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Dec 05 2008
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Securing the Right to Water—Challenges and Solutions in Asia

Reflections from the Organisers

From the 23rd to the 27th of September 2008, water justice activists, public water managers/operators, trade unions and academe from Asian countries met in Chennai, India. The delegates from 17 Asian countries, and representatives from networks in Europe and the Americas participated in the gathering called “WATER: COMMON GOOD, PUBLIC MANAGEMENT, AND ALTERNATIVES, Securing the Right to Water — Challenges and Solutions in Asia”.

This gathering was jointly organised by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSC), Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai, Change Management Group (CMG) of Engineers of Different Government departments in Tamil Nadu, Reclaiming Public Water Network, Transnational Institute and Focus on the Global South. This report is collectively written by Mary Ann (Focus on Global South), Suresh (Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies), and Satoko (TNI) with the aim to share the objectives, gains, and commitments from the participants, with the global water justice movement and different networks. The Asian regional meeting was mainly motivated by three things:
- First, there is a wealth of information, expertise, and experiences on ensuring equitable sharing of water resources and democratizing governance in the region, which can be tapped and shared with different groups—within and beyond the activist circles. The region is also facing serious water crisis—it might be uneven in countries but the crisis is real.
- Second, to further deepen the issues surfaced in the “Water Democracy”: Reclaiming Public Water in Asia publication and find a common foothold on alternatives.
- And third, the 5th World Water Forum, an arena and opportunity for social mobilizations, will be happening next year in Istanbul, Turkey.

A month before, the Americas regional meeting was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia . In the spirit of the Cochabamba meeting, we adopted the same title as the Americas gathering as a contribution to our collective effort of building alternatives and synergies, creating spaces of resistance and understanding each other, at the regional levels.

On-the-Ground Learning

In 2004, a unique experiment, `Democratisation of Water Management’ was initiated in the drinking water sector through the state run, Tamil Nadu Water Supplies and Drainage Board (TWAD) by creating new partnerships between water engineers and community. From 2006 onwards, the democratisation experiment has been continued in the irrigation and agriculture sector, led by the engineers of TWAD and a voluntarily created `Change Management Group’ of water engineers of Agricultural Engineering Department (AED). The 3-day Asian Colloquium was preceded by a field visit to the villages to meet with the engineers and community at the site of change.
Our activity began with visiting Vizhukkam village in Villupuram District on the 23rd. Vizhukkam village is one of villages chosen for bringing about convergence of about eight departments working on sustainable agriculture and water management in the IAMWARM project. The engineers belonging to the state wide Agricultural Engineering Department have initiated an innovative practice called WARRAM “Watershed and Agricultural Resources Re-engineering and Management”(gift in Tamil).

This was a creative and conscious move on the part of the Indian organisers to have a first-hand experience of the democratisation experiment before the three-day conference. The learnings and lessons from the field visit also acted as a springboard for the subsequent discussions.

After the visit in Villuapuram, the participants were divided into two groups to visit the villages of Endal and Pagalmedu, where democratisation of drinking water has gained ground.  All the participants had opportunities to engage with the villagers. While each participant got a different impression of the experiments, they, nonetheless, reached similar conclusions on their constant features. The Change Management Group (CMG) of TWAD put a lot of emphasis on the villagers’ voices and knowledge. This ‘change process’ which both the villagers and the engineers underwent have solved different aspects of water issues in villages and has resulted in positive improvements in people‘s quality of lives. Women’s’ participation in the process was not only obvious but also vital. For instance, women from the elderly to the young in Pagalmedu village are playing active roles in the process.

Establishing the Koodam

The meeting on the 24th with the Change Management Group (CMG) and the Project Director Vibhu Nayar at the Public Works Department building was an opportunity to learn the details of the democratisation projects and the philosophy behind them: the ‘koodam’. The koodam is a traditional Tamil forum or collective meeting place in which all have equal voices, regardless of social and economic differences in status, class, gender, and age. Establishing the koodam among different actors in the democratisation process is a fundamental principle and at its core is the concept of real democracy and peoples’ participation. 

At the same time, the koodam was the methodology that the engineers used for us to understand the different elements of the ‘change process’. The CMG Engineers guided us through their collective journey, especially their self-transformation. A key lesson from their journey was that water is more than an infrastructure project which needs huge investments, financing, and technology (which are basic prescriptions from International Financial Institutions); the main issue is changing water governance. The TWAD engineers’ declaration clearly supports this idea: “before taking up any new schemes, evaluate and rehabilitate first the existing schemes to the maximum extent”. This policy, which highlights the rediscovery of traditional wisdom in communities, directly contributes to improvements in water provisions often without increasing the budget or financing. Also, empowered communities contribute their labour, resources, and free time to make the water systems work and sustainable. 

The collective journey based on the koodam was a positive prelude to the three-day seminar  on the 25th to 27th at the Indian Institute of Technology.

Towards Mutual Understanding and Common Actions on Alternatives

The seminar primarily focused on existing and emerging water "alternatives" (to corporate-driven privatization and its various forms) and aimed to identify common issues and concerns among different water players in the region.  Before going to the details of the seminar, it is rather important to share a brief context and history viz. the global water justice movement.

The idea to organise an Asian regional seminar focusing on alternatives to water privatisation and commercialisation has been in the drawing board of the Reclaiming Public Water Network  since the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City in 2006, when water activists from around the world staged a very successful counter-forum and mobilizations. To pick up on the proposal, Focus on the Global South and TNI/CEO compiled case studies of resistance and alternatives from Asian countries. What came out is “WATER DEMOCRACY: Reclaiming Public Water in Asia”, a collection of 19 essays on various water struggles and victories in the region . The publication was launched at the parallel forum to the Asia Pacific Water Summit (APWS) in Oita, Japan in December 2007.

The gathering “WATER: COMMON GOOD, PUBLIC MANAGEMENT, AND ALTERNATIVES” was organised as a follow up activity to this collective publication— initially inviting all authors (the invitation went beyond authors later on) to take the next step. We approached Suresh in Chennai, who is the author of the essay on “Solution for the Water crisis-Democratisation, not Privatisation! Promising Stories from Tamil Nadu” and an active member of the RPW network to organise such a meeting in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu state. The reason behind this was clear: we wanted to learn and get inspiration from the on-going democratisation of water systems. We were thankful when Suresh, the Change Management Group (CMG) of engineers and other friends found this meeting meaningful and decided to finally host it. The participation of an educational institution like the IIT Chennai was significant for two reasons:
1. it provided very good space and infrastructure for participants from diverse backgrounds to converge and engage in a meaningful dialogue, and
2. it ensured that students at a ‘high-end’ technological institution like the IIT get exposed to the idea that dealing with a huge social and environmental crisis involves much more than technological problem solving; that in fact, a technocratic approach that ignores issues of democracy, public ownership and progressive traditional wisdom would more often than not turn out counter-productive. The synergy between the engineers of the CMG and the students meant that the theories read in the classroom were experienced as real praxis.

From the outset, the biggest challenge for all of us was making this meeting a real and safe space for different actors, water activists, progressive public water operators/engineers, policy makers, and trade unions, to discuss reclaiming public water as a common issue. Based on the feedbacks from the participants, a key assessment point for us was that, to a great extent, we were able to achieve this aim. Looking back, it is not a mere coincidence that the Americas meeting in Cochabamba set the same objectives and had ground breaking success too, in similar ways. Why? The realisation: working on alternative models requires not only discussions of theories, concepts, and ideas but also (equally crucial) is strategising how to concretely build alternatives through cooperation between and among different actors who are directly involved with water sector. Water activists recognise the importance and necessity to engage with water operators and policy makers at different levels to build alternative models such as public-public partnerships (PUPs). The multi-sectoral participation was present in Chennai and it highlights that such practice should also be replicated in different places at various levels—local, provincial and national.

The Three-Day Seminar

The three-day meeting began with country presentations using a template similar to a status report on the water sector. Participants were asked to prepare in advance to answer questions, which were designed by Suresh and Vibhu. This “water data sheet” contains the following areas of questions:

- Nature of Water Crisis / Status of Water delivery
- Form of Public Management
- Policies relating to Financial and Tariffing issues.
- Law relating to water as part of the Commons.
- History of water conflicts
- Water and Traditional Practices

It was a practical challenge time-wise to share a huge amount of information from so many countries based on the data sheet. We thank for the students of Humanities Dept of IIT, Madras who formed the Volunteer’ team in Chennai who not only served as the documentation team but also continued after the conference to organise all the country data sheets and put them on line. Presentations prepared by participants are abatable at
After all the country presentations, we were divided to small groups to discuss and identify commonality and conflict from what we learned.

Day 2 was the most challenging among the participants as it entailed discussing in detail alternatives, both in theory/concepts and practice. Results of day 2 served as springboard to discuss actions and strategies in Day 3. But with different backgrounds and experiences, we were anxious that common grounds and advancement of the same agenda, might not be possible.  Day 2 was designed to focus on advancing six thematic discussions on alternative models:
A. Water and the Global Commons – Status & Challenges
B. Public Management – Nature, Challenges, Conflicts (Including issue / experience of Water Regulatory Authorities)
C. Economics and Politics of Water – nature of funding, issues related to investment, tariffs and costs.
D. Delivery systems – systemic issues affecting water delivery, Satisfaction in delivery, issues of change etc.
E. Alternatives & Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs) – nature of alternatives tried out in Improving Water systems, delivery etc.
F. Conservation and rights of future generations

Each of the above themes was anchored by resource persons who had specific experience in the subject areas. Participants were free to attend any group for discussion. At the end of one and half hours of discussion, participants were given the choice to go to any other group, if they felt like it. This was meant to give participants the opportunity to participate in two different themes. The anchors remained constant however. At the end of the three-hour long discussions, anchors and other volunteers made detailed presentations back to the plenary about issues discussed.
Before going into small groups, we agreed to incorporate three integral or cross-cutting themes: democratisation of water, gender, community and caste awareness, and equality.

This process of report back was very fast and effective— maximising our collective learning on each theme.  The Alternatives and PUPs session, for instance, began discussing what we mean by alternatives: alternatives with a view to treat water as a commodity, alternatives to bad governance either public or private, which does not serve people, alternatives to excluding users and communities. We identified the democratisation of decision making process of water system by/with/for people as a key issue. We agreed that PuPs are one of the concrete practices of democratisation of water.       

All the documentations of the thematic discussions are very valuable to revisit and can feed future discussions. After the plenary report back, all participants were asked to work individually to identify Issues of concerns in each theme based on what they have learned. The issues of concerns are priority issues which they think should be highlighted and shared by everyone. 

In the evening of the 26th, a public debate - water dialogue between policy makers, water operators, engineers, unions and water rights activists - was organised at the IIT. 
Featured Speakers from India:
- B.K. Sinha, IAS, Director General, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad
- Rajendra Singh, Tarun Bharat Sangh, Rajasthan, Magsaysay Award
Featured Speakers from International Delegates:
- Anil Naidoo, Blue Planet Project, Canada
- Saleh Rabi, Director, Palestiniaian Water Training institute, Palestine
- Mary Ann Manahan, Focus on Global South, Philippines
Chaired by Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, The Hindu and Asian College of Journalism

We aimed to move from common understanding and analysis to strategic planning on the last day of the meeting. The upcoming 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul was certainly understood by all as a political momentum. Claudia Campero from México who played an active role in the people’s coalition COMDA three years ago during the 4th WWF shared their experience of domestic mobilisation and organising an alternative forum. Fuat Ercan from the Platform against the Commodification of Water in Turkey followed her by presenting the people’s coalition process in Turkey towards the 5th WWF and the fight against the privatisation policies of the Turkish government. Looking at the WWF as an immediate action point, we took further steps to deepen the discussions on the issues, which emerged on the second day: we came back to the small thematic groups with a concrete task, i.e. to discuss short term and long term strategies to realise the identified issues of concerns in each theme.

Strategies from each theme were shared at the plenary session and discussed further as a whole group. The coming and going process - plenary, small group discussions, and individual work - was an excellent exercise of collective learning and empowerment for the participants. Our discussions and analysis were embodied as the Commitment of Statement , which was endorsed by all participants. The meeting capped with a round of commitment, when almost all participants made either personal or institutional commitments to work further on water democracy. It was a fitting, empowering and powerful ending to the 5-day gathering.

After this meeting, a few concrete initiatives are emerging and making progress such as the PUPs (union-management cooperation) in the Philippines, the production of films on the Chenni activities, the preparation towards 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul and so on. We strongly recommend you to read three in-depth articles published in the Hindu . These articles were written by Vibhu Nayar, V. SURESH and Arvind Sivaramakrishnan as a follow-up. 

Contact us and join us to work together!

Satoko Kishimoto  satoko[at]
Mary Ann Manahan   mbmanahan[at]
Suresh Saila   rightstn[at]


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