Violent Protesters Disrupt Conference on Preventing Conflicts Over Water

By Eliza Strickland | March 16, 2009 3:19 pm

Aral SeaSeveral hundred stone-throwing protesters disrupted the opening of the World Water Forum, an international gathering in Istanbul designed to address the growing demand for fresh water, and to find ways to avert conflicts over the limited resource. Outside the meeting riot police clashed with stick-wielding protesters, eventually using tear gas and water cannons to break up the protest. The police also arrested 17 activists who tried to enter the meeting hall.

The need for new environmental policies was highlighted last week when the United Nations warned that nearly half of the world’s people will live in areas with acute water shortages by 2030. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said water scarcity is a “potent fuel for wars and conflict.” Water shortages have been named as a major underlying cause of the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan. Water is also a major issue between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the states of Central Asia, one of the world’s driest places, where thirsty crops such as cotton and grain remain the main source of livelihood [Reuters].

But the protesters denounced the meeting as a front for multinational companies seeking profits and promoting privatisation…. They say that the council, aided by the World Bank, has driven projects that have raised water costs and worsened scarcities in the developing world [The Guardian].

Chile has provided the starkest example of how water privatization can leave poor citizens without access to the vital resource, as water resources are considered private property in Chile and can be traded with little government oversight. Private ownership is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up 80 percent of the water rights in a huge region in the south, causing an uproar. In the north, agricultural producers are competing with mining companies to siphon off rivers and tap scarce water supplies, leaving towns like [Quillagua] bone dry and withering. “Everything, it seems, is against us,” said Bartolomé Vicentelo, 79, who once grew crops and fished for shrimp in the Loa River that fed Quillagua [The New York Times].

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Image: flickr / giladr

  • Mark Hays

    I appreciate you covering the water forum in this blog – not much of the US media is covering this event and the controversies related to the water forum. I am also glad that you mentioned the concerns of those challenging the Forum’s agenda promoting water privatization.

    However, I’m concerned by your depiction of the actions of the protesters here in Istanbul. Was your coverage based on your own observations? I was not there at the protest itself (I am here in Istanbul), but many of my colleagues were and saw the protest throughout. From their vantage point this is what they saw – between 100-200 protesters met by a force of police easily twice and half larger than the protesting group. While there were a few isolated incidences of rock throwing, the protest was largely peaceful – protesters held banners and placards, were singing and chanting, but were for the most part peacefully blocking the entrance to the Forum. It was only after a dialogue between a leader of the demonstration and the police force broke down did that dynamic change, and it was the police that made the first move. They used a water cannon on the protesters deployed from a massive anti-insurgent tank vehicle that drove forward into the crowd; they beat them with sticks, including a large number of women and children. The police were decked out in full riot gear, and were laughing during the protest. The protesters attempted to stand their ground, and only after the police used force did a few protesters respond. Finally, a large group of the protesters ran, followed en masse by the police. Many were detained, and those that you described arrested (about the right number) were a substantial number of women (who simply couldn’t run fast enough). As the police detained prisoners, they put several in ‘pain’ holds.

    All in all, it appeared to those here to be an excessive use of police force against a small, largely peaceful group in the midst of an expression of democratic dissent. Not to mention the incredibly high level of security at the Forum, the limited access to those from the developing world and those with little income but a huge stake in whether or not they can afford access to safe drinking water.

    Thanks again for your coverage – it’s important to make sure people get a full view of these actions here.

  • conference venues glasgow

    What are some good (low-cost) meeting spaces in Austin, Texas to accommodate 10-15 people?


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