Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center
This dispatch was featured on the St. Louis Beacon's online publication on 3-23-09 as an Editor's Pick.
ISTANBUL, Turkey – An international gathering devoted to water's dominant role in global disease and health was rich in rhetoric and sparse on anything in the way of tangible policy breakthroughs.
But among the 25,000 people attending the 5th World Water Forum were some of the most passionate voices on water and sanitation, making a compelling case that for much of the world the travails of Wall Street matter far less than access to clean drinking water and sanitary toilet facilities at reasonable cost in money and time.
A UNESCO report released at the Forum captures the scale of the challenge: over 1 billion people who lack access to clean drinking water, 2.5 billion without flush toilets, 1.8 million deaths a year amongst children under five from diarrhea alone. That's 5,000 deaths a day, or one every 17 seconds.
The toll on children is more than that from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. And bringing that number down doesn't require any medical or scientific discoveries, just the political will and market ingenuity to bring proven, inexpensive technologies within reach of populations now without them – and in the process bring immeasurable improvement to the quality and productivity of their lives.
Over the next several days we'll be presenting voices of those engaged in this struggle, and the backgrounds of each, on Untold Stories. You can find the entire gallery – and join the conversation yourself! – at the Pulitzer Center's interactive web portal "Water Wars," a collection of reporting sponsored by the Center and links to other organizations committed to raising the visibility of water and sanitation issues. Several dozen schools and universities have joined the Water Wars discussion already. We welcome more – Email us at email@example.com and we'll get you signed up for this innovative (and free!) opportunity to engage people around the world on water issues.
One of those groups is Media21, a Geneva-based non-profit group that organizes workshops and field reporting for groups of journalists drawn from developing and developed countries. Here's Ed Giradet, one of the Media21 organizers, a specialist on Afghanistan and other conflict zones around the world, talking about the importance of bringing together journalists from different countries and backgrounds to explore complex issues like water. Bill Dowell, a former Time and Christian Science Monitor correspondent who has also worked in international communications for CARE -- and now writes for GlobalPost -- says initiatives like Media21 are even more important given the current crisis in traditional journalism.
The World Water Forum has taken place every three years since 1997. It began as a private initiative and still has the feel of a business/engineering trade show, with dozens of booths hawking water filtration systems, pumping stations and sanitation devices in a huge tent erected next to the brand-new Sutluce Congress and Cultural Center in a matchless location – on both sides of the Golden Horn, just north of the Bosphorus, with a pedestrian bridge, also new, that gave participants here plenty of water-view opportunities as they shuttled from session to session.
The United States and other countries were represented here mostly by mid-level development officials – no Hillary Clinton or Gordon Brown, for example. The private-sector World Water Council that stages the Forum has a ways to go, meanwhile, in terms of marshalling its message. The fee of 100 Euros a day kept many non-profits out and the exclusion of critics of business-based solutions to water and sanitation issues gave those critics an easy opportunity to bash the proceedings from the margins.
A few dozen protesters outside the security checkpoints last Monday provoked a heavy-handed response by Turkish police – clubs, tear gas and water cannon, plus the deportation of two protesters.
Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist pushing to make water a universal human right, was denied a spot in any of the official Forum sessions – but got plenty of visibility at side press conferences where she ripped "the Lords of Water" for privatizing the water and sanitation realm. She made a compelling case -- but it would have been useful, and certainly more instructive, to have made her part of a debate with someone like Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Security and Coooperation (OECD). Gurria made a persuasive case at one of the Forum panels that "free water" doesn't much help if it results, as so often happens, in no service at all to some of the world's poorest people - - most of whom would gladly pay a private supplier for reliable access to clean water and healthy sanitation facilities. Read the OECD's new water report.
Correction: The original post incorrectly stated that the total deaths from water and sanitation related disease is "more than the toll from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined." The statement is true only for children under 14, not adults (see Safer Water, Better Health (WHO) and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria). Corrections were made August 27, 2010.