The Mexican government opens the door to the private concession of protected waters

A woman washes her clothes in the waters of Lake Chapala. Photo: Hector Guerrero

 Academics and civil society organizations see in the decrees a way to “do business” with water resources whose use was limited, while the Conagua denies that it’s a privatization

By: Ignacio Fariza

Mexico, June 19, 2018

Last June 5, the Mexican government promulgated a dozen decrees that eliminate protection over the North American country’s large water basins and that, in practice, open the door to the use of that water on the part of private agents. In the cited presidential decrees, Enrique Peña Nieto, converts the prohibited zones — in which the extraction of water is almost completely restricted— into reserve zones —also protected, but in which is permitted, in a limited way, the exploitation, use or utilization of the water, even by private parties, if the authorities consider it “of public usefulness”— and leaves, according to two jurists consulted, in the hands of the National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua, Conagua) the possibility if granting concessions for the use of this resource to companies from different sectors, among them mining, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the refreshment industry or the generation of hydro-electric energy. The aforementioned Conagua has strongly denied in a statement that it’s about the privatization of water.

The dozen resolutions promulgated change the status of a “very significant” amount of water in Mexico, according to Rodrigo Gutiérrez, a researcher at the Institute of Legal Research of UNAM and the author of several works on the right to water in Latin American country. “However, the government goes further: not only does it go from prohibited to reserved, but the door is also opened to the concession of part of the volumes to corporations and that private organisms doing business with the water. In and of itself, the decree does not privatize anything but it is one more step —and a serious one— towards privatization of this resource,” he adds. “It’s something very worrisome, which enables access to water for actors that it was costing work.”

The measure, which supposes changing the cataloguing of almost 300 of Mexico’s 757 basins, reaches the doors of the coming July 1 presidential elections in which all the polls give the ruling party, the PRI, a very low probability of staying in power. The affected basins concentrate, according to what La Jornada published last week, more than half of Mexico’s lakes and rivers.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the organization for the protection of nature that covered for the Mexican president at the event in which the decrees were announced, defended the measure. “It establishes reserves of water that guaranty the availability of this resource for the population and nature for the next 50 years,” it emphasizes in a statement dated last June 5. “These decrees represent a vision of the future, since they outline a sustainable path for these basins, which will avoid the serious over- exploitation, pollution and scarcity that we experience in many other rivers in the country,” said Jorge Rickards, head of the WWF on Mexican soil.

In contrast, associations of Mexican civil society in defense of water have put out the cry in the sky for what they consider a “setback” for a country that suffers a growing water stress in the central and northern regions. In these regions —in which the bulk of the population and the GDP are concentrated, but that only have a third of the national water—are part of the basins affected by the regulatory change. The decrees, criticizes the national coordinator of Water for All, the largest Mexican entity in defense of the human right to water, which groups together almost thirty organizations across the country, “they are going to allow the Conagua to guaranty the volumes that the mining companies, oil companies and the privatizers of urban water systems are demanding, at the expense of the rights to water of indigenous peoples, agrarian nuclei and rural communities.”

According to this organization’s analysis, up to 50.000 use rights of ejidos and indigenous communities in these protected zones that have already expired will be released in order to grant concessions to private companies. “It’s a highly risky movement,” emphasizes María Luisa Torregrosa, from Flacso and the Water Network of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. “By removing the ban on concessions, what we have is the future possibility of ceding the right to water for several decades. And it also opens the way for the transfer of water from some zones to others. It is a form of liberalizing the water that was protected due to a scarcity problem,” says, in the same line,Karina Kloster, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico City and the author of various works on the water problem in the North American country.

“Although the Conagua has systematically violated the bans in the last three decades,” criticizes Elena Burns, who is responsible for planning at the Center for Sustainability of the Autonomous Metropolitan University and a collaborator with Water for all, “the corporations require legal security in their concessions; thus the measure.” “We cannot permit this,” complements Raúl Pacheco-Vega, a professor at the Center for Investigation and Teaching Economics (CIDE, its initials in Spanish) specializing in the management of natural resources. “It’s a very clear message: do business with us because you don’t know if you’ll be able to do business with the incoming government.”

According to the calculations of Pacheco-Vega, 80% of the Mexican water basins are already over-exploited, and this legal change will only deepen that situation. “Basically, what these decrees permit is changing Mexican water policy from centered on conservation to privatization,” he adds by telephone. “It is, in short, a secondary privatization: it’s not, literally, about selling water at this time, but it does authorize its future use for industrial and for services.”

Some jurists, like Yenny Vega —a researcher in the School of Law at the University of Montreal (Canada) that has studied different cases that affect the distribution of water resources in North America and South America— put the accent on the “contradictions” the decrees incur: “They describe the use of bans as a tool to protect and, later, they say that it’s taking them away to protect the environment and that the measure seeks to stimulate economic development. It is presented as an environmental protection, but it’s completely the opposite.”

The only academic consulted by EL PAÍS who removes iron from the decree is Gonzalo Hatch, of the UNAM’s Research Center on North America: “The big problem is that in Mexico there isn’t a method of control over the method of assigning concessions; besides the fact that managing water by decree and not by law is authoritarian. Nevertheless, these (decrees) affect only the surface water, and 97% of the available water in Mexico is underground.”

“Mexican waters are neither public nor private, but rather national”

 “In Mexico there are neither public nor private waters, but rather national. They grant concessions to private parties and assign them to public organisms,” it clarified this Tuesday in a press conference called before the information appeared about the alleged privatization of water after the ten decrees published at the beginning of June, said the professor of assignments relative to environmental regulation at the UNAM, María del Carmen Carmona. “And the president of the Republic has the ability, for reasons of public interest, to decree the bans that are necessary. The big problem is that the XX Century didn’t pass the regulation of water in Mexico: there is nothing, for example, about the 70% of the water that we consume, which comes from wells.”

Given the proliferation of critical voices since the promulgation of the decrees, the Conagua made public this Monday a statement in which it denies that the measure supposes the privatization of water. “To the contrary,” the commission emphasizes, “it would permit preserving the environment and guaranty water for the human consumption of 18 million inhabitants that are still not born, in a 50-year projection [sic].” A spokesperson for this public entity has postponed any declaration on the part of the organism until this Tuesday. “With the measures adopted, Mexico exceeds by 12% the international recommendations regarding the volume of water associated with the ecological flow. We are being more environmentally aware than first world countries,” ends the Conagua’s note.


Originally Published in Spanish by El País

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee


One Comment on “The Mexican government opens the door to the private concession of protected waters

  1. Pingback: Zapatista News & Analysis | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

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