got was that this had not been cleared with the WWC, the convener of the WWF. This essentially means that an unelected body of vested corporate interests has to clear what elected governments can or cannot say! But if the ministers were found wanting the parliamentarians and local government officials were overwhelmingly in favor of the right to water (see part two). 

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