Activists rage against global 'water wars'

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Campaigners met in Florence this weekend to condemn the notion that water is a resource to be bought, sold and monopolised by wealthy nations and corporations.

Disgusted with a World Water Forum in Kyoto that they say is "one more celebration of market forces, capital and private investment," 1,000 campaigners and activists streamed into Florence to flesh out their vision of water as "the basic common good".

They have descended on the medieval castle in the city centre taken over last November by tens of thousands of participants at the European Social Forum.

The organisers say the forum showed that, "despite efforts over the past decade to discredit and marginalise alternative movements, their voices are part of a credible process".

Florence is a symbolic setting for the inauguration of the People's World Water Forum. Exactly 500 years ago, during a war between Florence and Pisa, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci planned to divert the River Arno from Pisa, hastening that city's defeat.

That was an early water war. But speakers at the forum voiced their fear that the world is now heading for an endless succession of such wars to control access to "blue gold". They believe that participants at the official Water Forum in Kyoto, also taking place this week, are committed to the control of water by governments and corporations – at the permanent expense of the Third World poor.

One speaker at the forum, Riccardo Petrella, a professor of political economy at Leuven University in Belgium, defined water as "the basic element of solidarity. Sharing water is not something you do for others to make yourself feel good – it's something that shows you have things in common with that person. You don't assert that solidarity until you see yourself as part of the same biological and territorial unit."

The oppositional, bipolar perspective of the Cold War, he said, has been replaced by a growing sense of the inevitability of war. "They say that water will be the next object of conquest by the year 2020, when the world's population reaches eight billion," he said. "But water is not 'blue gold'. Water is just water, the greatest common good. We don't have to believe in the World Bank's scheme of permanent belligerency."

The forum's goal is to implant the notion of "a right to water for all – a global good – as a principle recognised universally", and to fight against "all forms of privatisation and merchandisation of water". They want to see the setting up of a World Water Authority with judicial, legislative and sanction powers – not the "purely technocratic approach of the disputes settlement body of the World Trade Organisation".

The forum's goals were unwittingly endorsed by research published this week showing that tap water in Italy's major cities is as good or better than the mineral water on which millions of euros are spent every year.

Many of the Roman aqueducts built to bring "the basic common good" into the cities are still doing just that.