Environmental activists criticized the cornerstone outcome of the World Water Forum for its lack of binding protocols to safeguard the world's freshwater supplies, with some dismissing the event as a "trade show."
People can survive up to 30 days without food, but only seven without water
Ministers and delegation heads wrapped up the forum on Sunday, March 22, in Istambul with promises to do more for the protection of water supplies.
They issued a declaration and set out a roster of nonbinding recommendations, including greater cooperation to ease disputes over water, measures to address floods and water scarcity, better management of resources and curbing pollution of rivers, lakes and aquifers.
World Water Forum is the largest water-related event in the world
But campaigners representing the rural poor, the environment and organized labor attacked the forum as a vehicle for water privatization and called for it to be placed under the UN flag.
"We demand that the allocation of water be decided in an open, transparent and democratic forum rather than in a trade show for the world's large corporations," said Maude Barlow, senior advisor to the president of the UN General Assembly.
The World Water Forum is staged by the World Water Council, a French-based organization whose funding comes in large part from the water industry.
Some countries tried to beef up the statement so that it recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as "a basic human right" rather than a "basic human need," which was the final text, but they were blocked by Brazil, Egypt and the United States, delegates said.
Climate change effects
Martin Geiger, of the German branch of the WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, said the closing agreement amounted to little more than a list of "nonbinding platitudes."
Similarly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said ministers needed to focus more on broader questions of environmental protection.
March 22 is celebrated in many countries as World Water Day
One of the things which became clear at the World Water Forum in Turkey was that global warming was increasingly taking its toll on water resources for human consumption.
"As climate change accelerates and we see a changing hydrological cycle, diminishing access to resources, there are direct human impacts that are water-related," said Jonathan Greenblatt, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who advised the Obama transition team on civic engagement and national service.
With sea levels rising as a consequence of thermal expansion and melting of polar ice sheets, coastal regions around the world are expected to see an increased salination of natural underground reservoirs. According to Greenblatt, this will affect access to fresh water in those areas.
At the same time, higher temperatures in some regions of the world are turning once-fertile plots of land into dry, desert-like environments.
"In the same way that climate change has become part of the conversation ... the agenda of legislators and policymakers, I think blue needs to be part of the agenda," Greenblatt said, using "blue" as shorthand for water.
Water resources are indispensable for human survival
Experts had spent much of the week at the conference warning about the consequences that will come if world governments do not make more of an effort to conserve and regulate water use.
One billion people lack access to clean water, and 2.5 billion are without water for sanitation. These statistics may seem ironic, since most of our planet is covered in water. But humans -- who can usually live no longer than 7 days without water -- need their water to be fresh and clean.
With most of Earth's water being salty or dirty, it is hard to overestimate the need for sustainable water resources.
There were more than 20,000 participants at the forum, including representatives of international organizations from more than 100 countries. The event is sponsored by the World Water Council, a group made up of water specialists and international organizations.
WWF's Geiger did praise the fact that, during the forum, several nations agreed to sign a United Nations convention on the management of water resources that cross international borders. He said 19 more countries must sign on before the convention can take effect.