Non-governmental organisations meeting in Geneva are calling for water to be treated as a common asset, which should not be privatised.
The NGOs are taking part in the Alternative World Water Forum over the next four days.
"We want to ensure that water remains in the public domain, like the air we breathe," said Rosmarie Bär of the Swiss Coalition of Development Agencies.
The Geneva meeting comes one week ahead of the United Nations sponsored "World Water Day". The UN general assembly agreed in 2003 to proclaim the years 2005 to 2015 as the "International Decade for Action".
A fourth World Water Forum is scheduled to be held in Mexico next year.
"These [UN organised] forums don’t respond to the fundamental objectives that every human being on the planet has a right to access to water," said Alberto Velasco, president of the Swiss organising committee behind the alternative meeting.
The NGOs are critical of the place accorded to multinationals at the Mexico event. For example, the world’s largest distributor of drinking water, Suez, will be represented by its vice-president.
Velasco said people in industrialised countries were as much at risk of having water resources privatised as those in developing nations.
"We see what has happened with electricity in Switzerland," he said. "The government is against privatisation at the moment, but it may only be a question of time [before it gives in]. "
The NGOs believe only public pressure can turn the tide against privatisation, as was the case in Uruguay and Bolivia where people took to the streets and voted to introduce laws forbidding the liberalisation of the sector.
The alternative forum is being run along the same lines at the World Social Forum held earlier this year in Port Alegre, Brazil. The latter demanded an international convention on water.
The Swiss coalition says Switzerland, with six per cent of Europe’s fresh water reserves, has a responsibility to fight privatisation.
It argues that liberalisation is not compatible with sustainability.
The priorities of the Alternative World Water Forum:
Access to water in sufficient quantities
Water must be treated as a common asset
Public communities have to ensure financing of investments necessary to provide potable water for all
Citizens have to participate in the process
The first alternative forum was held in Florence in 2003.
About 1,000 participants are expected to attend the Geneva meeting from March 17 to March 20.
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