A Dry Mexico Battles A Hydrocracy

Via El Pais, a look at how Mexico faces a problem of lack of water because the rules have favored little coordination, a reduced budget, as well as the concentration of water in the hands of a few:

According to official figures, Mexico has never had better access to water. 96% of people have access to it, an increase of 20 points in 30 years. On paper, Mexico is moving towards perfect drinking water coverage. But the reality is different. Official figures consider that someone has access to water if their home is connected to the public pipe, without considering whether the pipe has water. When this is considered, the image of Mexico changes: the country is drying out .

From 2006 to date, fewer and fewer municipalities have had access to water every day. That year, 61% had it. Now, only 33%. Until 2006, access to water improved every year, but now the progress has stopped. Having daily water is a privilege for increasingly few.

In Baja California Sur the data are dramatic. While in 2000 76% of Southern Californians had daily access to water, now the percentage has dropped to 24%. For 22 years, every day, an average of 67 people joined the ranks of those who do not have water every day in that State.

Mexico City has also been drying out. In 2000, the Milpa Alta mayor’s office had water six days a week, now only three. The wells have dried up or contaminated and the ejidatarios of Milpa Alta oppose opening new ones. A large number of Milpaltenses depend on collecting rainwater and a network of dozens of pipes that the mayor’s office sends weekly. In other areas of Mexico City, such as Tlalpan and Tláhuac, there is only water four days a week. In fact, except for Benito Juárez, the city’s richest mayor’s office, there is not a single place where residents of the capital receive daily water .

At the national level, few cases are more dramatic than the municipality of Doctor Arroyo, home to 14,000 people in Nuevo León. In 2006, the municipality received water on average six days a week; now only one.

These cases largely reflect what is happening throughout Mexico: drought, lack of public investment and insufficient privatized solutions. For example, Doctor Arroyo often has water, but no infrastructure to extract it. As the director of Water and Drainage of Nuevo León, Gerardo Garza, said in an interview with El Horizontal , sometimes the wells are full of water, but there is no pumping equipment to remove it. The phenomenon is getting worse because droughts are becoming more common and longer . With droughts lasting up to nine months, residents have reported that they are without water for up to 80 days in a row.

Paradoxically, Doctor Arroyo now depends on the philanthropy of Coca-Cola . The company, which has concessions to exploit 28 million cubic meters of water per year, announced the creation of a “rainwater collection pot” to support the municipality. The pot is a large hole covered with some kind of plastic. When it rains, it is flooded with 18,000 cubic meters of water (0.0006% of the water that Coca-Cola has a concession). With or without the pot, Doctor Arroyo’s pipes continue to become increasingly empty.

Mexico should not have a problem with access to water. On average, each inhabitant has 549 cubic meters of water per inhabitant per year, an amount more than enough to cover the 50-100 cubic meters of water that the UN recommends per person.

The greatest battle, to the weakest warrior

If Mexico faces a problem of lack of access to water, it is because the rules of the game are poorly made and have favored the lack of coordination and budget and the concentration of water in the hands of a handful . It all starts with the Constitution. It states that the municipal government should be in charge of the drinking water service. That is, the level of government that tends to be structurally poorer, less professionalized and weaker is the one in charge of one of the most essential services for human life. In Mexico, there are thousands of water managers that operate without coordination. According to the Economic Census, there are 2,826 water operating organizations. Some States, such as Oaxaca, have more than 200.

These weak warriors face the biggest battle in the country, without knowing each other and in a fragmented way. The work is so thankless and difficult that the directors of the water utilities do not last in office. On average, they remain in place for only 1.7 years, as documented by Hugo Rojas, a water specialist. “They come and they go. They can’t do almost anything,” he says.

At the federal level there is no regulator, only one entity responsible for granting water concessions and allocations: the National Water Commission (Conagua). Thus, no one can regulate in a comprehensive and centralized manner critical aspects to improve access to water, such as obtaining information on the provision of water service or imposing goals to improve it. Nor can an approved system be created to finance the distribution and reuse of water, or determine aspects of urban planning such as where new companies or urban settlements should be located.

The municipalities also have no budget or operational capacity. According to the National Association of Water and Sanitation Entities of Mexico (ANEAS), water and sanitation service providers collect 68,000 million pesos annually in fees, barely enough to cover their current expenses. There is almost nothing left to invest. The lack of investment is partially covered by the federal budget. However, federal water resources have been declining in the last decade. In 2012, 57 billion pesos were allocated to water supply and administration actions, as well as wastewater management, drainage and sewage. In 2023, the approved budget has fallen 32% in real terms, being only 38.5 billion, according to data from the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit.

The great water budget abandonment occurred between 2015 and 2017, when it was reduced by 45%. With the price of oil falling, the Federal Government decided to stop subsidizing water investment and take seriously the idea that water service was a mandate from the municipality. It was then that, de facto, the biggest battle was left in the hands of the weakest warriors. Throughout the six-year term, the water budget has increased by 9% (exercised in 2018 versus what was approved in 2023) in real terms, which makes it lower than the budget exercised in 2016.

The hydrocracy

One of the main battles of water activists in Mexico has been the creation of a General Water Law that creates an adequate legal framework to coordinate and plan its management at the national level. In the last two legislatures alone there have been at least six attempts, but all have collapsed due to disagreements.

A big problem is the strong business and agribusiness lobby. They have managed to become the de facto owners of water in Mexico without anyone saying anything. In Mexico, 75% of the water goes to agriculture, according to 2022 data from the National Water Commission (Conagua), and the majority of that water is managed through concessions granted to Irrigation Districts that are used in agriculture. .

Irrigation Districts are private organizations that have given life to what the civil organization Agua Para Todos appropriately calls hydrocracy. Hydrocracies are “individuals, families and companies that control the boards of directors of the concession holders” and thus manage to influence decisively the distribution of water, public resources and even the fees paid by users. Its power is enormous. 70% of the volume of concessioned waters are in the hands of 2% of the owners.

In certain parts of the country, irrigation districts have hoarded so much water that local governments have to beg them to sell them water to supplement urban use. Such is the case of Tijuana and its unhealthy relationship with irrigation district 014 that sells it water every year. “District 14 has the city hostage,” local media Radar BC crudely reported.

Water concessions are no man’s land. It is impossible to determine whether concessionaires are extracting more water than allowed because there is not enough monitoring. Conagua only has 141 inspectors to cover 427,000 water concessions. This lends itself to possible unsustainable exploitation of aquifers. In recent years, water concessions even lend themselves to speculation. According to the Agua para Todos collective, banks such as JP Morgan, HSBC, Banorte, Citibank, among others, have acquired concessions for agricultural use in areas where it is estimated that in the future it will be good business to sell water. For example, Banco Azteca has a concession in the Valley of Mexico for 2.2 million cubic meters and BBVA has one in Nayarit for 2.1 million.

“Water touches the most sensitive fibers of all power mafias,” comments Eduardo Bohórquez, who was part of the interdisciplinary team that analyzed the latest initiative to create a General Water Law. The preserves of power are everywhere. Some are even protected by other laws that would have to be reformed in parallel to the new legislation on water.

The tangle of excuses for doing the right thing is long and politically heavy. There are concessions that work and do not want to change their governance; There are governors who support certain concessionaires and do not want to move them; There are international companies that could open investment disputes before the free trade agreement, TMEC, if the terms of their concessions were changed; There are those who want a regulation where water is regulated at the local level and there are those who want something more concentrated. The entire fauna of Mexican power has a little piece of the water pie in its claws and there is no one who dares to take it away. The victims are all the rest.

Tidy up the house

Regular is no longer optional. In January 2022, the Supreme Court of Justice determined that the Congress of the Union must issue a General Water Law before August 2024. House will have to be put in order. The discussion of the content of this law will be decisive for the future of access to water in Mexico.

We will have to be attentive. It is urgent to change the logic of water use. We must leave behind highly concentrated and privatizing concessions to move to a coordinated, regulated and unified use of water for the common good. This does not mean eliminating all concessions, but it does mean regulating, ordering, limiting them and, above all, creating incentives for the proper use of water. Water management must be defragmented, power reserves must be eradicated.

Reversing the water problem requires talking about redistribution. In urban areas like Mexico City, priority for access to water has been given to middle and upper class areas and the rest have been forgotten . There has been no political will to eradicate this spatial discrimination through mass movement from the west to the east. At the national level, agricultural products that use a lot of water are produced in areas with little water, such as alfalfa in La Laguna. And industries are opening in areas without water. This must change. The State must regulate what is produced and where it is produced, or create an incentive through prices.

The future of water is most likely recycling. It is necessary to invest in treatment and purification processes that allow the reuse of water and its cyclical modulation. The neglect of the water infrastructure causes an average of 47% of water to be lost through leaks. This is huge.

All of the above requires significant investment. ECLAC estimates that Mexico needs an annual investment of 1.3 points of GDP to solve water problems that have not been addressed in years. This investment must be continuous at least throughout 2023 and it is a lot. This amount is comparable to 87% of total spending on security, justice and the INE. In terms of collection, it is equivalent to 28% of the VAT collected, according to the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit.

Along with the new law, water rates for all types of consumption must be discussed, but especially for agricultural consumption. It may seem like a lie, but currently the law stipulates that agribusiness does not have to pay for all the water it consumes. This is an aberration. The law must be reformed immediately. In the same way that individuals pay for water, agribusiness must do so.

Charging for water use by individuals must also be improved. Currently, water rates are heavily subsidized, but for the rich . In Mexico, the poorest quintile pays proportionally more for water than the richest quintile. This must change if we want to have resources to improve the quality of infrastructure and promote water rejection.

The water issue has to be addressed immediately in Mexico. Putting order in the house can no longer wait.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 30th, 2023 at 5:25 pm and is filed under Mexico.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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