NEWS: Update from the World Water Forum

Dispatch from SSC President Jennifer Woofter

The 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, is in full swing. Keynotes, lectures, workshops, networking events, receptions – you name it, it’s here. But the real action seems to be in the streets, where the protests by global activists have the police in a frenzy.

The groups are a motley crowd of human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and government representatives (the UN “water czar” was reportedly joining the protests) – all of whom have come together to protest the commoditization of water (rather than the treatment of water as a human right). To be fair, the forum does discuss issues of privatization, technology, adaptation, and human rights – but critics say it favors the business world at the expense of those living at the bottom of the pyramid.

News reports say that somewhere between 150 and 300 people were in Monday’s protest, waving signs and banners, and chanting. They were met “forcefully” by riot police who used tear gas to disperse the group. Some protesters were also captured on camera using slings to propel rocks at the police. At least 15 people were held for questioning, and one policeman was injured. Some of the participants (ostensibly the peaceful protestors who were not involved with the rock-throwing) made it back to the forum for the afternoon session and vociferously voiced their protest at rough handling by police.

The police are not apologizing, the Water Forum officials have responded by saying that there are official ways to participate and voice disagreement (that does not, I suspect, involve waving banners on the street), and more protests are in the works. Word on the street is that the location of the protests will be moved, since the stifling police presence makes marching to the conference center impossible. Look in the coming days for protests at hotels where high-ranking officials retreat to discuss policy matters.

As for me, I’ve been advised to avoid certain parts of the city since protests can flare up at any time and the police are taking their responsibilities to protect the city’s honor very seriously. But with more than 27,000 people participating in the World Water Forum, avoiding a crowd in Istanbul this week is easier said than done.