ISTANBUL — Fresh water and money have one thing in common: Their mismanagement has left billions of people without ready access to either, according to policymakers, non-governmental agencies and activists attending the World Water Forum here this week.

Gerard Payen

AquaFed’s Gerard Payen (Courtesy U.N.)

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It was one of the few things all parties seem to agree on; who is responsible for that mismanagement and what should be done about it is where the attendees part ways.

A United Nations report, Water in a Changing World, released here today, spreads the blame around, chiding “water sector leaders,” including government ministers, private businesses and civil society groups, for failing to take action.

“Management of the world’s water resources requires reliable information about the state of the resource and how it is changing in response to external drivers such as climate change and water and land use,” the report states. “There is little sharing of hydrologic data, due largely to limited physical access to data, policy and security issues; lack of agreed protocols for sharing; and commercial considerations. This hampers regional and global projects that have to build on shared datasets for scientific and applications-oriented purposes.”

The result for the world’s freshwater supply is “bleak,” the report concludes.

In Africa, poverty reduction efforts are rarely coordinated with water policy or take into account wise management of water resources, says the UN report, despite findings of a strong correlation between investment in water infrastructure and economic growth. In many developing countries, public utilities do not do well because of low motivation, poor management, inadequate cost recovery and political interference,” states the report.

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Gérard Payen, president of AquaFed, an international federation of private water companies, and an adviser on water issues to the U.N Secretary General, shifts much of the blame on governments. “There is plenty of water on the planet,” says Payen. “Where increasing uses or climate change create scarcity, strong political will and commitment are needed to allocate and manage water satisfactorily.”

Three billion people — nearly one-half of the world’s population — have no access to tap water in their home or in their village. That means they must carry water every day or pay high prices for delivery. One of the reasons for that, says Payen, is governments’ poor allocation of water between agriculture, industry and domestic uses.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based group of 30 relatively prosperous nations, has taken a similar line, saying that integrated water-resources management is needed to better allocate water between agriculture, other uses and environmental needs.

Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians national chairperson and senior adviser on water to the president of the U.N. General Assembly, agrees that mismanagement is to blame. But Barlow, who led activists here protesting the commoditization of water, blames private businesses and governments.

Water management has also been given short shrift by economic stimulus packages launched by the United States, China and Korea and other countries, says Angel Gurría, secretary general of the OECD. “The green is being stressed but not the blue,” he says. “Particularly for water-saving, shovel-ready projects” to repair aged and damaged water pipelines. The United Nations says the total cost of replacing aging water supply and sanitation infrastructure in industrial countries could be as high as $200 billion per year.

Up to 20 percent of water in the developed world is lost due to leakage; in the developing world, it is as high as 70 percent, he says.

Likewise, Jamal Saghir, director of energy, transport and water at the World Bank, says there are insignificant funds earmarked for water investment in the stimulus packages of the United States and other countries responding to the economic crisis.

The World Water Forum concludes on Sunday.

Ferguson is a freelance journalist based in Arlington, Mass.