Turkey's Government Plans Sweeping Water Privatisation in Run-up to World Water Forum in Istanbul

Olivier Hoedeman and Orsan Senalp, April 2008

In March 2009 the Turkish government will host the fifth World Water Forum against a backdrop of what is probably the most sweeping water privatisation programme in the world. As well as privatizing water services, the government plans to sell of rivers and lakes. Turkish social movements, who hosted their own conference in Istanbul last month, suspect the Government is using the World Water Forum to push through this highly controversial agenda.

Previous sessions of the World Water Forum, held once every three years, have faced opposition from civil society groups who consider it an illegitimate, flawed platform for discussing solutions to the world's water problems. [1] The Forum is controlled by the World Water Council, a private think-tank with close links to the World Bank and private water multinationals. This criticism is likely to become even more intense in the run-up to the March 2009 Forum, given the host government's radical privatiation push.

More than 350 people attended the two-day conference 'Water: Under the Yoke of Capitalism', which was organized by Supolitik Iletisim Agi (the Waterpolitics Network) with Turkish trade unions and civil society groups.[2] In the opening session, Serhat Salihoglu from the Municipal Workers' Union (DISK) described the political context for the 2009 World Water Forum: the government - led by the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) - wants to privatise all public services. Earlier that month, the government had presented proposals to deregulate public services.[3] A new law would allow private firms to bid for concessions to run the country's water utilities.

This privatisation drive follows previous neoliberal reforms which have left local governments strapped for cash and unable to properly fulfill their water management obligations. Only 8% of municipalities have water treatments plants and 25% of industrial waste water is untreated. The government is also planning to weaken public agencies such as the Bank of Provinces and the State Water Works Agency, which will undermine the capacity for public planning and investment and leave municipalities at the mercy of international financial institutions with pro-privatisation leanings.

Tahir Ongur from the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Geology Engineers (TMMOB) explained that the government not only wants to privatize drinking water supplies, but also the water resources themselves. Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler has announced that rivers and lakes will be sold to private companies, for periods of up to 49 years.[4] The government believes that allowing private firms to build dams in rivers and lakes which they also own is the best way to overcome water shortages, both for drinking water and rural irrigation. As part of this unprecedented privatisation offensive, the government aims to rush through a constitutional reform before the March 2009 World Water Forum. The main target is Article 43 of the constitution, which limits private control of coastal lines, rivers, lakes, etc. and underlines that the public interest should take priority.[5]

Diren Ozkan from Save Hasankeyf criticised the continued proliferation of destructive large scale dam projects in Turkey. A particularly shocking example is the Ilisu dam site on the Tigris River, which will drown the ancient town of Hasankeyf and many nearby villages, displacing 78,000 people, mainly Kurds. The dam will cause tremendous environmental destruction and flood hundreds of ancient sites.

Abdullah Aysu, President of the Peasants' Federation, spoke passionately against government policies for privatising agricultural irrigation. The plans to replace management by rural cooperatives with a system of concession rights sold to private firms would have disastrous consequences for subsistence farmers and their communities, who would lose their rights to local water resources. Groundwater in rural areas is seriously depleted due to uncontrolled drilling, but commercialization is not the answer. The only real solution to these problems, Aysu explained, is to shift to a more natural model of agriculture, which he described as "ecological democracy".

Water privatisation is not an entirely new phenomenon in Turkey. There are private water supply contracts in Arpacay and Corlu, as well as widespread outsourcing and subcontracting of the water supply across the country. In the city of Antalya, French water giant Suez pulled-out six years into a 10-year contract after the municipality rejected their demand for another price increase. The prices had already risen 130% and the company had failed to invest what was promised.

The new, more far-reaching wave of privatisation now orchestrated by the Turkish government, has already run into problems in a number of places. At the Istanbul conference, Dr. Ertugrul Tanrikulu of the "Edirne Water is Life Platform" talked about a serious corruption case that happened in the context of the planned privatisation in the city of Edirne. Earlier the same month, nineteen people were arrested, including the city's mayor Hamdi Sedefci and representatives from companies involved in the tender. A consortium of three Turkish companies had won the tender for 30-year contract to run the city's water, which also included installing water meters with an advance payment system. The consortium had placed an employee in the municipal department and distorted the tender conditions in their own favour. A police investigation revealed that the consortium was also planning to use corruption to influence water privatisation in nine other Turkish cities.[6]

In large cities such as Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul, there are strong local grassroots campaigns for the right to water. As a result of political neglect and commercialisation, municipal water services have got worse and supplies are cut increasingly frequently. At the conference, Ilknur Birol from the People's Shelters association talked about local water struggles in poor communities, which are often led by women. One woman, whose family's water supply was cut off for 13 days, organized a demonstration, which attracted 3000 people. Birol called on social movements in Turkey to join hands in the run-up to March 2009 and create a strong water movement in Turkey.

This call was echoed by many other speakers. Salihoglu from the Municipal Workers' Union (DISK) called for mobilization against the World Water forum as the start of a new, different approach to solving Turkey's water crisis. Tahir Ongur of TMMOB warned that the Turkish government wanted to use the World Water Forum "to offer Turkey's water on a plate" to international financial institutions and construction companies. In March 2009, Ongur said, the financial players and large corporations will assemble in Istanbul, "but so will the global water movements".

The Turkish government hopes to use the World Water Forum to advance its sweeping privatisation plans, described by one conference speaker as "market fascism". On this background, one can only wonder how the World Water Council, the think-tank controlling the Forum, made the decision to give the Turkish government the role of Forum host for March 2009. On their website, the organisers of the World Water Forum in Istanbul "call upon the international water community to make concrete proposals so that better management of the resource may contribute to achieving the entirety of the Millennium Development Goals."[7] The deeply irresponsible water policies of the Turkish host government reveal the emptiness of the World Water Council's feel-good rhetoric.


  1. See for instance "Observations on the World Water Forum in Mexico City". For a critique of the World Water Forum, see for instance the World Development Movement's briefing "4 World Water Forum - Mexico 2006".
  2. Supolitik Iletisim Agi (Waterpolitics Network).
  3. The draft of a new tender law (for energy, water, telecommunication and transportation sectors) is currently under discussion in the Turkish parliament.
  4. In July 2007, during the water scarcity in Istanbul and Ankara, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler stated that the operational rights for the water of 12-13 river and small lakes will be transferred to the private sector for a period of maximum 49 years. According to the minister this is a part of four step project that is designed to overcome water problems in agriculture together with private sector. This specific step aims to open up dam management to private companies through build-operate-transfer system. In their draft plan the ministry divides the country into regions according to agricultural water need and the private sector will build the necessary dams. For this purpose rivers and lakes will be sold to the private sector. Next phase in the project is to use water held in the dams as drinking water. The method to transfer private sector will be competition instead of tender, as it was used in nuclear central building projects. Competition will be open to foreign investors too. Source: How will government privatize water basins and rivers.
  5. http://www.kolektifler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2569&sid=53f43924e46e20d81384c5865eeae9df
  6. "Turkish water sector hit by corruption scandal", Global Water Intelligence, March 2008.
  7. The official theme of the 5th World Water Forum is "Bridging Divides for Water".