Developing countries rich in water resources could become scenarios of war similar to what is happening today in Iraq if water continues to be privatized and sold like any other merchandise or "good", warned Leonardo Morelli, the organizer of the Social Water Forum, taking place in Brazil.
"Today war is being waged over oil, tomorrow it will be for water," Morelli, who is also the coordinator of the Brazilian Shout for Water Movement, told IPS in a telephone interview in a break in the debates and seminars that have drawn activists from around South America this week to Cota, a city on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.
Conflicts on a planetary scale could arise from the fact that the developing South has the world's greatest reserves of freshwater, while "those who have the money are in the industrialized North," he augured.
Morelli pointed out that Israel has just 500 liters of water a year per person, while in Brazil and Paraguay the average is 10,000 and 63,000 liters a year per person, respectively.
Water, a "patrimony of humanity," must not be governed by market forces, but by public systems based on the concepts of cooperation and solidarity, due to the possibility of growing shortages caused by pollution and the wasteful use of water, he argued.
Control over Iraq is strategic not only because of the country's oil reserves, but also due to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which make that country important in a region with scarce sources of water, noted U.S. writer Norman Mailer in an article on the Iraq crisis published earlier this month by the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.
The Social Water Forum and similar gatherings in the northern Italian city of Florence, New Delhi, India, and New York are being held as sort of counterpoints to the third World Water Forum, which opened Mar. 16 in Kyoto, Japan.
Some 10,000 experts and representatives from 160 countries, international bodies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are taking part in the World Water Forum in Japan, which ends on Mar. 23.
The parallel social forums, organized by environmental groups and social movements, are being held to protest the approach taken by the Kyoto forum and to defend water as a human right and a common resource, whose management must be under public control.
The roughly 400 experts and delegates of NGOs participating in the Social Water Forum in Brazil have been discussing the social issues that arise in the global debates on managing water.
The participants maintain that clean and affordable water for all is a human right, and that water management must be environmentally sustainable and socially fair.
Prevailing at the Kyoto meeting, on the other hand, are financial aspects, "the economy-based focus of the World Bank," like the idea of charging user fees and thus controlling water consumption, Morelli criticized.
That approach was confirmed, he said, by the Moroccan government's decision to reward the King Hassan II Great World Water Prize, which includes an award of 100,000 dollars, to the president of Brazil's National Water Agency, Jerson Kelman, at the third World Water Forum.
According to the prize-givers, Kelman led the effort to put together a legal and institutional framework for an integrated water resources management system in Brazil.
But Morelli complained that what the National Water Agency did was to introduce a water management model that favored powerful economic players, at the expense of environmental and social aspects, and allowed power plants to use too much water, thus triggering the 2001 energy crisis.
It also allowed transnational corporations to gain control over underground water, which they sell as mineral water, while the Brazilian population must make do with surface water, which is far more exposed to pollution, he added.
The Social Water Forum is promoting a plan for mobilization by civil society in defence of water sources that Brazil shares with neighboring Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, such as the Amazon jungle rivers and the Rio de la Plata.
The plan also covers the Guarani aquifer, one of the world's largest water reservoirs, which extends from south-central Brazil to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (the four countries that make up the Mercosur or Southern Common Market trade bloc).
The idea is to promote coordinated actions by a network of social and environmental groups from the Mercosur nations as well as the eight countries that share the Amazon jungle, and file complaints with the International Court of Justice in the Hague over serious violations of the right of all living things to water, said Morelli.
One illustration of the problems caused by the privatization of water was a series of social protests in the central Bolivian department of Cochabamba between Apr. 4-11, 2000, in which several people were killed and almost 200 injured.
Peasant farmers in Bolivia who depend on irrigation to grow their crops took to the streets to protest a government decision to grant a 40-year privatization contract over all water sources to a private company, Virginia Amurrio, one of the leaders of the Cochabamba Federation of Irrigators, told IPS by phone from Cota.
The privatization allowed Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of the giant Bechtel corporation, to charge fees for the water consumed, at prices pegged to the dollar, to which a tax was added. That led to an immediate skyrocketing of utility fees, which climbed by as much as 200 percent in some cases.
In a country where the minimum wage is less than 100 dollars a month, some families were paying 20 dollars a month in water bills.
The protesters also complained that the privatization "failed to respect the rights and customs of the local communities that depended on irrigation," said Amurrio.
The protesters blocked roads and engaged in "fierce battles" with the police until the law on Potable Water and Sanitation, which authorized the privatization, was repealed and replaced by legislation that guaranteed life-long access to water resources for the roughly 15,000 peasant families in the region.
Women, who bear the main responsibility for fetching water in that region, took part in organizing the protests. In the confrontations with the police, they "joined the fray with slingshots, stones, and even biting," when they saw their men "being injured or killed," said Amurrio.
But small farmers in Bolivia must now fight another threat, a law on national parks, under which private companies could be granted concessions to administer and exploit natural resources, including water, she lamented.