Flowing movement

Building alternative water governance in Mexico

Gerardo Alatorre Frenk

The social, political and environmental conflicts regarding the management of water in today’s world are a clear indication of the tensions at this point in history, when capitalist greed for what it sees as ‘energy, water and mineral resources’ knows no bounds.

This neoliberal model of capital accumulation has serious consequences for the social fabric, for people’s access to water, and for watersheds and territories. Many parts of the world – including Mexico – are battlegrounds, and what is at stake is the very life of communities and ecosystems.

We live in a transnational world. A global corporate elite runs financial and trade flows, geopolitics and the mass media, and most Latin American governments are cogs in that machine. This has a direct impact on water-management policies: as well as promoting the privatization of water supply and sanitation services, they are pursuing structural reforms whose aim is to ensure that water is available for open-cast mining and energy projects (hydroelectric power plants, fracking and biofuels).

Nevertheless, governments can and are being obliged to open up political space for other ways of approaching and organizing the management of watersheds and water.

Here we will look at the case of Agua para Tod@s Agua para la Vida (Water for All, Water for Life), an example of how people are developing a future different to what the hegemonic system tells us is the only one possible.

It may be that alternative futures – rooted in the community, solidarity-based and sustainable – are now emerging all over the world; if it sometimes seems difficult to see them, this is probably because they are so new that we as yet have not words for them.

The time to defend water and territory is now

As the corporate project to control water as a source of capital accumulation takes shape, and as its social and environmental effects become visible, other projects are also emerging. In these, water is seen as a common good that is vital for human and other living beings, an element that sustains health, food and various basic social needs.

Against the attempts to centralize decision-making so that it serves the accumulation of wealth and power, political actors are seeking to introduce democratic, decentralized forms of government so that communities at different levels can take control of the management of water and watersheds. In this way, what is gaining substance is an alternative power, an emerging power, a counter-power that is taking hold in organizations, institutions, networks, programmes, policy manifestos, and so on, from the local to the global scale.

Water has become a battleground, but it is also a powerful political glue.

Water has become a battleground, but it is also a powerful political glue. When water is at stake, it brings together social and political actors with very different interests, including high-level diplomats. In 2010, a spark lit by the Bolivian government ignited a conflagration of international pressure, leading to the signing of a UN General Assembly resolution that establishes the human right to water and sanitation.

The Mexican government signed that resolution, and two years later the human right to water was enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. This meant there was a need for new legislation on water to ensure that people were able to exercise that right; the new law was to be called the General Water Law (Ley General de Aguas – LGA).

Article 4 of the constitution states that ‘Everyone has the right to access clean, good quality water in sufficient quantities and at affordable rates for their personal and domestic use, together with sanitation services for its disposal. […] The state will guarantee this right and the law will define the basis, support systems and arrangements for access to water resources and their fair, sustainable use, stipulating the participation of federal government agencies and municipalities, as well as the participation of citizens for the achievement of such purposes’ (emphasis added).

As a result of this constitutional reform, something very unusual took place in Mexico: civil society got organized, without going through the political parties, and drew up a citizens’ initiative for the law. A group of politically active professionals from around the country brought together various civil society organizations (CSOs), community water committees and researchers who had already been mobilizing for years at the local, regional or watershed level, to build counter-power on issues linked to water management. We believed it was the right time to move towards a more consistent coordination of our efforts, with a view to influencing national-level policy as well as to boost, strengthen and protect regional campaigns.

What ultimately brought us together was the aim of building what we call good governance of water

The first National Congress, held in December 2012 and attended by about 400 people, led to the setting up of the Water for All, Water for Life National Coordinating Committee (see, in which the author has been participating. The proposal was not only to draft a Citizens’ Initiative for the General Water Law (IC-LGA); what ultimately brought us together was the aim of building what we call good governance of water, meaning the democratic, participatory, decentralized and sustainable management of water and watersheds.

Those currently involved in Water for All include some trade unions and rural organizations, grassroots church communities, journalists and lawyers, as well as several community water committees, CSOs and academics.

How can synergies be developed between such diverse actors? How can links be made between the different timescales and spaces where counter-power is built? How do the different knowledge bases, ways of working and powers that come together in Agua para Tod@s engage in dialogue and complement each other? These are some of the questions we will address here. But first, let’s look at what is at stake.

The management of water in Mexico

Mexico is a country of huge social, cultural and climate contrasts. More than half the population lives in poverty, while a few families are among the richest in the world. There is significant ethnic diversity, as reflected for example in the 7.4 million speakers of indigenous languages, of which there are more than 70; Náhuatl is the mother tongue of nearly two million people, while for more than 860,000 it is one of the Mayan languages.

As far as climate and water diversity is concerned, the entire north of the country experiences drought, while in the south there are areas that flood during the rainy season. Three million people have no access to safe drinking water, and 40 million suffer the consequences of the over-exploitation of aquifers.

Ways of organizing the water supply are also very diverse. In rural and semi-urban areas of Mexico, communities usually have water committees in charge of maintaining the springs or wells where families draw water and of organizing community work to build water-storage and distribution infrastructure. At the other extreme are the gigantic works of infrastructure with which the megacities seek to meet their water supply and waste-water drainage needs.

Mexico’s water policy has tended to be centralized. The federal government, through the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), has the power to award concessions. Although there have been processes of decentralization since 2004, they have not led to more social and community participation but rather to increased private-sector involvement.

At the local level, municipal governments are responsible for water and sanitation services. Their management procedures usually rule out participation by local residents and instead foster clientelism and corruption. In many cases, funds are used in a discretionary way to benefit party-political or private interests.

The ineffectiveness of municipal service operators has been used as an argument in favour of privatizing the services. At the same time, as we mentioned earlier, water is becoming a key factor in mining and energy projects. These policies infringe 10% of the Mexican population’s right to water, and the effects are aggravated by the above-mentioned climate extremes, which could be exacerbated as a result of global climate change.

Different visions, different proposals

In 2015, the Mexican federal government submitted its LGA bill to parliament. It was not approved, partly because of the regulatory infringements involved in the government’s attempt to fast-track the bill, and partly because citizens and some politicians were strongly opposed to it.

The government’s proposed law favoured privatization and the use of water by different types of megaprojects. It also perpetuated the ‘linear’ and ‘pipe-heavy’ features of the previous law: linear, because it continues to suggest that water management should be based on the extraction > transport > use > pollution > waste sequence rather than a cyclical arrangement; and ‘pipe-heavy’ because it proposes to build transport, pumping and drainage infrastructure, bringing water over great distances in order to supply homes and industries, with adverse, sometimes irreversible, effects on watersheds and the expropriated communities.

The Citizens’ Initiative for the General Water Law (IC-LGA), in contrast, is aimed at building water governance based on the ethical–political principles of sustainability, equity and participation.

The first states that we are responsible for guaranteeing access to water both for human communities and for all other species and ecosystems. The principle of equity obliges the state to guarantee that people can obtain the minimum quantity of water necessary to meet their day-to-day needs, regardless of their purchasing power, age, sex and place of residence. The principle of participation affirms that it is at the local level, in the management of springs, streams, wells and water intakes in each community or neighbourhood, where it is possible to reinforce people’s knowledge, their forms of organization and the mechanisms they use to plan, run and supervise water management. The commitment here is to decentralize knowledge and power.

People from very different sectors participated in drafting the IC-LGA: professionals from various organizations and civil society networks, and teams of academics who work with rural and urban communities on territorial management issues. In 2012 and 2013 the work was entrusted to commissions, which developed policy proposals for different thematic areas, including municipal water and sanitation systems, watershed management, aquifer protection, concession systems, water justice, the prevention of pollution, and water for food sovereignty. A team of lawyers translated these proposals into legal language and a final draft was agreed in 2014.

Water Working Group, 2016

Water Working Group, 2016

Over the course of 2013 and 2014, 99 public forums were organized in different regions of the country, involving grassroots organizations, citizen groups, academic institutions and some government officials and members of parliament. These forums made suggestions that enabled the proposed law to be firmed up. In February 2015 the Citizens’ Initiative for the LGA was presented to deputies and senators at a public event and that same month it was published in the Senate Gazette, endorsed by the signatures of 22 senators from four political parties.

The process of drafting the IC-LGA and developing a national movement for good governance of water has involved dialogues between very different types of knowledge and discourses.

One illustrative example concerns the different ways of thinking about and organizing the territory: the watershed approach, which tends to be used by hydrologists, geographers and green activists, can be very different to the ancestral mythical idea of the territory, the logic of production management and the agrarian control on which community territorial management is usually based. But the dialogue between them gives rise to some very useful learning for both sides, and any potential contradictions are turned into complementarities.

We witnessed a ‘cross-pollination’ between scientific knowledge and the deeply rooted practical knowledge of people working in the territories. In the area of rights, there is mutual feedback between the immediate requirements of communities and the demands of activists campaigning at the national and international level for greater transparency and against impunity for transnational corporations (TNCs).

The IC-LGA sets priorities for how water is to be used and allocated, with ecosystems at the top of the list, followed by personal domestic use and in third place food sovereignty. Concessions for other uses would be awarded only if there is water available once the priorities have been met. In the planning of water and watershed management, the key documents would be the Stewardship Plans, which would be drawn up at the local level and agreed by consensus.

The proposal is well grounded in technical, social, political, financial and legal terms. In acknowledgement of this, it was adopted by the Water Resources Commission in the Chamber of Deputies over the course of 18 months (2013–2014).

For water management (planning, implementation, oversight and sanctions) the IC-LGA proposes an institutional structure made up of citizen-run bodies at different levels, respecting communities’ uses and customs, especially their forms of organization. The aim is to ensure that people can have access to water as a result of integrated watershed management, and a precautionary principle is applied: any activity or project that could pose a risk to communities, their territory and their water will need to be submitted for their prior free and informed consent.

Water for All is strengthening and linking the different strands of counter-power to which those involved in them at the local, regional or institutional level were already contributing. The IC-LGA has helped to bring them together, as it complements strategies to build good governance of water in the here and now.

(We perfectly know that law and law enforcement may be very distant one from another; numerous Mexican laws, which could promote participatory and sustainable territorial management, are dead letter when the correlation of forces in real life is unfavourable to them.) But let’s look at what the legislative strategy involved.

Legislative strategies to build counter-power

Mexican law provides for two ways in which citizens can present policy proposals: the Citizens’ Initiative (which requires the support of nearly 110,000 citizens) and the People’s Consultation (which, when signed by 1.6 million citizens, makes it obligatory for parliament to study a proposed law).

Enough signatures – with the respective official identity card numbers – have now been collected to present the Citizens’ Initiative, thanks to the active participation in the campaign to gather signatures by a large number of community water systems, indigenous peoples, students, researchers, trade unions and rural organizations.

Water for All has continued to open up discussion spaces, both to add support and to make the adjustments that the draft law requires. In 2015 and 2016, the National Consensus for Water was convened by five university rectors to analyse and make proposals based on national and international perspectives. Twenty-three events and discussion forums were held, generating proposals to strengthen the IC-LGA, and new organizations became involved in promoting it and building good governance of water.

Agua para todos in Congress

Water for All has reflected on the prospects for the different LGA proposals in the current pre-election political scenario (federal elections will be held in 2018). The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) currently controls the executive branch of government and Congress, but its electoral prospects are gloomy and the ruling party itself is divided with regard to the LGA: the PRI has not accepted the federal government’s proposal.

There is high political tension around legislation on water. On the one hand, energy and mining corporations want Mexican law to guarantee them the possibility of lodging a claim against the Mexican state at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID); on the other hand a strong current, both from CSOs, in public opinion and in some parts of the government, opposes the idea of privatizing the management of water and authorizing its use in megaprojects.

This is a delicate political matter. The authorities know from experience that it is risky to try to fast-track the bill: the attempts to date have turned into opportunities for Water for All to make its counter-proposal widely known, taking advantage of the press coverage and the public reaction.

The federal government is unlikely to want to incur the political cost of a possible rejection of its General Water Law, and we can therefore assume that it will be in the 2018–2024 government term that we will see the two proposals clash, in both the parliamentary and the socio-political arena.

In the meantime, the Water for All strategy has two key elements. First, it seeks to draft and lobby for state-level water laws that take their inspiration from the IC-LGA; since 2016, organizations in 12 of the country’s states have been involved in this effort, and talks have been held with local deputies from various parties to build consensus. Second, as we will see, Water for All is attempting to build good governance of water here and now. To put this in context, it is worth taking a brief look at recent history.

Control of water and territory in Mexico

The Mexican Revolution led to the 1917 Constitution that promoted land reform. During the twentieth-century agrarian reform, 100 million hectares – equivalent to half of the country’s territory and nearly two thirds of all its rural land – were transferred to small-scale peasants. About 30,000 ejidos (collectively owned lands) and comunidades agrarias (based on the recognition of indigenous ancestral territories) were registered.

Article 27 of the constitution states that water, including underground water, belongs to the nation; it can only be used when the federal government awards a concession. But in the early 1990s, the ‘Chicago boys’ took power and the government negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Canada, which meant that it had to make changes to the mining law, the forestry law and the National Water Law.

Historical rights to water were put aside and replaced by a single concessions system that includes ways to buy and sell it. Article 27 was also modified to establish a land market and dismantle collective ownership of the ejidos. When NAFTA entered into force, the Zapatista communities in Chiapas rose up in arms…

There have been mobilizations all over the country by communities seeking to keep control of their land and water

A quarter of a century later, the ‘regularization’ of the land owned by ejidos and its transformation into private property has undoubtedly moved ahead. But there have also been mobilizations all over the country by communities seeking to keep control of their land and water and defend it against a range of threats, including energy and open-cast mining megaprojects.

Combining legal actions with physical control of the land and various other strategies, campaigns to defend water and territory have sprung up throughout Mexico. To support their campaigns, rural and indigenous communities have been making use of legal defence tools such as the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled: ‘1) before taking the decision to implement a project, the state must provide peoples and communities with complete information, which must include studies of the project’s social, cultural and environmental impact, and 2) before issuing any authorization and/or permit, the state must organize a consultation to obtain the community’s consent, and it must take place in the community’s language, abide by its usages and customs, and last as long as may be necessary’.

The international legitimacy of community control over territories and water derives from General Comment No. 15 on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and ILO Convention 169, which foregrounds indigenous peoples but also begins to support comparable peoples. In the case of Mexico, these would be rural or urban communities with Mesoamerican cultural roots.

In the states of Chiapas, Michoacán, Oaxaca and the Sierra Norte de Puebla there are important experiences of community control of territory. One notable example is the municipality of Cuetzalan in Puebla.

In 2009, after the water supply had been seriously affected by tourism projects, a series of situation assessment workshops were held with widespread community participation and the support of a team of university students. In 2010, this team presented the results of the assessment to the communities and consulted them on a territorial organization proposal that would divide the municipality into zones and establish what could and could not be done in each zone. After 14 months’ work, an Ecological Territorial Organization Plan was approved at an official session of the local council, thus acquiring the status of a law.

Since then, it has enabled the communities to protect themselves against energy and mining projects promoted by the government and various companies.

Building good governance of water

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.

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Citizen oversight

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 against the ‘Guidelines’ that would legalize the use of water for fracking.

Poster for the national Caravan tour caravan tour in defense of water, territory, work and life

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.

To sum up

The experience of Water for All shows the scope and the limitations of organizing by citizens to build counter-power. One day we might have the satisfaction of seeing a mining or hydroelectric power project suspended (even if only temporarily); and the very next day we might be frustrated and angry to find out about the approval (with no consultation or debate) of laws that act directly against the human right to water. A growing number of people are aware, and organizational capacity is being strengthened at the local and regional level, but the structures that enable government institutions to exercise power in a top-down manner are still in place.

What have we learned about emerging power, and about building counter-power? First, we have seen the importance of combining different strategies: to unite legislative initiatives with direct action on territories, and to bring together a diversity of actors, cultures, epistemes and spatial and temporal scales in dialogue and complementarity. At the same time, we need to build cross-disciplinary knowledge from dialogue between academic and non-academic knowledge bases.

Gradually, we also need to make links on different scales, to ensure that local struggles rooted in specific territories can provide and receive feedback to and from the work done by CSOs and university activists at the regional, national and international scale.

There is a need to develop synergies with campaigns on human rights, for the right to food and health, for the right to information and consultation, for the right to a healthy environment and for the right to cultural diversity. What might appear as different struggles turn out to be, ultimately, the same and only one.

At this time of neoliberal policies and mafia states, the main lesson may be about the importance of keeping up our hopes of building a fairer, more sustainable future, where we can all exercise our right to water and many other fundamental rights.


Gerardo Alatorre Frenk is a founding member of the Group for Environmental Studies (GEA A.C.), where he worked from 1977 to 2000. He has a Masters in Rural Development and a Doctorate in Anthropology. Since 2010, he has been a member of the Veracruz Assembly on Environmental Initiatives and Defense (LAVIDA). He is a research-scholar in the Education Investigation Institute in Veracruz University and bases his research work on learning that emerges from social movements defending territories

Gerardo Alatorre Frenk


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