The work of Water for All and the regional organizations and communities linked to it is aimed at building democratic, participatory and sustainable management of water, starting with day-to-day practice in micro-level spaces, covering the meso level whenever possible, and keeping up efforts – such as the campaign to collect signatures – to bring about changes at the macro level.
Key strategies include strengthening community water systems, creating citizen oversight bodies, resistance against privatization processes, joint management of watersheds with citizen participation, developing lobbying capacities based on public opinion, and building wider national and international networks.
Making community water systems more professional
We have already mentioned the water committees – types of organization that survive, as ‘use and custom’, in numerous communities in Mexico, enabling them to protect and maintain their water sources (wells, springs and streams). There are currently political tensions regarding these systems, and not just because of the attempts to privatize water supply services.
‘Municipalization’, a term that in other contexts implies bringing privatized water supply services back under public control, can mean the opposite in these communities: the loss of community control, as these services become the responsibility of municipal authorities that are unaccountable, tend to be corrupt, and manage water in a clientelist way.
Direct territorial control by local communities depends on the correlation of forces between different parties with an interest in water management and on how organized the communities are.
Is there political space today for direct territorial control by local communities? That depends both on the correlation of forces (tensions and negotiations between different parties with an interest in water management) and on how organized the communities are.
Water for All connects several regional experiences in watersheds in the central part of the country: Mexico City and the State of Mexico. It has forged links between the community water systems and certain universities that are assisting with assessments, the monitoring of water quality, the design of water-purification systems, and the mapping and protection of groundwater recharge and discharge areas.
Starting in 2015 the Tecámac Water System (in the State of Mexico) invited members of community water organizations, researchers and university students to discuss the situation and these organizations’ needs. In one event that year, several organizations decided to prioritize making the water committees more professional.
They were inspired by a video on the 2000 water war in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which encourages people to ‘restore trust, joy, transparency, reciprocity and the ongoing struggle in working collectively as a group, as well as the capacity to manage and live alongside water as a living being and not as a resource’.
In 2016 Tecámac launched the ‘Water School’, which runs training and shared learning courses and workshops so that the members of water committees from different regions can develop organizational and technical skills (on tariff policies, distribution, financial sustainability and infrastructure management). They have achieved successes with democratic control by users’ assemblies and accountability on the part of elected management committees.
Citizens are being trained and acquiring capacities to oversee the performance of the authorities and denounce cases of failure to fulfill their responsibilities. Water for All’s member organizations are involved in cases in Tabasco, Puebla, Saltillo (Coahuila) and Mexico City, among others. In some Mexico City districts, such as Xochimilco and Iztapalapa, citizen oversight is aimed at preventing the excessive pumping of underground water, which has already caused serious subsidence.
At the national level, the introduction of an Anticorruption System in 2016 provided the formal institutional space required for the social auditing of water.
Alternatives to the privatization of municipal or metropolitan systems
The CONAGUA budget for drinking water, drainage and sanitation infrastructure has been severely cut. The 2016 budget was slashed by 72% for 2017. We assume that the aim of these cuts is to put the service operators under pressure and force them to accept private-sector involvement.
The privatization of water service operators has already taken place in some communities in the states of Aguascalientes, Chiapas, Coahuila, Puebla, Quintana Roo and Veracruz. The failure to fulfil contracts and achieve the established targets (with the exception of efficiency in collecting payment, for which companies resort to cutting off the water when users fall behind with their bills), the inconsistent information presented by the concession-holder companies, the lack of transparency and the authorities’ failure to respond to users’ complaints, together with the surreptitious arrangements between the authorities and private-sector partners, can only lead to the assumption of corruption.
Mobilization by water users’ organizations has already achieved the re-municipalization of two privatized utilities (one in Navojoa in the state of Sonora, and the other in Ramos Arizpe in Coahuila). Where this has not been possible, they are taking forward important campaigns.
Formal spaces for citizen participation in watershed management
Various Mexican laws stipulate that mechanisms must be in place for citizens to participate in public policy. Unfortunately, their impact is limited, both because of their lack of financial autonomy and because their pronouncements are not binding: they can only make recommendations. The Watershed Councils are a case in point. They do not give a vote but they do – sometimes – provide a voice to different types of water users (urban public, farmers, industrial users, etc.) as well as to other interested groups (including academics).
Several members of Water for All participate in the Watershed Councils, or have done in the past, and they have managed to raise awareness in some of the councils. This became evident in 2016, when the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) organized a ‘consultation’ process on the LGA: several Watershed Councils insisted on the importance of including proposals from the IC-LGA.
Some regions have organizations that promote arrangements for the joint management of watersheds, whereby agreements are reached between rural communities and urban municipalities.
One example is the Pixquiac river basin in Xalapa, Veracruz. Urban users are taking shared responsibility for looking after the watershed where the water comes from: the water bill includes a contribution that is paid into a trust fund. This is used to finance community programmes that seek to ensure the sustainable management of the watershed, including, for example, setting up tree nurseries for reforestation and the restoration of degraded areas, the diversification of farming systems, community ecotourism and the production of firewood-efficient stoves.
Presence and visibility in the public space
Maintaining an active presence in public spaces for discussion and the widespread dissemination of information, both directly and through the mass media, has made it possible to inform public opinion that is in turn exerting political pressure. For example, publicizing the 72% cut in the federal budget allocated to the National Water Commission in 2017 (compared to the 2016 budget) made it possible to reveal the federal government’s plans to promote the ‘induced privatization’ of water and sanitation services.
The public has been informed about the problems, campaigns and viable alternatives. Cyber-activism has also been used, as in the case of the campaign on Change.org against the ‘Guidelines’ that would legalize the use of water for fracking.
Poster for the national caravan tour in defense of water, territory, work and life
There have been mass rallies in streets and squares, and marches such as the National Caravan in Defence of Water, Territory, Work and Life (organized by the Yaqui tribe in 2015). Following three routes, this caravan travelled the country for 10 days and converged in Mexico City; more than 100 organizations, indigenous peoples and social movements participated in it, travelling through 85 rural and urban communities, and achieving widespread media coverage (more than 5,000 items in the press, on TV and in social media).
These mass public events allow us all to learn from everyone else and they also boost our hopes, as they remind us that we are not alone. Although counter-power is built in the public space, one of its cornerstones is the subjective dimension, where the motivation to participate is developed and reproduced.
National and international networks
The positioning of Water for All’s proposals and actions on the political agenda was achieved thanks to the links (solidarity, mutual support and coming together at key moments) developed with various rural organizations at the national level, universities, important trade unions such as the telephone workers’ union, and social-environmental networks (the Mexican Anti-Fracking Alliance, the movement of communities affected by dams and in defence of rivers, etc.). The relationship with the Mexican Centre for Environmental Law has also been fruitful.
Ties have also been forged at the international level: with RedVIDA (the Inter-American Network for the Defence of the Human Right to Water), the Reclaiming Public Water network, and European organizations such as Agua de Todos (Portugal), K136 (Thessaloniki, Greece) and Acqua Benne Comune (Italy).
Gradually, with the help of ‘connecting agents’ (people or organizations familiar with different cultural, linguistic and organizational codes), different campaigning arenas are coming together.