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Fourth World Water Conference Opens in Mexico City

The Fourth World Water Forum is underway in Mexico City with the stated intention of creating a plan for better managing the vital resource for all the world's people. But many experts fear there may not be enough for the world's growing population unless major steps are taken now.

The slogan of this conference is "Local Actions for a Global Challenge". The idea is to examine projects and programs worldwide that have succeeded and see how these might be applied globally.

About 11,000 water experts and government officials from 130 nations are in attendance, and many of them say the challenge of providing the world's people with sufficient water is a growing problem that could soon become a global crisis.

In his speech at the inaugural session, Mexican President Vicente Fox called for straight talk from delegates to develop a plan that will address the problem in an effective manner. He said the future of humankind depends on a profound change in attitude about water and how best to ensure that it is available for all who need it in the years ahead. President Fox said water is a public possession that all governments must guarantee.

The Mexican leader also quoted from the Popol Vuh, an ancient Mayan book, saying that what we do to water, we do to ourselves and the ones we love.

But experts say the water available to poor people around the world has decreased since the first World Water Forum was held in Morocco in 1997. Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, who also spoke at the opening of the forum, said continuous efforts by many people worldwide had produced, what he called, little progress.

Conference organizers say nearly 22 percent of the world's people lack clean drinking water and close to a third lack sanitation services. A U.N. report released last week put the number of people lacking potable water at more than one billion worldwide.

Contaminated water causes a number of severe health problems, ranging from common gastrointestinal disorders to deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid. Standing water is also a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that transmit malaria and other diseases.

Only one percent of the world's water is fresh and safe to drink, meaning that most of the water people use daily around the world must be purified for human consumption.

Governments have traditionally managed water resources, but private companies have entered the field in some parts of the world and governments have also sought private investment for major projects.

In addition, the worldwide market for bottled water has grown dramatically in recent years. Host country Mexico is the second-largest consumer of bottled water in the world, after the United States, but close to half of Mexico's population lives in poverty. Political activists say the companies that bottle the water are growing rich at the expense of poor peasants and slum dwellers who cannot afford to buy water.

As the Water Forum got underway, thousands of people from Mexican political groups as well as international non-governmental organizations took to the streets to protest what some described as the forum's goal of privatizing water resources and systems. Mexican officials denied that, saying that the reason for this meeting is to bring together delegates from around the world to ensure that water will be available to the world's poor as well as those who are better off.

The Fourth World Water Forum continues through this weekend with ministerial meetings and a Water Fair, where various agencies and non-governmental organizations can share ideas and technologies related to water. The forum is set to conclude on March 22.