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The many faces of water privatization in Mexico

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Most frequently people think of water privatization as the private management of water systems. This comes in a variety of formats from full privatization to service contracts for municipal and city systems. However water privatization comes in many more different forms: bottled water, water pollution, water grabbing and private companies lobbying for water policies that favor their agenda. All these forms of water privatization are problematic and bring injustice and environmental degradation.

In Mexico, we have all sorts of water privatization. In fact, the Mexican water authority (CONAGUA) has always been happy to be part of the mainstream international elite that formulates and carries forward international water policies. Mexico was chosen to host the World Water Forum as recognition of its outstanding behavior in promoting water privatization and mercantilization in the country.

According with the Beverage Marketing Corporation, Mexico now holds the first place in bottled water per capita. This is certainly related to aggressive marketing by bottling companies, but more importantly to the lack of information Mexicans suffer regarding water quality at home. In some cases, we know it is an outright health risk to drink tap water directly. In others, we just don't know, and, when in doubt, people buy bottled water. However, is this bottled water guaranteed safe? I am afraid that it is not. Regulations and inspections for bottled water are completely insufficient and people might be spending a lot of money on water that is still unhealthy.

When we talk about water pollution, we are talking about de facto privatization. When a company cheaply gets rid of the toxics it uses by dumping them into a river or stream, it is in fact preventing others from using that water. This is also water privatization. The Mexican water authority admits that more than 70 per cent of our freshwater is polluted and that less than 20 per cent of industrial drainage is treated (CONAGUA, 2011. "Informe Estadísticas del agua en México" Conagua y Semarnat. pp. 38 and 74).

Moreover, Mexico suffers because of mining. Mining companies are big water users and polluters and Mexico is a major producer of metals worldwide (second place for silver production). Minera San Xavier, in the state of San Luis Potosí, has an open pit for silver and gold that uses 42 million liters of water per day. It uses cyanide for the leaching process to separate the valuable metals. If this wasn't enough of an abuse of water, the corporation decided to make a waste rock dump where the community's stream used to run. This stream contributed to replenishment of the aquifer of the region.

Finally, in Mexico we also have increasing privatization in water management, while in some other countries the trend has been changing back towards public management. Saltillo has long been the favorite example of privatization success for its promoters. However, water tariffs have increased dramatically and access to water by poor communities is a daily concern. Even community shared taps are cut off if one person cannot pay (COMDA, 2011. "Las turbias aguas de la privatización en México"). Now, the neighboring municipality, Ramos Arizpe, has copied the format and was recently privatized. What was the first action of this new water company? Sending people invoices for past payments, many of which had been paid, but since their system didn't register the payment, people were threatened with disconnection.

The problem with water privatization, in Mexico and elsewhere, is that it dispossesses people from a common good that should be managed as such. Acknowledging water as something that we must share among people and the environment would completely change the current dynamic of water appropriation. It would also bring more equity and justice to society. When rethinking water and environmental policies for the coming years, the harsh consequences of water privatization must not be forgotten. Water must be managed as a commons and that will take us a large step forward towards sustainability and justice.

Written by Claudia Campero for The Broker's 'Prioritising Water' consultation. The aim of the consultation is to bring together international experts to pool their knowledge on the role of water in the Post-2015 development agenda. You can also follow the debate on twitter: #tbwaterdebate.

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