Where ever there is a conference to talk about poverty, you can normally find luxury hotels full of delegates. Mexico is no different as the Fourth World Water Forum kicks off today.
The city is full of international delegates from around the world making emotional speeches about the three thousand nine hundred children who will die by the end of today due to unclean drinking water who then head to their hotels to drink imported French mineral water with their sumptuous dinners.
I have come with a delegation from Bolivia, but even though I am surrounded by endless posters and booklets of water droplets, waterfalls, kids playing in rivers, it still at times needs some effort to remember why I am here. The reality of the 200,000 people who live on my doorstep in Bolivia who still don't have drinking water and who have led massive rebellions to end disastrous water privatisation experiments can seem very far away.
There are two people I particularly want to remember while I am here:
Señora Samtusa, a leader in one of the exposed districts of El Alto that sprawls above La Paz who I met one cold windswept day. She showed me her well, where she still extracts water from a bucket, which in her small garden lay dangerously close to the dug-out toilet. During rainy season, waste seeps into her well. Not surprisingly, her children are frequently unwell with diarrhoea.
Later that day I met a young doctor, Rosalba Gonzalez, a young woman doctor who is only 27 but runs a small clinic nearby. Even her clinic doesn't have running water, and Rosalba frequently uses her own salary to buy medicines for impoverished residents who can't afford to treat the water-related illnesses that frequently affect their health. I remember her looking exhausted as she told me about her work and wondering how she managed to struggle on.
Fortunately to counterbalance spending time with delegates who in their daily lives take clean water for granted, I have found myself joining a delegation of Bolivian civil society and now government leaders who have led struggles for water.
Head of our delegation is Abel Mamani, who was appointed the new (and the very first) Minister of Water by Evo Morales in January this year. Up until last year, however he was a leader of an incredibly well-organised and political residents association in El Alto who led protests to throw out its privatised water utility, Aguas del Illimani.
The residents association took a position against Aguas del Illimani, not for ideological reasons but the very practical reason that privatisation failed to deliver clean water.
El Alto's water was privatised as a result of World Bank conditions for debt relief in 1996. Under a highly untransparent process, its water supply was handed over to a French water multinational, Suez which had formed a consortium with a few other companies.
Privatisation has been strongly promoted by the World Bank and IMF in the last years as the solution to the problems of lack of access to water with the promise that it would lead to foreign investment. Instead it has proved to be yet another disastrous World Bank experiment.
Suez was guaranteed 13% profits, yet failed to meet its limited commitments to extend the water network or to invest in the infrastructure. The company became renowned for poor quality work, worsening environmental contamination, and registering foreign aid as its own investments.
After seven years, the residents had had enough. In a series of strikes which paralysed the city in early 2005, they forced the then-Government of President Mesa to initiate the end of the contract with Suez.
Now Abel Mamani who led the protests is here at the Forum to share his experiences born out of the reality of Bolivia. In a Forum where private water companies like Suez, Thames Water and institutions like the World Bank dominate, it will be a difficult job to be heard. After all, the very President of the World Water Council, Loic Fauchon works for a subsidiary of Suez.
But it is a voice of experience against a voice of unthinking ideology. It is also a voice that can be increasingly heard as water movements have scored victories around the world: revolts in Santa Fé Argentina, referendums for water in Uruguay, reclaimed water utilities in Grenoble, the appointment of a Minister of Water in Bolivia with a commitment to public water.
Over the week, we hope that this blog can be a voice for their struggles.