World Mayors Propose Urban Water Declaration

Chinese drought

Ankara, Turkey's capital and second largest city, dried up last summer. Faced with low rainfall and a shrinking reservoir, the city of 4 million resorted to water rationing. Hospitals delayed surgeries. Stray dogs died in the streets. Mayor Melih Gokcek asked residents to "wash your hair, not your bodies" and came under heavy criticism for alleged water mismanagement.

In an effort to be better prepared for future droughts as well as the catastrophic dry spells expected to accompany climate change, Turkey's leaders and the World Water Council (WWC), a multi-stakeholder group based in Marseilles, France, are proposing a global declaration on urban water management strategies.

Authorities from nearly 40 cities met last week during World Water Day to draft the declaration, known as the Istanbul Urban Water Consensus. The statement recognizes the likely damaging effects of climate change on urban water resources and calls on governments to properly fund adaptation plans. It encourages authorities to improve water availability through technological solutions, land-use reform, and greater collaboration with the business sector. The agreement also outlines specific targets, such as asking cities to set goals for preventing water loss and improving water treatment.

"The current state of urban water resources is generally considered unsustainable in all countries due to long-term non-synchronized development and piecemeal solutions to problems," the declaration says.

The declaration is expected to be ready for signature by October. In 2009, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas will ask his counterparts around the world to adopt the statement at the fifth World Water Forum, a conference of industry, governments, and nongovernmental organizations to be held in Istanbul in March. "The attempt is to get as many mayors of cities as possible to sign on to a document saying...for water to have a greater priority," said Dani Gaillard, the forum's coordinator. "There's a need for much more political commitment with respect to water issues."

A quarter of the world's low income populations lack access to at least 20 liters of dependable water on any given day, a common measure of water poverty, according to the World Bank. Warming temperatures are melting glaciers that supply water for millions of people and changing weather patterns that affect water demand and supply. In its recent assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted, "it is very likely that negative impacts on sustainable development cannot be avoided."

A heightened focus on the public sector's role in water governance follows years of international financial institutions and governments supporting the opposite tactic: water privatization. But after escalating anti-privatization protests, including violent demonstrations at the last World Water Forum in Mexico in 2006, multinational corporations controlling water access is "no longer viewed as an acceptable approach," said Nancy Alexander, former director of the Citizens' Network on Essential Services, a populist advocacy organization.

Instead, public-private partnerships are growing in popularity. In these agreements, private companies help provide initial investments and manage water services, but the government retains control of the resource itself. Largely due to growing investments in China, the proportion of private water operators is expected to grow from 19 percent in 2007 to 30 percent by 2016, according to Swiss analyst firm Sustainable Asset Management. The Istanbul forum will hold several meetings on this topic, Gaillard said.

Public-private partnerships could help meet many of the declaration's goals if water is properly valued. Water must be priced so that all residents can afford it, while also ensuring it will not be depleted, said Piet Klop, a World Resources Institute senior fellow. He cited South Africa as a good example.

"They managed to combine the idea of private management of water supplies with coverage, including the disadvantaged and people without access," said Klop, a former economist with the Netherlands' Department of Environment and Water. "That's what it's all about. You want efficiency, fairness."

Alexander said to reach its goals, World Water Forum participants should be realistic about the unwillingness among both municipalities and private industry to fund risky water projects. "In the past they have not been forthcoming about the depth and extent of problems," she said. "The technocrats are always looking for the right answer instead of working in a democratic fashion to let the citizens do what they want."

Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.