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While Mexico Plays Politics With Water, Some Cities Flood and Others Go Dry

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While Mexico Plays Politics With Water, Some Cities Flood and Others Go Dry
Flooding in Nezahualcóyotl. Quadratín Estado de México

By Veronica Herrera

When Cape Town acknowledged in February that it would run out of water within months, South Africa suddenly became the global poster child for bad water management. Newspapers revealed that the federal government had been slow to respond to the city's three-year drought because the mayor belongs to an opposition party.

Cape Town is not alone. While both rich and poor countries are drying out, the fast-growing cities of the developing world are projected to suffer the most acute shortages in coming years.


Scarcity turns water into a powerful political bargaining chip. From Delhi to Nairobi, its oversight is fraught with inequality, corruption and conflict.

Mexico, too, has seen its water fall prey to cronyism in too many cities. I interviewed 180 engineers, politicians, business leaders and residents in eight Mexican cities for my book on politics and water. I was startled to discover that Mexican officials frequently treat water distribution and treatment not as public services but as political favors.

When Thunderstorms Are Cause for Panic

Nezahualcóyotl is a city in Mexico State near the nation's sprawling capital. Just after lunch one Friday afternoon in 2008, Pablo, an engineer, was showing me around town when news of an unexpected thunderstorm began lighting up his team's cell phones and pagers.

The engineers shouted back and forth, looking increasingly frantic. Having just begun my book research, I did not yet understand why an everyday event like a thunderstorm would elicit such panic.

Pablo explained that Nezahualcóyotl's aged electric grid often failed during big storms and that the city lacked backup generators. If a power outage shut down the local sanitation treatment plant, raw sewage would flood the streets.

These "aguas negras" carry nasty bacteria, viruses and parasitic organisms and can cause cholera, dysentery, hepatitis and severe gastroenteritis. If raw sewage also contains industrial wastewater—which is common in rapidly industrializing countries like Mexico—it may also expose residents to chemicals and heavy metals that can lead to everything from lead poisoning to cancer.

This is what Pablo and his colleagues hoped to prevent. While we avoided a flood that day, I later saw news articles reporting that sewage overflows were relatively common there. In fact, Nezahualcóyotl residents have been dealing with this multisystem failure for 30 years, complaining of gastrointestinal illness and skin lesions all the while.

So why hasn't this public health emergency been fixed? The answer is a primer on the tricky politics of urban water delivery in Mexico.

NezahualcóyotlSergio Ruiz / Flickr

Profit From Dysfunction

Public malfeasance in Mexico is widespread. Nearly 90 percent of citizens see the state and federal government as corrupt, according to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

The country's water situation, too, is pretty dire. The capital, Mexico City, is "parched and sinking," according to a powerful 2017 New York Times report, and 81 percent of residents say they don't drink from the tap, either because they lack running water or they don't trust its quality.

Officially, nearly all Mexicans have access to running water. But in practice, many—particularly poorer people—have intermittent service and very low pressure.

Workers in one city asked me to keep their identity anonymous before explaining why the water infrastructure there was so decrepit. It wasn't a lack of technology, they said. The mayor's team actually profits from refusing to upgrade the city's perpetually defunct hardware. That's because whenever a generator or valve breaks, they send it to their buddies' refurbishing shops.

Numerous engineers across Mexico similarly expressed frustration that they were sometimes forbidden from making technical fixes to improve local water service because of a mayor's "political commitments."

In Nezahualcóyotl, I met a water director who openly boasted of using public water service for his political and personal gain. In the same breath, he told me that he fought to keep water bills low in this mostly poor city because water was a "human right" but also that he had once turned off supplies to an entire neighborhood for weeks because of a feud with another city employee.

No Voter ID, No Water

Public officials also use water to influence politics.

My sources also alleged that the powerful Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI—which has long run Mexico State, and thus controlled its water supply—has turned off the water in towns whose mayors belonged to opposition parties. These tactics are not reported in the Mexican press, but according to my research the cuts tend to occur just before municipal elections—a bid to make the PRI's political competition look bad.

Water corruption isn't limited to Mexico State, or to the center-right PRI party.

The millions of Mexicans who lack reliable access to piped water are served by municipal water trucks, called "pipas," which drive around filling buildings' cisterns. This system seems prone to political exploitation.

Interviewees told me that city workers sometimes make people show their voter ID cards, demonstrating their affiliation to the governing party, before receiving their water. Across the country, mayoral candidates chase votes by promising to give residents free or subsidized water service, rather than to charge based on consumption.

The phenomenon of trading water as a political favor is probably more common in lower income communities, which rely almost exclusively on the pipas.

Water Is a State Secret

In Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state, I saw how water can hold a different kind of political power.

There, I found, the location of underground pipes and other critical water infrastructure was guarded like a state secret, known by just a handful of public workers. It made them irreplaceable.

So when customers complained that some municipal employees were asking for bribes to provide water, management hesitated to fire them. The workers controlled valuable information about the city's water system.

Water may be a human right. But when politicians manipulate it for their personal or political benefit, some cities flood while others go dry.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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