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Last Updated:  Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 19:33 GMT
Water forum 'giant talking shop'
By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent

After eight days of discussions involving 12,000 participants, mountains of paper and lakes of coffee, beer and sake, the Third World Water Forum ended with this ringing endorsement from the World Conservation Union:

Sake, AFP
A sake toast - but what about the water?
"The (ministerial) declaration will have virtually no impact on national policies. There is nothing in the text which will make a difference."

International conferences are often described as talking shops. Not this one. It was a giant talking hypermarket.

Spread over three Japanese cities - Kyoto, Osaka and Shiga - the Forum brought together a vast army of water professionals, companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), bureaucrats and ministers.

'Model of blandness'

Demonstration, AFP
What they said about the final declaration
The ministerial declaration could have been a blueprint for averting further human suffering caused by inadequate water supply and sanitation; instead, it is marked by reticence to put protection and ecosystems first
Worldwide Fund for Nature

They were turning their collective minds to the practical steps needed to alleviate the chronic shortage of clean water and sanitation facilities faced by billions of the world's poor.

Inevitably their deliberations were overshadowed by the dramatic events beamed through to delegates on screens throughout the various venues - as it happens, from one of the most water-stressed regions of the world: Iraq.

But even if the world's attention had not been occupied by war, would the forum have merited more interest than it actually achieved?

In terms of solid outcomes, almost certainly not. The six-page declaration agreed by ministers on the final day is a model of blandness, at best repeating commitments made at previous conferences and in some respects moving backwards.

Big projects

What frustrates environmental groups here is the scant attention paid by ministers to the importance of using natural environments to conserve the supply of fresh water - with the emphasis instead on big building projects such as dams and pipelines.

Jamie Pittock, of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, commented: "We have to ask how credible a forum like this is, when governments do not draw on the 12,000 water specialists gathered together to identify common sense solutions to water problems, but instead continue to promote massive infrastructure as the sole solution to the world's water crisis."

So has the whole thing been a waste of time and money? Well, not completely.

It would be a pessimist indeed who did not believe that amongst the thousands of discussions, formal and informal, amongst such a huge array of water experts, some practical solutions will be taken back to communities around the world and put into practice.

Route map

And there are some signs that the often sterile arguments about the involvement of the private sector in water services and finance are moving on.

Demo, AFP
Even in Kyoto there was no escaping Iraq
Some NGOs seemed wrong-footed during the forum as they launched attacks on their enemies in institutions such as the World Bank for advocating wholesale privatisation of water - only to find that that the Devil had moved the goalposts.

Even the most market-oriented participants now concede that the vast majority of services to poor communities will continue to be provided by the public sector, partly because those water companies venturing into the developing world have often had their fingers badly burned and have suffered financial or reputational disasters.

There was also agreement at the forum that the 40% of the world's population who live in river basins shared by more than one country required their governments to come to sensible arrangements with one another on how to share out the water - though of course that is easier said than done.

Some had hoped that the forum would set out a coherent route map for the world to follow in order to avoid a growing crisis in the availability of fresh water. What emerged was a confused set of directions on the back of an envelope.

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