Quantcast

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

Popular
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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Micromobility is the future of transportation in cities, but cities and investors need to plan ahead to avoid challenges. Jonny Kennaugh / Unsplash

By Carlo Ratti, Ida Auken

On the window of a bike shop in Copenhagen, a sign reads: Your next car is a bike.

Read More Show Less
An American flag waves in the wind at the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, California on May 17 where a trial against Monsanto took place. Alva and Alberta Pilliod, were awarded more than $2 billion in damages in their lawsuit against Monsanto, though the judge in the case lowered the damage award to $87 million. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

By Carey Gillam

For the last five years, Chris Stevick has helped his wife Elaine in her battle against a vicious type of cancer that the couple believes was caused by Elaine's repeated use of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide around a California property the couple owned. Now the roles are reversed as Elaine must help Chris face his own cancer.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Butterfly habitats have fallen 77 percent in the last 50 years. Pixabay / Pexels

The last 50 years have been brutal for wildlife. Animals have lost their habitats and seen their numbers plummet. Now a new report from a British conservation group warns that habitat destruction and increased pesticide use has on a trajectory for an "insect apocalypse," which will have dire consequences for humans and all life on Earth, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Six of the nineteen wind turbines which were installed on Frodsham Marsh, near the coal-powered Fiddler's Ferry power station, in Helsby, England on Feb. 7, 2017.

Sales of electric cars are surging and the world is generating more and more power from renewable sources, but it is not enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to stop the global climate crisis, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Read More Show Less
"Globally, we're starting to see examples of retailers moving away from plastics and throwaway packaging, but not at the urgency and scale needed to address this crisis." Greenpeace

By Jake Johnson

A Greenpeace report released Tuesday uses a hypothetical "Smart Supermarket" that has done away with environmentally damaging single-use plastics to outline a possible future in which the world's oceans and communities are free of bags, bottles, packaging and other harmful plastic pollutants.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Children are forced to wear masks due to the toxic smoke from peat land fires in Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR

By Irene Banos Ruiz

Pediatricians in New Delhi, India, say children's lungs are no longer pink, but black.

Our warming planet is already impacting the health of the world's children and will shape the future of an entire generation if we fail to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (35.6°F), the 2019 Lancet Countdown Report on health and climate change shows.

Read More Show Less
Private homes surround a 20 inch gas liquids pipeline which is part of the Mariner East II project on Oct. 5, 2017 in Marchwood, Penn. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The FBI is looking into how the state of Pennsylvania granted permits for a controversial natural gas pipeline as part of a corruption investigation, the AP reports.

Read More Show Less
Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles. Carolina Wild Ones / Facebook

Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less