The 6th World Water Forum, the world’s largest meeting around water, was held in Marseille, France, from March 12th to 17th, 2012. Held every three years to discuss varied issues related to water in the world, the world’s largest gathering including various stakeholders such as heads of states, heads of governments, journalists, ministers, secretaries of states, parliamentarians, water experts, UN agencies, donors, NGOs etc to discuss the water issue from various perspectives – economic, social, environmental and financial and come out with solutions to guarantee water for billions of people.

The Forum was held in the Hague in 2000, in Kyoto, Japan in 2003, Mexico in 2006 and in Istanbul, Turkey in 2009. It mobilses creativity, innovation, competence and knowhow in favour of water. The goal is to tackle the challenges our world is facing and to bring the issue of water high on the political agendas as no sustainable development can take place while water issues remain unsolved . The right to water and sanitation has been recognized last year by 189 states at the UN which need to be guaranteed and implemented.

“The challenges are huge and the problems are deep-rooted” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said as he opened the 6th World Water Forum. In a video message UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, ‘Pressures on freshwater are rising, from the expanding needs of agriculture, food production and energy consumption to polluters and the weaknesses of water management.’

Already more than 2.5 billion people are in need of decent sanitation and nearly 1 to 10 has yet to gain access to improved drinking water, as defined under the UN’s 2015 development goals.

To this end to build a Platform of Solutions beyond 2012, people worldwide were requested to put up any solution for water on the Time for Solutions website. Two Solutions were presented by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation on ‘Decentralized Treatment of Waste Water from Public Toilets for Clean Environment’ and ‘Restoration of Dignity and Human Rights through Access to Toilets’.

The week long debates  and exchanges,  with the participation of 173 countries  and 15 Heads of States,  Governments and European  Commissioners, 3500 NGOs and civil society representatives and  thousands of children and youth, built on 1400 solutions for water and sanitation, will enable  faster  access  to water and sanitation and improve the conservation and management of this  major  threatened resource.  The World Water Council will take all the solutions and commitments to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in June 2012 in which water and sanitation are very much on the agenda.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement was invited by Director General of The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to present his outstanding experiments and give  suggestions on how to implement the human right to water  and sanitation in a context  like India during  the session on High Level  Roundtable: Implementing the Right to Water  and Sanitation, which was organized by the Government of Switzerland, Spain and Uruguay  and attended by Ministers of many countries.

The need to share views on the experiences with Right to Water and  Sanitation approaches; to exchange lessons learnt  from practical experiences  in the implementation of a rights based approach; and to formulate recommendations to national governments on how to speed up implementation is imperative for governments to play a key role by translating the universal human rights into national laws, promoting legislation on these issues and  by formulating policies, plans and programmes for action.

Dr. Pathak stressed upon all Ministers present that sewerage was not the answer to solve the problems of lack of access to sanitation and resultant open defecation in the world. Out of 7532 towns /cities in India only 469 were sewered and that too partially and only 900 towns had Sewage Treatment Plants due to which water bodies and environment were polluted.

He emphasized that technologies which were affordable, technically appropriate, culturally acceptable and ensured saving of water and also safe and hygienic treatment of human waste should be adopted and stressed on the fact that programmes should be implemented in close cooperation and collaboration with the people, local bodies, state governments, central government, International agencies, non– governmental organizations and donor and funding agencies. The programmes should also include both software and hardware i.e. motivation, education, communication, training, designing, estimation, implementation, maintenance and follow-up. By doing so, governments would be able to save enormous quantity of water from flushing, treat human waste with affordable technologies and restore the basic human rights of water and sanitation to all, especially girls and women, who can then go to toilets with safety and dignity.  

UN-HABITAT invited Sulabh to join the session on ‘Urban Water Security for Asia and the Pacific’ and present a case study on Best Practices and Promising Solutions. Dr. Pathak was invited to be a panelist for replicating the successful case studies and working out and developing future strategies to achieve the MDGs and sustainable and universal access to drinking water and sanitation by 2025, thus ensuring urban water security in Asia and Pacific Region.  The session was chaired by Mr. Ravi Narayanan. Other panelists were Mr. Chew Meu Leng, CEO (PUB) Singapore, Dr. K.E. Seetharam, Director IWP, Singapore, Mr. Greg Koch, Director Global Water Stewardship, TCCC Atlanta and Mr. Arthur Mynett from UNESCO, IHF.

Current demographic trends and the rapid and chaotic growth of urban centres in many countries in Asia together with growing demands on existing water sources make the search for innovative technologies and neighbourhood centred approaches considerably important, including the introduction of local or in situ sewage treatment systems and technologies, to avoid environmentally unsustainable and financially unaffordable models of citywide water –borne sewage systems. On behalf of Sulabh, I made a presentation on ‘Decentralized Treatment of Waste Water from Public Toilets for Clean Environment’, explaining the Sulabh Biogas and Effluent Treatment Technologies. Other case studies on Phnom Penh, Lao PDR, Jakarta, Karnataka and Coca Cola were made. 

The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaboration Council also invited us to speak in the side event on ‘Breaking the Silence about Menstrual Hygiene Management’. The purpose of session was to raise awareness and share emerging practical solutions about Menustral Hygiene Management, an issue often neglected in WASH policies and programmes because of taboos and hygiene. The gaps and challenges associated with it were explored as it is fundamental to the dignity of women and girls. I made a presentation on ‘Promotion and Distribution of Sanitary Pads in The Indian Contest’ where inadequate menstrual protection makes adolescent girls between 12-18 years miss 5 days of school a month and around 23% of them drop out of school after they start menstruating. Besides education, this has far-reaching implications on health and gender in developing countries. The issue of affordability was raised by me and how a sanitary napkin manufacturing unit was set up under the Sulabh School Sanitation Club activities in Sulabh Public School to address this for the benefit of the students.

Mrs. Usha Chaumar, President of Sulabh, spoke on the problems they faced and how they dealt with the situation earlier. With a glow on her face she informed the audience how their lives had changed after leaving the inhuman work of scavenging and joining Sulabh. She said they even planned to manufacture sanitary pads at the Nai Disha Centre at Alwar where they have been trained in various vocations to be able to earn their livelihood. She was accompanied by Mrs. Guddi Athwal. Such grassroot initiatives seek to address various dimensions of this challenge. The voices from Africa and Asia drew attention to the needs, challenges and aspirations of users, especially the poorest and most marginalized and highlighted the gaps in achieving sanitation and hygiene for all towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2025.

After a marathon week the Sixth Water Forum with a gathering of more than 35,000 participants from all continents of the world, closed on 17th March, moving forward the cause of water and sanitation till the next World Water Forum which will take place in South Korea in 2015.