Turkish riot police struggle with protesters near the Sutluce Congress Center in Istanbul on Monday during the opening ceremony of the 5th World Water Forum. ((Ibrahim Usta/Associated Press))

Much of the developing world does not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation at a time when worldwide demand for water is rising, the World Water Forum in Istanbul heard Monday.

Half a billion people in Africa lack access to adequate sanitation, and 5,000 children die daily from diarrhea, a disease that can be prevented with clean water, according to UNESCO.

"In America, diarrhea is bad takeout," said John Sauer of Water Advocates, a U.S.-based nonprofit group, on the first day of the forum. "In Chad, it's the difference between life and death."

Ethanol production sucks up water

Population growth and mobility, as well as increased energy production, especially of biofuels such as ethanol, are contributing to the high demand for water.

Countries such as Brazil and the United States require large amounts of water and fertilizers to grow the crops needed to make biofuels.

"With increasing shortages, good governance is more than ever essential for water management. Combating poverty also depends on our ability to invest in this resource," said Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO.

While better management is essential, he also called on world leaders who will meet at the G-8 summit in Italy in July to invest more in water resources to help prevent a "major water crisis."

Although many countries have legislation to protect and manage water resources, the reforms "have yet to have any noticeable effect" because water policy needs to include decision-makers in other fields such as agriculture, energy, trade and finance, according to the UN agency.

"In recent years, the share of aid going to water supply and sanitation has stagnated at around four per cent while that to other areas of the water sector has actually dropped," Matsuura said.

Thousands of participants, including government ministers from 120 countries, are expected to attend the week-long forum to discuss issues such as sanitation, climate change and how to meet the increasing global demand for water.

Forum opens with protests

The forum opened Monday with police using water canons and tear gas to disperse more than 100 protestors, detaining 20 of them.

The Council of Canadians — a citizen advocacy organization — is part of an international coalition that will hold counter events in Istanbul to highlight water as a human right and to denounce the privatization and sale of water as a commodity.

"While the World Water Forum has long touted the privatization of municipal water systems as a means of improving the welfare of communities in need, the reality is that water is being used to generate profit rather than to slake the world's growing thirst," the council said in a statement.

"The privatization of municipal water systems has caused conflicts around the world, and communities that have sold their water rights have faced limited access to water, higher tariffs, and poor water quality."

Two-thirds of the planet will live in water-stressed conditions by 2025 if present consumption patterns continue, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

"The ultimate goal of the [forum] is to motivate action to improve the world's management of water resources," Oktay Tabasaran, the forum's secretary-general, said in a statement.

With files from The Associated Press