03/12/2012 03:46 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Anti-capitalist protesters, long-held disputes greet thousands on hand for World Water Forum

PARIS - Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and the number threatens to rise, UNESCO says, as farmers struggle to feed bulging populations and cities grow faster than their sewer systems.

Decision-makers meeting in Marseille on France's southeast coast this week are trying to reverse that, but hopes aren't high. Thousands of utility executives, activists and environment chiefs at the World Water Forum are working to overcome years of disputes and red tape so millions more people can drink and bathe in clean water.

Shortly after the Forum opened Monday, five protesters were briefly detained after a group of activists caused a disruption by playing dead near the entrance, police said. The five were released after their documents were checked.

The activists were trying to call attention to the thousands of children who die every day from lack of access to clean water and illustrate what they say is a moribund effort by years of Forum gatherings to produce solid solutions.

"There have been 20 years of debate and no change," said Stefania Molinari.

Protesters say the Forum views water as a commodity instead of a human right, and hail signs that attendance is down at this year's gathering. Chief Organizer Benedito Braga said 9,000 to 10,000 people had signed up so far, down from 25,000 at the end of the last Forum in Istanbul in 2009.

Activists are proposing small-scale projects such as pit toilets instead of massive projects that they see as focused on profits for Western CEOs instead of helping the poor.

The Forum, whose members include the World Bank and the International Committee of the Red Cross, deny they represent special interests.

Braga defended the Forum's goals and focused on a list of solutions being released Friday. He is proposing a government-fed fund that private companies could tap to help them invest in water infrastructure, services and jobs in poor countries.

"A lot of infant mortality in the developed world comes from not having appropriate sanitation," Braga said in an interview.

As the meeting opened, the U.N. scientific and educational body called for "a radical rethink of the way water is managed."

The latest World Water Development Report, released by UNESCO, says rising food demand, rapid urbanization and climate change are significantly increasing pressure on global water supplies.

"Freshwater is not being used sustainably, according to needs and demands," it says. "Accurate information remains disparate, and management is fragmented. In this context, the future is increasingly uncertain and risks are set to deepen."

While Europe's financial troubles are weighing on the Forum, Braga says now is not the time for austerity.

"Economic crises, there are two ways to solve them. One is to restrain spending be very conservative. The other one is to move forward," he said, citing infrastructure investment in the United States during the Great Depression.

Sharing rights to rivers that cross boundaries is expected to be a thorny issue at this week's talks, along with a dispute over whether water should be declared a universal human right.