The fifth World Water Forum opened on Monday in Istanbul, Turkey. Thousands of people are at the meeting - from heads of state and environmental and business leaders to scientists and activists - to discuss ways to manage and conserve the precious resource. The meeting comes as the United Nations warns of potential conflicts over water scarcity.
Water scarcity is one of the key issues dominating the Forum. Last week, the United Nations released its latest research on water, which paints a bleak picture of increasing demand and diminishing supplies.
UN report is wake-up call
Gerhard Payen is an adviser on water to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President of The International Federation of Private Water Operators - association that connects international organizations with private sector providers of water and sanitation services. He says the U.N. report is an important wake up call to the world.
"The reality today is that water scarcity is increasing in many parts of the world because of increasing usage and also partly due to climate change," Payen explained. "This is a reality. So easy water [i.e., easily accessible drinking water] is over. So in the future, we will have to manage water more carefully. There are potential conflicts. So if the governments don't care that conflicts will emerge, this is at local regional and international level. This is a collective responsibility; all of us have a role to play. We have to realize we are so numerous on this planet. Easy water is over."
Middle East is potential flashpoint
The Middle East, according to the U.N. report, is a potential flashpoint - particularly between Israel and its neighbors - because of dwindling water supplies.
Turkey, the host of the World Water Forum, is offering a solution that could help ease those tensions. The Turkish government is proposing to sell water to Israel from its eastern Mediterranean coast.
Dogan Altinbilek, the former head of the Turkey's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, is one of the architects of the plan.
"This is the most water-short area in the world. I have a stack of books at home on the topic of the water wars in the Middle East," he said. "There at least a dozen authors who mention that if there will be a war in the Middle East, it will be because of water. We [i.e., Turkey] will make a profit, but not a large amount [from selling and transporting water]. It is a resource that is really in short supply and we are going to make available."
The project is still in the planning stages with discussions over security, logistics and cost under way with Israel. However, some experts have raised environmental concerns over the plan. The commercialization of water and the role of the private sector is a major issue at the forum.
Protesters disagree with water 'privatization'
Outside the World Water Forum, hundreds of protesters demonstrated against what they call the "privatization" of water. Critics of the Forum accuse it of being too closely associated with business interests.
An alternative forum set up by dozens of non-governmental organizations is expected to open in Istanbul later this week.
Mark Hayes of Corporate Accountability International says water privatization offers no solution to the world's water problems.
"Right now, if you look at how water policy has played out over the past 10 or 15 years, these private companies working closely with the World Bank, working closely even with some parts of the U.N., have really dictated the agenda," Hayes said. "And the result has been privatization fiascos in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa as well as the growing trend toward commoditization of water, where there is a huge explosive growth in the bottled water market. So they have had their chance - privatization can solve this problem. And it's pretty clear, even from their own sources, that it is not a panacea."
Role for private, public sectors in finding solution
The role of the private sector in helping to deal with the growing challenges of conserving and delivering safe water to the world's population is another key issue at the forum.
Gerhard Payen of The International Federation of Private Water Operators says there is a role for both the private and public sectors. He adds that pragmatism should triumph over ideology.
"Today there is a divide between 3.5 billion people who have access to tap water and the other three billion who have no access to tap water - either at home or in the immediate vicinity," Payen said. "There is a big divide in the world between those who benefit from the public water service and those who don't benefit from it. In the past 15 years, the private sector has provided access to water to 25 million people or more. So the issue today is: When do we want that all people get safe and reliable access to water? This is the main issue. For those people, the most important thing is access to water."
The World Water Forum also offers a week-long venue for government representatives. These meetings are being held behind closed doors, away from the main venue.