Just a few months after being appointed the United Nations' senior adviser on water, a top U.N. official is heading off to Istanbul to take part in protests ... against a U.N.-backed water conference.
Maude Barlow, attending the conference in her official role as the U.N.'s "water czar," will help lead at least 200 activists in protests and demonstrations against the weeklong World Water Forum, where the U.N. on Monday will unveil its flagship report on water resources.
Barlow was named to the post in December. She is a chief opponent of the privatization of water, which she and allied protesters say exacerbates a crisis in the developing world.
"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," Barlow and other activists said in a release issued this week.
But sources in the water industry say Barlow is dead wrong. Without private companies working to procure and purify water, they say, developing nations wouldn't have the know-how or infrastructure to get clean water for themselves.
If companies aren't allowed to clean and bottle water, "there will be deaths, many deaths every day, because there just aren't water pipes" and competent engineers to produce safe water in the developing world, said Tom Lauria, director of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.
"They don't have the expertise to get down into aquifers, they don't have the knowledge of hydrology."
Critics say Barlow, 61, is pushing a radical agenda from within the U.N. She is also the head of the Council of Canadians, an organization opposed to free trade that objects to American influence in Canada. The Council is paying her way to Istanbul, though Barlow will be appearing in her official U.N. role.
"There is no pretense that their appointees are anything but special interest players," said Diane Katz, director of Risk, Environment and Energy Policy for the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank in Canada.
Katz said Barlow's embrace of nationalization of water sources empowers the very dictators and despots who deprive their nations of clean and safe water and are responsible for much of the water crisis in the world.
"She disparages the policies of countries where water is cleanest and most abundant. It reveals a real lack of understanding," Katz told FOXNews.com.
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 3.5 million people die each year from water-related illnesses — including 1.5 million children who die from diarrheal diseases and infections. The U.N. hopes to cut in half the number of people without access to sanitary water by 2015.
Barlow hopes to make access to water a basic right, and she is calling on all nations to take it out of private hands and provide their citizens free and sanitary water. "We want it to be a human right — we don't want people denied water because they're too poor to pay for it, which is happening now," she told FOXNews.com in a December interview.
The World Water Forum, which begins Monday in Istanbul, is a triennial gathering of many of the world's water experts. Though the U.N. is not an official sponsor of the event, its 26-body coordinating structure, UN-Water, is organizing a large presence at what is viewed as the world's premiere conference on water issues.
Spokesmen for Barlow and the UNGA president declined to comment on whether the U.N. approved of Barlow's protest of a forum that had such substantial U.N. participation and approval.
Lauria said he found it "ironic" that the U.N.'s own senior adviser would be protesting a conference the U.N. had already chosen to attend.
"I see her as just another in a line of protesters. The U.N. advisory title requires her to understand how modern water-delivery engineering works. Instead, she sees big companies and she flips out. She'd rather be a hippie than an expert," he said.
Barlow keeps no staff at the U.N. and takes no salary, but her role at the world body is an important one. Supporters say she is standing up for individual rights at the U.N., where she presents an activist role within a much larger bureaucracy.
"Maude is looking after the interests of the 1.4 billion people who don't have access to water. She is playing the role of advocating at the U.N. for the human right to water," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, who will be protesting with Barlow.
The water czar has spoken peacefully at past forums — but the events have seen some fireworks. During the opening ceremony at the second conference in 2000, six demonstrators rappelled onto the stage and at least two stood naked in front of the opening speaker as he tried to give an address.
The fourth forum, in 2006, was testier. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Mexico City, openly battling with police as they tried to march on the World Water Forum. Demonstrators threw rocks, destroyed a patrol car, and attacked a news photographer trying to take pictures of the scene.
Hauter said the demonstrations would be much quieter this year, as plans for the protest include workshops and a film screening.
"There will be some marches and some legal demonstrations. Mostly we're there to have an intellectual discussion about what's wrong, and we think the facts will speak for themselves," she told FOXNews.com.
Spokesmen for Barlow and for the office of the UNGA president did not respond to e-mails asking whether Barlow has held any events at the U.N., or whether her speaking appearances and coming protest make up the sum total of her work for the world body.
Yet it is unclear whether the rest of the U.N.'s environmental infrastructure is working with her — or even aware of her role within the organization.
"Unfortunately, this person is not known to us," a program officer for the U.N. Environment Program told FOXNews.com.
Though Barlow told FOX News that she will "speak her mind" at the World Water Forum, which she will be attending in tandem with an alternative forum being set up by grassroots environmental groups in Turkey, no U.N. environmental agencies contacted by FOXNews.com were aware of her plans.