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Mexico's water wise future.

In a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. yesterday, the presumptive front runner in the Mexican Presidential election (slated for July 2018), Andrés Manuel López Obrador, laid out his plans for Mexico if he is elected. While many of the goals are noble--fighting corruption, building an economy that provides opportunities for all, ending the cycle of violence with drug cartels--some may prove to be deeply impactful on water resources in Mexico.

Echoing the words of many populists that have come before, Obrador called for growth of the agricultural sector to a level that would allow Mexico to rely completely on its own products to feed all its people. Obrador also called for the revitalization of rural communities and a migration from cities, which will be deemphasized in his government. These intentions are admirable. With a strong and diversified agricultural economy, innovation in water use may come faster. But Mexico is already struggling with water shortages, over-tapped aquifers and other water security threats, many of which would become more acute if the needs of the agricultural sector grew.

In addition, while the reinvestment in the rural areas of Mexico would doubtless help to spread economic benefits outside of the cities, for water the decision will cause problems. While cities have to build infrastructure to provide for all of the citizens, there is a shared cost burden and a substantial ratepayer base. In rural areas, particularly in previously undeveloped areas, infrastructure will need to be built: pipes will have to extend from sources to homes, treatment plants will need to be located closer to new communities, sanitation treatment systems will have to proliferate around the country. By building the rural areas up, Mexico will have to build them out.

With more pipes and more infrastructure comes higher costs and greater potential for leakages and contamination. In most water systems around the U.S., leakage loss from pipes is significant, both from sanitation and water pipes. The systems have evolved over time to address these issues, time which Mexico's rural areas will not necessarily have. But even the most developed urban systems in Mexico have struggled. Mexico City's water and sanitation infrastructure was deeply affected by an earthquake in 1985 that caused widespread contamination. The problems still continue, with over 30% of water lost in transport. This means that even if the infrastructure is built, the sheer complexity of the system will cause greater problems. With more pipes come more leaks.

By encouraging people to move away from the cities, this plan will undermine the provision of water in Mexico's cities. Whether it is water stagnating and becoming toxic in pipes from lack of use, greater numbers of harmful bacteria growing and contaminating the water, less money from rates for maintenance and innovation of the city systems, or the write-off of millions of dollars of now unneeded infrastructure, the costs connected to water alone will be exceptionally high. While the needs of cities have been a significant driver of water overuse--particularly groundwater overuse--in Mexico, the shift that Obrador offers has the potential to harm the provision of water even more.

In 2015, the government suggested privatization of water systems through the General Water Law to address the significant shortfalls in water provision. These efforts were derailed by grassroots and institutionalized protests. But for Mexico to be able to meet the goals of the Obrador government, they might need to turn to private interests to finance build the infrastructure. While this would seem to be antithetical to Obrador's theory of governance, it remains to be seen whether his desire to redistribute the population into rural areas will overcome his distrust of foreign corporations and global trade.

All of these physical realities are couched in the Constitutional right to water in Mexico. In Article 4, the Constitution commands that every person has the right to sufficient clean water. While the contours of this term are still being understood as Mexico implements this right, the meaning is clear: when rural communities are built, they will be entitled to have water provided to them by the government as a matter of law. Article 4 also includes a right to sufficient, quality nutritious food, further deepening the needs for water. These are not idle commandments, though the government has struggled to ensure right to water because of cost, sheer need, and questions about scope.

With ruralization under Obrador, these problems could expand. While the stated right says that the people are entitled to sufficient water for "personal and domestic uses," it is unclear if the domestic uses are limited to sanitation, cooking and other basic purposes. If a family runs a small farm for their domestic consumption--because buying food may be too expensive or difficult--is that a domestic use under the law? If they raise cattle or other livestock to feed their families or to use in barter for other domestic needs, is that a domestic use for water? If water is used to generate power for the home, or to otherwise fuel the economic lives of families, is that a domestic use under the law? While the answers to these questions seem simple now--most of these things are not generally considered domestic uses under current practices--with a ruralization of Mexico, the answers may become more complex leading to valid legal challenges down the road.

Adding to all of these concerns are Obrador's desires to increase natural gas exploration and oil refining in Mexico. The impact on water of these efforts can be substantial, particularly when it comes to the potential for contamination of groundwater reserves.

Many of these issues are solvable with a proper plan in place. But the stress on water resources and water systems, coming all at once, could be catastrophic. Obrador's vision for Mexico seeks to end corruption, increase self-sufficiency, end the cycle of violence with cartels, encourage a recommitment to the land, to family and to a moral vision. These are all very worthy goals, but a clear path to implementation and a focus on water are critically important to avoid the further deepening of Mexico's water crisis.

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