At World Forum, Support Erodes for Private Management of Water 

      By ELISABETH MALKIN (NYT) 812 words
      Published: March 20, 2006

      MEXICO CITY, March 19 - For more than a decade, the idea that private 
      companies would be able to bring water to the world's poor has been a 
      mantra of development policies promoted by international lending agencies 
      and many governments. 
      It has not happened. In the past decade, according to a private water 
      suppliers trade group, private companies have managed to extend water 
      service to just 10 million people, less than 1 percent of those who need 
      it. Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to clean water, the United 
      Nations says. 
      The reality behind those numbers is sinking in. At the fourth World Water 
      Forum, a six-day conference here of industry, governments and 
      nongovernmental organizations, there is little talk of privatization. 
      Instead, many people here want to return to relying on the local public 
      utilities that still supply 90 percent of the water to those households 
      that have it. 
      There is a ''big-time shift'' in tone, said David Boys, a water policy 
      expert with the Public Services International labor federation. Mr. Boys 
      is a member of an advisory panel appointed by United Nations secretary 
      general, Kofi Annan, that presented its recommendations at the forum, 
      beginning with a call to strengthen local public utilities. 
      ''The companies have lost tons of dough and tons of respect,'' Mr. Boys 
      said. ''They are pulling out.'' 
      Nowhere has that been more evident than in Bolivia, where, in the city of 
      El Alto, residents have been fighting a subsidiary of the French company 
      Suez. The government is now negotiating for Suez to leave, arguing that it 
      did not extend service to people too poor to pay enough to make it 
      ''The water rates have to conform to reality,'' said Abel Mamani, an 
      activist from El Alto who is now Bolivia's new water minister. 
      An uprising in the city of Cochabamba five years ago chased out a 
      subsidiary of the United States company Bechtel after it raised rates but 
      failed to improve service. 
      Bolivian officials at the World Water Forum admitted that the old public 
      municipal water systems were mired in corruption, bureaucracy and 
      ''The solution is for the community to get involved in water management,'' 
      said Pablo Solón, an economic adviser to the government. 
      That kind of citizen oversight is already in place in many cities, like 
      Porto Alegre, Brazil, which created a permanent council of 12 citizens' 
      groups to oversee its water utility. 
      Even officials of the World Water Council, the organization that runs the 
      forum and is heavily weighted toward multinational water companies, appear 
      to be giving up on wholesale privatization. 
      ''Let's finance infrastructure for the 50 countries most in need and the 
      twenty poorest megacities through a more intense donation policy,'' said 
      Loïc Fauchon, president of the council, in his opening speech last week. 
      The debate over privatization is driving the controversy inside and 
      outside the forum, which ends Tuesday. Across town, international and 
      local groups held an alternative forum for activists opposed to 
      privatization, who are unconvinced that governments and organizations like 
      the World Bank have given up on the idea. 
      ''The state does not assume its responsibilities properly,'' said 
      Cuauhtémoc Abarca, a Mexico City activist. ''In many cases there is a 
      deliberate intention to show that public utilities work badly'' as an 
      excuse to privatize them. 
      For all the focus on privatization, much of the serious work of the forum 
      was rooted in heart-wrenching statistics. 
      One in three people in the world, 2.6 billion, does not have access to any 
      kind of toilet or latrine, according to a United Nations report to be 
      presented at the conference on Tuesday. 
      Water-related diseases cause more than three million deaths a year, mostly 
      of children younger than 5. Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, 
      estimates that women and girls in the poorest countries and regions walk 
      nearly four miles a day to carry water. 
      Only $3 billion in aid a year goes to improve water access and sanitation, 
      the United Nations World Water Development Report said, and very little of 
      that gets to the people who need it most. 
      But there was encouraging news, too, that local activists, even very young 
      ones, could make a difference. 
      ''We were scolded for being young people with big ideas,'' said Suresh 
      Baral, 13, who organized a sanitation club in his school in rural Nepal. 
      With help from Unicef, the children set up a microfinance program to help 
      villagers pay for installing toilets. 
      Dolly Akhter, 15, started a hygiene group for adolescent girls in her slum 
      in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many teenage girls stayed away from school, too 
      embarrassed by the lack of privacy for hygiene. 
      But when the group brought in new latrines, the girls returned and several 
      were able to avoid early marriages by continuing their studies. 
      As her news conference ended, she looked up and said in broken English, 
      ''I hope water for all in the world.''