Mexico is a country facing staggering water problems. Pollution, scarcity, and lack of access to safe water throughout the country have united many Mexicans into a broad movement in recent years. Now, residents of Mexico City, such as myself, are seeing a new challenge to our already compromised access to a reliable supply of clean water.
Water scarcity has been in Mexico City‚ headlines for several months. Since January of this year, there have been increasing scheduled cutoffs from the Cutzamala system, one of the most important supplies of drinking water for the city. The Cutzamala system is a huge complex of dams, pumps and pipelines that transports 16,000 liters of water per second 1,100 meters up and over the mountains and then 90 miles to the taps of Mexico City.
The main rationale for the scheduled cutoffs is extremely low rainfall in 2008 and now in 2009. In an attempt to raise awareness of the need for water rationing, the city government has launched an extensive campaign in the subway, radio and newspapers that announces: ‚February 2010: The city may be left without water. Mexico City is living its worst drought in its history. There is water left only for the next 6 months. It is not a warning, it is a reality.” This is, of course, a very serious statement. But the City‚ response to date has merely served to increase inequities in water service without addressing the heart of the matter.
Since the alarm has been repeatedly sounded, the ‚progressive” government of Mexico City has proposed some solutions to manage this crisis, but most of the proposed solutions fail to address the larger problem — massive mismanagement of the city‚ water.
The first proposed solution is the water cutoffs. Many poor neighborhoods now receive water only at certain times of the day, some only every other day or even once a week. It is not only the poor who are affected; increasingly, the rationing is spreading to new areas, including middle class neighborhoods.
The second solution is a wide-spread campaign targeting citizens to ‚save water,” by practicing conservation in the home. Naturally, water should be used wisely; but if you consider that many people do not have enough water already, the demand to use even less adds insult to injury.
The third solution put forward by the local government is a proposed increase in water tariffs, which will soon come before the city‚ legislature for approval.
On a positive note, there are some proposals around rainwater harvesting and repairing leaks. These would be crucial elements in any plan to manage the crisis, given that Mexico City‚ pipes suffer a leakage rate between 35 and 40 percent, and the amount of rainwater that is currently collected is next to none.
However, the final proposal is the most disturbing: the recent announcement to increase private participation in the city‚ water management.
Since 1993, four companies have held service contracts in water management in four sections of the Federal District. Each of these companies is made up of 51 percent Mexican companies and 49 percent multinationals, such as Veolia Water and Suez Environment. The contracts include responsibility for user registration, metering and billing.
On August 20th, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard announced that there will be further private participation in water management. Although he didnt provide details, we know that the proposal includes giving bulk water to private companies to distribute and that in addition to their previous responsibilities of metering and billing, the companies will now be responsible for repairing pipes and reducing leakage. However, not all the city‚ delegaciones (regional areas that make up the city) will participate in this scheme. The five with the biggest technical and social challenges (most populated, with issues around quality and quantity, subsiding soil, etc.) will remain under the authority of the city government.
What worries water activists most is: 1) the lack of precise information about this proposal, and 2) the empirical experiences in Mexico and the rest of the world that prove that private water management does not bring the promised efficiency. In fact, these companies have been repeatedly incapable of complying with their contracts. Even when companies fail to meet contract obligations, examples from Buenos Aires to Paris to Dar es Salam, Tanzania show that remunicipalization is an incredibly difficult process.
The Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water (COMDA) has expressed its concerns regarding this proposal. The many failures of private water management, both national and international, cannot be ignored. Every water struggle is unique, and the struggle here will be complicated by the city‚ severe crisis of human-provoked scarcity; but residents of Mexico City need to learn from experiences elsewhere to demand that the local government take real responsibility for meeting the demands of its citizens.