The blue pearl necklace fell out of the corporate press pack like an unwanted christmas cracker toy. It was accompanied by a new-age sounding insert that explained that the necklace "represented the transparency and fragility of water, a crucial resource that needs our constant care."
The media pack was embossed with glossy photos of water works across the world and talked of dignity, tolerance, rights, progress and transparency.
Clearly the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico which has been condemned by activists as a front for promoting worldwide water privatisation is seeking an image change.
In fact the one word you won't hear very often is "privatisation" in the World Water Forum. Instead it's all talk about plurality, different models of water management, learning from each other.
Speaking in an opening press conference, Jose Luis Luege Tamargo, Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry of Mexico said: "No-one is trying to impose privatisation here. This forum is about debate and dialogue about the solutions."
To his right, Loic Fauchon the head of the World Water Council and head of a Marseilles-based subsidiary of the water multinational Suez nodded his head vigorously. Bizarrely during his speech, he had said: "At risk of angering people, we must say that mobile phones which we all have are good but drinking water is even better." Well glad that he has at least worked that one out...
Of course the change in language is a result of strong campaigning by global water activists who, through speaking out about the effects of water privatisation, have rightly given it a bad name. In the last World Water Forum in Kyoto in 2003, the proceedings were frequently disrupted by activists denouncing the pro-privatisation agenda of the meetings and saying water was a fundamental human right that shouldn't be governed by greed.
On the ground in various cities, companies like Suez have been thrown out by huge rebellions. In Bolivia US multinational giant Bechtel was thrown out of Cochabamba and Suez is in the process of being expelled from El Alto after both companies put prices up to unaffordable levels and tried to take control of communal water supplies. In France, Grenoble threw out its private water utility and then installed a municipal water authority with citizen involvement that now boasts some of the highest quality water and cheapest water rates in France.
Increasingly even pro-private sector advocates are admitting that privatisation of a basic resource like water doesn't work in poor countries. They find it hard to refute the argument made by Pablo Solón one of the advisors to the Bolivian Ministry of Water who says: "You can't make money from water in poor countries so companies only operate in districts which are profitable which leaves thousands without water."
Unfortunately that message still hasn't quite got home to institutions like the World Bank. Soon after Evo Morales was elected, the World Bank came to Bolivia filling the news papers with soundbites about how great it was to be working with a Government that shared the World Bank's vision of a "world free of poverty" and saying they recognised the huge democratic mandate the Bolivian Government had.
Yet in the first meeting with the Bolivian Ministry of Water, the World Bank categorically refused to fund a public water utility in El Alto, saying it would only fund it after two years of proving it worked. They remained impervious to any arguments such as the fact that 80% of the world's water services are run by public utilities, the complete failure of privatisation to work in El Alto, and the Government's practical proposals to produce a far more efficient and transparent utility than the private one.
There may be new people at the table in Bolivia, but for the World Bank the menu stays firmly the same.
It's also a menu that still firmly remains the ideological objective of many in the World Water Forum. Despite attempts to hide behind different rhetoric, it has taken surprisingly little time for people with considerable power to show their true agenda. In fact Jose Luis Luege, Mexico's environment secretary who said that the World Water Forum wasn't pushing water privatisation at the same time said he supported the idea of granting concessions for specific water projects to private firms. Giving projects to private companies apparently isn't privatisation.
A press release sent out by the World Water Forum still brazenly said that "Private participation is considered positive as regards water supply and sanitation in tourist areas (Mexico, Cuba and Uruguay) and for the treatment of wastewater (Mexico, Brazil, Colombia); in cities of Bolivia (La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba), Brazil (JundiaÃ, Limeira and Manaus)..." They could well have used a list of all the cities and regions that have seen the biggest protests in Latin America against water privatisation. You would find yourself hard-pressed to find any people in El Alto or Cochabamba who view water privatisation as "positive."
I also talked in one meeting to Bill Turner who said he ran projects for the US aid department, yet also runs a business, Waterbank, that "trades in water rights" and "facilitates privatisation of water systems" and claims to "bear powerful, behind the scenes, political influence to further transactions when necessary."
He unashamedly referred to water as a commodity, claiming that one of his projects to export water from Canada to California was being pointlessly blocked because otherwise "the river would be going to waste." Realising the extremeness of his comments, he retracted slightly but his agenda was frighteningly clear. In his world, it won't be long before there is "airbank" after all think of all that air going to waste that we don't use to breathe.
In many ways, water could be the apogee of a politics of liberalisation and privatisation, because movements of water activists have not just mobilised and raised consciousness and outrage at the thought of privatising a basic human need, but have succeeded in reversing specific privatisations. However it's clear that in the World Water Forum, that many in power have changed language but little of their ideology. No amount of trinkets should persuade us otherwise.