Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. This week he is attending the World Forum of Cultures’ Dialogue on Science, Knowledge, and Sustainable Development.

Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004

BARCELONA, Spain.

As I craned my head to read the translation screen over the stage, Mikhail Gorbachev was waving his arms wildly and bellowing in Russian about the need to pursue nuclear energy, eliminate terrorism with military force, admit Belorussia and Ukraine into the European Union, and substitute Muslim troops for the U.S. “Christian” forces currently occupying Iraq.

I’d never heard a Soviet stump speech in its original form, but this sounded like one, strangely dynamic on a breezy evening in Barcelona. The former Russian premier’s egg-shaped body rocked behind the aluminum podium as a crowd of 500 listened. In a moment of silence, a woman in the audience shouted in Spanish, “Senor Miguel! What do you mean by a new global perestroika?” Gorbachev waited for the words to translate through his headset, then looked up and uttered a simple sentence: “The world is in a water crisis.”

“The U.S. thought it defeated the Soviet Union, but in the Cold War, we were all losers. The planet was a loser,” he said. “Water is the No. 1 problem in Africa and Asia. And to avert global disaster, the U.S. needs to open its society to change — it needs transparency, glasnost, and we as a planet need perestroika, a restructuring.”

Over the next two days, scientists, diplomats, and water-rights activists elaborated on Gorbachev’s message at a conference entitled “Water for Life and Security,” calling access to water a basic human right and pushing for a global convention that would make it a public good — accessible to all, not a commodity to be bought and sold and denied to those who cannot afford it.

They drilled the figures in our heads: 1.5 billion people lack access to drinking water; 2.5 billion live without sanitation; 5 million people, among them 2 million children, die each year from water-related diseases. Yet it’s not about water scarcity, the experts assured us. It’s about governance. We need to radically rethink humankind’s relationship to water and change the way we share between the developed and developing nations, they said — because if we’re not sharing water, we’re not sharing life.

A tall, handsome man from Niger named Jean-Bosco Bazie came to Barcelona — host of the first-ever World Forum of Cultures, a five-month series of exhibitions and dialogues focused on diversity, sustainable development, and peace, of which the water conference was a part — spitting fire about the water crisis in his country.

“Economy dominates everything. Business dominates everything. The world is shit and it’s not changing,” he said.

Vast amounts of water exist in Niger — including a section of the 2,600-mile-long Niger River, shared with nine other African countries — but only 3 percent of the country’s surface water and 1 percent of its groundwater is currently being used. More than 40 percent of Niger’s 11 million inhabitants live without access to drinking water, Bazie said. Yet with a foreign investment of $367 million to dig wells and build simple irrigation and water-transport systems, the country’s water crisis would be solved.

“It’s not money and technology alone that will save us — you have to change mindsets and the rest will follow,” said Bazie. Nonetheless: “If the United States or Bill Gates gave a small portion of what they earned in one day on the stock market, that would end our problem.”

Bazie, who works with the nonprofit group Eau Vive, is one of thousands of advocates for a so-called “new water culture,” a movement that first called for universal access to clean water in the Montreal Charter of 1990. Grassroots leaders attracted U.N. General Assembly support before launching the World Water Forum in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997, where scientists, politicians, farmers, teachers, and unions met for the first time to discuss the state of the world’s water. The Forum convened in The Hague in 2000 and again last year in Kyoto, where 25,000 participants and a quarter of a million visitors witnessed the release of a Declaration of Water Rights.

This week in Barcelona, the citizen groups International Secretariat for Water and the World Assembly of Water Wisdom lauded the “Global Convention on the Right to Water,” a document that seeks to define water security, safety, sovereignty, sustainability, financing, and other issues related to the “fundamental right of access to water and sanitation” as a universal, inalienable right. Future drafts of the convention are expected to clarify the principles of why water must be treated as a basic human right; and then, leaders hope, it will be submitted for U.N. approval and turned into law.

One of the speakers at the conference, Andras Szollosi-Nagy, had bright blue eyes, a broad, heavy face, and a head of gray, frizzy hair like a mad scientist. But as the deputy director general of natural sciences for UNESCO, Szollosi-Nagy expressed views solidly grounded in scientific as well as social and economic thought. It will take $30 billion to $40 billion in additional yearly investment in water development — on top of the current $80 billion — to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, which aim to cut in half the number of people without access to drinking water by 2015, he said.

“It sounds big, but not when you think that it’s only 2 percent of global annual military spending,” Szollosi-Nagy said. “Then it’s peanuts.”

In a world where two-thirds of the population under 25 has no access to drinking water, refusing to help the developing world improve its water systems can only backfire on Western countries, he said. But to do the opposite could bring great economic benefits — for every dollar invested in water development, the return is estimated at between $3 and $34, or a total of $84 billion per year.