London — Often accused of lacking solutions, anti-privatisation activists are keen to show alternative ways to manage and deliver services
It would be easy to think last week's water talks in Marseille, France, were dominated by a single, crude dynamic: while government and business leaders discussed concrete plans to increase access to water and sanitation at the corporate-friendly World Water Forum (WWF), anti-privatisation activists gathered at the Alternative World Water Forum (FAME) to denounce the role of big business in the world's water services with a steady stream of criticism.
This supposed dynamic, after all, fits neatly into the well-worn narrative of "slick official summit" versus "unruly counter-summit".
In part, this is hard to avoid: like most high-level conferences, the WWF was largely a "show-and-tell" affair, following closed-door meetings where would-be delegates negotiate the terms of declarations and commitments which are then unveiled at the big event. In contrast, FAME was a messier "democracy-in-action" undertaking, objecting both to the outcomes of the WWF and to the process by which decisions are made.
FAME's final declaration, for example, was not prepped in advance and has yet to come out - though it was debated in Marseille, it now needs to be brought to local organisations for further discussion before trickling back up and out. This is, depending on your position, a good thing - but it also helps bury the alternatives suggested by the global water justice movement, and makes it seem as if passionate criticism is the only thing on offer.
For his part, Loic Fauchon, head of the World Water Council, seemed keen to promote this supposed dynamic, deftly dismissing the Alternative forum as insignificant at best and harmful at worst. It's time, he said, to move beyond debate and towards "practical solutions" - at least out of respect for those waiting for access to essential services.
But not everyone is "waiting" for solutions to come to them. In Jakarta, activists are challenging the city's private water operators in hopes of bringing water back into public hands.
In Thessaloniki, citizens are contesting the government's plan to sell-off the city's water utility, proposing that citizens pool resources to compete with global water companies to buy the utility themselves. Italians, having rejected plans to privatise their water services in a referendum last summer, are looking for new ways to further democratise the management and delivery of public services.
With dozens of water concessions up for renewal in France this year, public water advocates are hoping for nationwide change following the re-municipalisations of water systems in cities such as Paris. And in cities around the world - including Buenos Aires and Arequipa, Peru - public water operators and NGOs have pooled resources, buying power and technical expertise in "public-public partnerships".
Two new books seek to challenge the claims that anti-privatisation activists present infinite criticisms but few alternatives.
Launched in Marseille last week, Remunicipalisation: putting water back into public hands, looks at how unequal access, unkept investment promises, environmental hazards, and scandalous profit margins have prompted cities around the world - including Paris, Buenos Aires, and Dar es Salaam - to regain control of their privatised water services.
Alternatives to Privatisation: public options for essential services in the Global South, which will be launched in London this Friday, is a broader global survey of alternatives in the water, energy, and health sectors, looking at cases in 40 countries.
Earlier this month, the UN announced that the international target to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water had been met, five years before the 2015 deadline.
If correct, this would still leave 783 million people worldwide without access to safe water, while billions continue to lack basic sanitation. There is no doubt that significant investments will be needed to meet these needs.
Companies argue they are best-suited to fill the funding gap, but time after time, privatisation, and the more innocuous-sounding "public-private partnerships", have meant that corporations reap high profits while governments and local communities are left to shoulder significant social and environmental risks.
All heads are now turned towards Rio+20, the UN conference on sustainable development in June, and some particularly heated debates have already come to the fore.
This week, 22 independent UN experts warned that human rights obligations and accountability concerns could be sidelined on the road to Rio.
At the WWF, ministers released a controversial declaration which activists said focused on investment and new technologies while failing to reaffirm the UN declared rights to water and sanitation.
Debates on the "green economy", and the "financialisation" of water and other natural resources, continue to rage. But, it seems, a key distinction between last week's WWF and FAME meetings is how decisions on water policy and the future of essential services should be made.
There is growing discontent, for example, with the centralised power structures in which "solutions" are often proposed and top-down, one-size-fits-all, blueprints devised. So will Rio+20 be another game of "show-and-tell" or will we see a bit more of that unruly "democracy-of-action"?