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Community Water Management Stuck in Legal Limbo*

Legal recognition is being sought for community-based water services, which supply this vital resource to some 2,500 rural communities in Mexico.

Water management is crucial to ensure a sufficient supply for rural communities. Pictured here is a cenote (sinkhole) in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Water management is crucial to ensure a sufficient supply for rural communities. Pictured here is a cenote (sinkhole) in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Dec 19 2012 (IPS) - Community-based water supply systems, which serve thousands of rural communities in Mexico, are seeking official recognition under the new federal legal framework currently under development.

“We are stuck in a legal limbo, because the law does not recognise us, but at the same time we are required to apply for concessions and make investments,” Ricardo Ovando, a member of the Tecámac Drinking Water System, told Tierramérica*.

This non-governmental, non-profit entity has been operating since the 1950s and was legally incorporated in 1997. It administers six wells and supplies drinking water to some 4,000 users in Tecámac, a municipality located 40 km north of the national capital in the state of Mexico, with a population of around 365,000.

The Tecámac Drinking Water System is no stranger to persecution. In 2005, the municipal government seized control of its installations. It managed to recover them in 2007 after filing an appeal in court.

There are 2,517 water management entities of this type in Mexico, operating in the form of independent systems or rural water boards or committees, which serve 2,454 rural municipal seats, according to figures from the non-governmental Environmental Studies Group.

The rest of the country’s 198,000 rural communities are supplied by state or municipal government water systems or by private concession holders.

But in this country of almost 117 million people, 30 percent of households still do not have piped water service, and another 15 percent are supplied with water every three days through other means, according to government statistics.

The National Water Law of 1992 does not officially recognise community-based water systems, despite the fact that these operate thanks to the rural watershed boards that were created to act as a liaison between the National Water Commission, a government agency, and representatives of water users and federal, state and municipal authorities.

“Communities take care of natural resources and should be able to decide what to do with them,” Esteban Solano, a resident of the town of San Pedro Atlapulco in the municipality of Ocoyoacac, told Tierramérica. Located in the state of Mexico, this is an area rich in forest and water resources.

The town is supplied with water from three of the four natural springs that flow from the mountains. The supply is so abundant that they are also able to pump 22,000 cubic metres of water daily to Mexico City. In return, the government of the capital has compensated them with around four million dollars since 2006.

The Constitution of Mexico already recognises access to water as a basic human right, which was established as a binding right by the United Nations in 2010.

But the Mexican Congress stills needs to adopt a new law incorporating this change, and has until February to do so.

The new government, which took power on Dec. 1, is preparing a bill, but very few details have been released. However, during his electoral campaign, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a package of 38 measures to guarantee the universal supply of water, including the construction of dams, aqueducts and treatment plants, and the creation of a Secretariat (Ministry) of Water.

In addition, in the coming months, the Peña Nieto administration must present a National Water Programme to cover the next five years, up until 2018.

There is a need for a “critical and systematic” review of all “concessions, allocations and permits to guarantee the participation of local communities and of those affected,” Rolando Cañas, the president of the Mexican Academy of Environmental Law, told Tierramérica.

In the meantime, communities that administer their own water resources and other non-governmental organisations are drafting a proposal for the future water law.

Among other points, they propose recognition of self-management systems; community-municipal co-management; the creation of local drinking water and sanitation programmes; agreements among various municipalities; and community oversight of the design, construction, operation and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants.

“The law should have a human rights-based perspective. We are moving towards a very ambitious paradigm, we have to safeguard a public good. And we have to think beyond watershed management, because every user defends their use of water,” researcher Raquel Gutiérrez Nájera from the public University of Guadalajara, in the western state of Jalisco, told Tierramérica.

Water is abundant from the centre to the south of Mexico, but is scarce in the north, which suffered an intense drought this year, something that will become more frequent in the future due to climate change, scientists predict.

Reinforcing community-based water management is an essential step to confront the threat of privatisation, which could gain a foothold under the future legal framework.

“There is a drive towards privatisation. One example is the construction of houses, in which developers are provided with wells for their own management. But the water is running out,” said Ovando. In the area where he lives, there are eight independently managed water systems operating, and users pay close to four dollars every two months for the service.

“Forests are water factories. We take care of them, and it is only fair that we should be compensated,” said Solano.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

 
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