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Luttes pour l’eau dans les Amériques

Chloé Nicolas-Artero
Sébastien Velut
Graciela Schneier-Madanes
et al.

III- Repenser l’urbain à partir des enjeux environnementaux contemporains

Chapter 10. When Access to Water is Commodified: Mexico, a Case Study

Joshua Greene et Anna Peixoto-Charles

Texte intégral


1Access to water is one of the most basic concerns for people living in Mexico today. The nation is battling with numerous issues of water management and provision. To understand the current crisis, one needs to take into account the previous two decades (2000-2010) of chaotic urban expansion relocating an estimated 20 million people, 1/6 of the nation’s population, to urban periphery areas where public services are inadequate and non-existent [Marosi, 2017]. Simultaneously, cutbacks at the federal level have affected centralized metropolitan water systems in need of maintenance and repair. Wester et al. [2009, p. 409] report that the national water commission fell from 34,000 in 1989, to 14,000 employees by 2007 and budget reports show that the 2019 budget was the leanest yet, reduced by 46% since 2014. The poor management of urban waste and the deregulation of industrial contamination has reduced the nation’s available freshwater resources. In this context, Mexico has made an existential turn to the market, exemplified by the commodification of access to drinking water [Pacheco-Vega, 2019, 2015; Montero Contreras, 2015; Greene, 2018]. Stress on water resources and a failure to maintain and expand urban water systems has led to the management of water supplies throughout the country as intermittent supplies [Jimenez Cisneros & Torregrosa Armentia, 2007].

  • 1 In our five areas of study none of the water was treated before it was delivered to our case studie (...)
  • 2 WHO and UNICEF [2017] report that 73% of the population in Mexico drink bottled water. Previous res (...)

2Intermittent supplies allocate water to parts of the distribution system while other parts are shut down. This implies pressure changes within the network and introduces a high potential for contamination [Erickson et al., 2017].1 Meanwhile, drinking water in Mexico comes from a bottle.2

3Mexico leads the world in per capita bottled water consumption [IDB, 2011] and our research suggests that its consumption is even higher than previously reported. In this distorted version of modernity, trucks and push-carts filled with water bottles patrol the streets; workers hump garrafons (19 liter bottles) up stairs and into the homes of consumers; the poor lug their own jugs on their backs, on bikes, or in baby strollers, sometimes making multiple trips to supply their homes. This paradigm of water delivery is the least efficient imaginable in terms of inconvenience costs supported by consumers/households/families and overall energy and time expenditures, yet it is also the most economically efficient as measured by profits. Previous investigations by one of the authors looked at the rise of Mexico as a key source of profits for the large transnationals (TNCs) dominating this market [See Greene, 2014, 2018]. The purpose of this investigation was to take it a step further and find out the consequences of this model of development, specifically on the most vulnerable members of society. As a pilot study in 2017, we picked a region and encountered a rapidly emerging network of small water providers, and case studies buying as many as 30 of these garrafons per week. We then designed a large survey with comparative regions to answer the specific questions: How much income was spent on bottled water? How important are these small water providers to the poor? What are the other costs in this model?

4The growth of the industry in Mexico parallels the growth of the industry on an international level. Researchers working on packaged water markets [Montero Contreras, 2015; Fischer et al., 2015; Jaffee & Newman, 2013] have written about the general trend, but the relevance of this development on vulnerable populations has been lost among activists fighting against privatization. Simultaneously, the nature of bottled water as a consumer choice has been explored by numerous researchers [Ragusa & Crampton, 2016; Viscusi et al., 2015; Ward et al., 2009; Wilks, 2006]. Consumer choice theory presupposes that consumers elect bottled water among other viable options, but in Mexico, and increasingly throughout the world, the choice is existential. Despite this lack of attention from activists and academics, investors and banks are paying attention.

  • 3 This reflects the only year for which data has been encountered: Government of Chanal, 2011.

5It is arguable that the bottled water paradigm provides the wealthiest with the best water and personalized service. Instead of worrying about whether their government or privately managed public water system is safe, at thousands of times the price per liter, wealthier households buy directly from French or American transnational companies, who extract an estimated $15B US dollars from Mexico in bottled water sales per year. Meanwhile, our research in one of Mexico’s poorest regions, Chanal, shows that when people are too poor, they cannot afford the TNC water and there’s no market for small water providers. They are simply left to make do, reporting that they let their taps run until the water clarifies, filtering it through old fabric or grain sacks, boiling it, and letting it “rest”. In this case untreated river water is pumped 25km to the town where residents receive it only once a week or every other week depending on the neighborhood, and these rustic filters are no match for today’s modern contamination. This at least, in part, explains why more than a third of the population reported gastro intestinal illness in 2011.3 So, while wealthier neighborhoods are supplied by the transnational companies (TNCs) that dominate this market in working class neighborhoods, like the industrial outskirts of Guadalajara, or the economic capital of the Chiapas Highlands, San Cristóbal de las Casas, consumers are left to source their water from low-cost providers. Our research shows these small businesses are commonly run by non-water professionals selling water without any significant quality control. Case studies show that doctors urge their patients to consume the higher priced water sourced from transnational companies, yet this water is too expensive for many. In Chiapas, in areas too poor and isolated to be of interest to either the TNCs or even these low-cost providers, residents are left out, and rely on untreated river water.

Methodology and case studies

6By utilizing a large household economic and water use survey (N:1000) carried out in 2018, this article presents findings from two regions where reliance on bottled water is almost ubiquitous (100% in El Salto and 91% in San Cristóbal). This paper is further informed by qualitative research based on key informant interviews, focus groups and household case studies carried out from 2017 through 2019, and a small water business survey (N:78) carried out in El Salto, Jalisco in 2017.

7We selected two study areas in Mexico with significant differences as well as contextual similarities. Both regions are facing an existential water crisis. Both areas are also witnessing an explosion of small water providers and in both areas our research shows that these small shops are the first line of access for working poor Mexicans. The first area, El Salto, Jalisco, is an industrial municipality on the outskirts of Guadalajara, in Central West Mexico. The second study area is the highlands of Chiapas around San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Whereas El Salto is distinctly industrial and heavily contaminated, San Cristóbal has a tourist economy. In both areas, businesses have consistent access to water while communities do not. In El Salto, water is allocated to the industries and in San Cristóbal, the only neighborhood with continuous access to water is the city center where the hotels and restaurants are located. Neither region has a potable water treatment plant. In order to test the hypothesis that while these small water businesses are offering important access to working class segments of the Mexican population, they still ignore the needs of the poorest, three indigenous municipalities of varying distance to San Cristóbal were included in the study.

8This chapter first presents a recap of how Mexico became the leader in bottled water consumption.The industry quickly became one of the world’s fastest growing market segments and its rise in Mexico has been referred to as the “Mexican Strategy” and it is being replicated in new territories [Robles & Wiese, 2016]. Then the study areas will be presented, providing a brief contextual overview in order to locate the analysis and findings that follow. The conclusion discusses the impact this commodified access has on the everyday lives of households.

Table 1. Methodology for research carried out in Mexico from 2016-2020, with the University of Geneva Water Sanitation and Financial Inclusion Project supervised by Solene Morvant-Roux

Table 1. Methodology for research carried out in Mexico from 2016-2020, with the University of Geneva Water Sanitation and Financial Inclusion Project supervised by Solene Morvant-Roux

Water Delivery in Mexico: the expansion of the bottled water industry/trade

  • 4 Only in one of the smaller indigenous communities, Amatenango, Chiapas, was household access charac (...)
  • 5 This estimates the current size of the bottled water industry in Mexico as $15 billion, based on ea (...)

9The situation referenced here is a growing concern throughout the world where increasing concentrations of urban populations, along with ageing infrastructure, put increasing stress on urban water supplies [Sharma & Vairavamoorthy, 2009, p. 210]. The biggest challenge for cities in the next decades, “will be managing the explosive growth of their peripheries” [Echeverri, 2018, np]. The overall trend is for increasing water service disruption in developing world contexts, a trend categorized under the term Intermittent Water Supply. “At the city level, this translates into a shortfall of water injected into the distribution network,” a problem that is estimated to affect one third of all households in Latin America, one half in Asia, and is one of the direct causes of contaminated tap water provision [Kumpel & Nelson, 2013, p. 5176]. In Mexico, in the areas of study presented in this paper, Intermittent Water Supply is the norm.4 As Wilks [2006, p. 307] argued, “the progressive expansion of water as a commodity is as much the result of a failure of governments to fulfill public obligations, as it is due to the craftiness of the marketers of bottled water.” The current situation in Mexico hints at such widespread failure in addressing citizen and territorial needs under conditions of austerity and fiscal restraint. Karen Bakker [2010, p. 29] suggests that “in the absence of government services, many alternative strategies of services provision emerge.” In the void created by the Mexican state’s failure to provide this basic good, the bottled water industry emerged [Greene, 2018]. While activists and researchers discussed the advantages of public versus privately managed water provision, the most profitable solution advanced without contestation. In the turbulent economic times of the 21st century, bottled water has become an important source of profits for the four big TNCs in this space. Comparing bottled water sales with federal spending on public water provision shows the Mexican people individually spent about 60 times more on bottled water.5 The rise of Mexico as the world’s leader in per capita bottled water consumption arose through four pathways: an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, a financial crisis and the agency of the bottled water industry in self-promotion through advertising and political capture [Greene, 2018].

10Prior to the 1980s, Mexico’s water management played a key role in the nation’s rise as an economic power. This story, told by Wester et al. [2009], relied on a development model controlled by a “hydrocracy” that ensured access to water and water infrastructure for the nation’s large agricultural producers. This hydocracy later struggled to maintain power as the nation industrialized. The nation’s centralized water authority was already being sabotaged from within by the end of the 1970s, even as prosperity and growth were on the rise. The oil crisis of the late 1970s and the financial crisis that ensued began the dismantling of Mexico’s self-economic rule characterized by import substitution and petroleum fueled growth. Structural reforms would require Mexico to direct 40% of public spending to debt repayment [Riding, 1982]. The massive earthquake that struck the capital in 1985 provoked a humanitarian crisis. For the first time, Mexicans were told to seek safe sources of water [Ayala et al., 1990]. While the earthquake did not affect the entire nation, the cholera epidemic that hit Latin America in the 1990s did [Sepúlveda et al., 2006]. The impact of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic were exacerbated by the financial crisis unfolding in the background throughout this period [McCaughan, 1993]. As Mexico became the classic case of abiding by the terms of the Washington Consensus’ [Brachet-Marquez, 1994] imposing drastic cuts to Mexican’s public service sector, Mexico’s leaders were left in search of privatized and marketized solutions for all of their development woes [The Times, 2012]. This could not come at a worse time as the population confronted sharp inflation, high unemployment and the subsequent sharp rise in inequality [Du Pin Calmon et al., 2000].

  • 6 Civic leaders from Chanal, one of the study areas, report they have never been contacted by federal (...)

11The final factor that led to the growth of bottled water as the primary source of drinking water for an entire nation was the agency of the bottled water industry in relation to the crisis. Marketing, political capture, and a dynamic distribution system brought bottled water into every nook and cranny and canyon bottom burg.6 When Coca-Cola Mexico’s Chief Executive Officer Vicente Fox (2000-2006) became the President of Mexico in 2000, Mexico was already the world’s leader in annual per capita Coca Cola consumption, at 431 servings per capita, peaking at 745 by 2012 [Coca-Cola, 1999, 2012]. Danone S.A. and Pepsi Co., the other two big companies in the early phases of the growth of Mexico’s bottled water industry, followed a similar strategy, providing a “safe” drinking water option in a context where other options were disappearing.

  • 7 Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, Global Water Report, New York, BofA Merrill Lynch Global Researc (...)
  • 8 This is according to the “Bottled Water Global Market Report 2018,” published by the Business Resea (...)

12Investors have identified bottled water as the top of the value chain for water investments in the next decades. The banks explain this has come as a result of “a shift away from the earlier state-dominated investments whereby the central government played a major role” [Nahal, 2014, p.111], and the “opportunity” presented by forecasts of scarcity.7 In 2012, the global industry was thought to be $100 billion dollars, predicted to reach $350 billion by 2021.8 Despite the massive inflow of capital into this sector, it is likely that the actual size of this market is undetermined and undeterminable. Much of the growth in this industry has come in contexts where the same absence of the State that created space for the rise of the bottled water industry, also prohibits prevents a clear view of what is happening. In our research areas, TNCs make up less than 20% of bottled water sales, the rest won by small water shops, the majority of which are informal. These are unregulated market spaces where even the number of actors populating the supply are unknown. To make calculations more difficult, bottled water is essentially a cash business and thus the exchange is invisibilized between unknown actors is made invisible, frequently inventing new practices. In El Salto, there are 78 identified small water businesses (representing an average investment of $2500 USD), 48% of which started within the 24 months of when the research was carried out in 2017. Typically operated out of a family home or a store front, they primarily rely on customers within walking distance.

13There are no clear references to the number of citizens around the globe consuming bottled water as their only source of drinking water. Most of the evidence comes from investment research firms who are looking at profits and opportunities in distinct markets, and shows that demand is increasing. A survey of 15 countries by the WHO and UNICEF [2017, p. 12] estimates that at least 20% and as many as 81% of populations rely on bottled water for drinking, independently of whether they have access to tap water. It is significant that these institutions have begun to recognize this new paradigm of drinking water access. In Mexico they report that 73% of the population consumes bottled water, an increase from the 66% estimate in 2011 [IDB, 2011]. Researchers have found a number of reasons, from fashion to fear, for the increased consumption of bottled water in the developed world [Gleick, 2010]. In the developing world there are often no other choices [Barlow, 2014].

14Individual access implies that the efficiency of centralized water systems has been abandoned in favor of the efficiency of markets, measured by profits. By failing to keep up with civic water demand, the Mexican state has abandoned the “water as emblem of citizenship” framework [Bakker, 2010]. Instead, of being considered as citizens who enjoy access rights of access, Mexicans have been reconstituted as having rights to markets. This then suggests a situation where even rights have been commodified–as the rights are accessed through the direct purchase of a good or service. With the commodified version of water access, cheap piped water is of poor quality and irregular frequency. In El Salto, 5.7% of the population reported continuous water service while in San Cristóbal, 6.7% did. Meanwhile, in El Salto, 40% complained of contaminants and in San Cristóbal, 76% did. There was no potable water treatment in either location, despite both facing increasing surface water contamination. To make do, households and individuals are left to fend for themselves and purchase the water they need directly from market providers.

15The high cost of access to this water means that users differentiate the waters they use for their needs: bathing and laundry water can be purchased from private water truck operators who source the water from distant wells; cooking water can be bought from low priced water shop; trucked water and wells can be a substitute for bathing and bathroom water; and if the household can afford it, drinking water is provided by a TNC. In emergency situations any of these resources can be swapped for another. The exception is provided by three indigenous villages in Chiapas where money is scarce and households are left to collect rainwater and seek out water from degraded public supplies, unprotected wells, polluted rivers, and unreliable networks.

16Despite the empirical evidence on the ground, Mexico reported having achieved universal access to safe drinking water. At the end of the Millennium Development Goals, Mexico reported the nation had gone beyond one of the objectives, with 95.2% of the population accessing safe drinking water [UN, 2015]. In other words, Mexico has fulfilled the commitment to ensure that almost all Mexicans have water infrastructure while failing to actually deliver water. To try and remediate this, the UN introduced in 2017 a new classification, “Safely Managed” drinking water, which then shows only 43% of the Mexican population as having access [WHO & UNICEF, 2017]. There have been a number of critiques of the Mexican government’s various strategies to comply with development objectives by attacking the numbers and not the problems. In the case of water, millions of families have moved into new houses with household tap water connections, despite the fact that the municipalities that host these developments lack the actual water resources to supply the taps [Marosi, 2017; Libertun de Duren, 2018]. Of the estimated 5 million houses financed by the government and built from 2000 to 2020 by a deregulated private sector, 650.000 are abandoned, the vast majority of which are in isolated areas, exposed to dangerous risks and lacking public services [Xantomila, 2019]. Marosi [2017], after visiting 50 of these developments throughout the country, reports that the lack of water services is the most common factor.

The Study Areas

El Salto, Jalisco: Bottled water as a last resort, on the banks of the nation’s dirtiest river

  • 9 As reported in the newspaper, El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in a Feb. 6, 2020 article titled: “ (...)

17Like other cities throughout Latin America, this region of Western Mexico has seen a rapid shift in the use of land over the past 30 years with small farming villages being overwhelmed by urban and industrial expansion. El Salto now forms part of the greater Guadalajara Metropolitan Area. A combination of industrial and population growth has precipitated a health crisis. Large-scale housing developments, built near the area’s industrial facilities along this contaminated river, expose new residents to these risks. Recent studies, hidden for years by the government, have surfaced to show that high numbers of children in this region have toxic levels of heavy metals in their blood, face learning difficulties and chronic illnesses.9 The region’s residents supply labor to the 675 industrial facilities located in the El Salto-Ocotlan Industrial corridor [McCulligh, 2017], where they earn low pay, averaging $1000 to $1500 MXN per week ($50 to $75 USD).

18Neoliberal Mexican housing policy reforms, carried out in the early 2000s, deregulated the construction industry which facilitated the widespread construction of social housing units here. The government guarantees these developers’ profits through a payroll tax on all formal sector employees. Developers have sought out the cheapest land to construct on, and average distance to urban centers is now 40km [Libertun de Duren, 2018]. In El Salto, thousands of 30-40m2 units were built along the banks of this horrendously polluted river even though the developer’s own studies identified the area as prone to flooding with as little as 40 minutes of rain, in a place where all-night rains are common during the three-month long raining season [El informador, 2008].

19The irony that one of Mexico’s biggest rivers cut through their territory while residents are constantly facing severe water scarcity is not lost on the community. In 2017, three residential neighborhoods lacked municipal water service for 3 to 5 months. In 2019, we encountered residents in the middle of the industrial area who have gone 10 years without water service in their homes, despite having had previously reliable network service. They report that their TNC industrial neighbors have not faced the same issues.

The Highlands of Chiapas: When tourism is the industry the water is still scarce

20In stark contrast, the second region is in the high mountains of Chiapas, on the southern border with Guatemala. The study regions included the highland’s commercial center San Cristóbal de las Casas as well as three municipalities (Zinacantán, Amatanango, and Chanal) varying in their isolation and availability of low cost bottled water. San Cristóbal (with a representative sample of 350 households) provides useful comparison with El Salto, because of population and its irregular growth, as well as municipal characteristics. San Cristóbal has a population of 209,000 [INEGI, 2015] and, similarly to El Salto, has a booming bottled water market with an estimated 80 small water providers. These small providers are important sources of drinking water in a country where 99% of the population lives on less than $1,300 (USD) per month [Alegría, 2018]. The price of bottled water from the transnational companies is simply too expensive for most households to afford, especially when they become reliant on bottled water for activities such as bathing and cooking, as well as drinking. While San Cristóbal’s population has access to cheaper water, the three indigenous communities have varying degrees of provision. Zinacantán (population: 41.112) lies just to the west of San Cristóbal, less than 20 minutes by truck. There is a constant movement of people and goods between the two locations. In 2018, Zinacantán had two small bottled water producers of their own. Unlike San Cristóbal or El Salto, Zinacantán is classified as having a very high level of poverty and wages are low. In Zinacantán, 94.9% live in poverty and 38.6% lack a public water connection [CONEVAL, Zinacantán, 2010]. It was expected that Zinacantán would have less access to safe drinking water as provided by bottled water providers than El Salto or San Cristóbal. Yet, because of the proximity to San Cristóbal and the presence of two water providers, it was expected that residents would still consume bottled water if they could afford to do so.

21Amatenango del Valle (population: 9.981) is 38km south, down the Pan American highway, but due to the speed bumps, sheep crossings, and heavy traffic, it is an hour away. The economy in Amatenango is more depressed than that of Zinacantán. Whereas in Zinacantán farmers have diversified and now plant flowers and vegetables for export markets, in Amatenango farmers continue to plant the same crops that their ancestors have planted for thousands of years. In Amatenango, 94.% live in poverty [CONEVAL, Amatenango, 2010], and 98.5% of households continue to cook over open fires [INEGI, 2015, p. 87]. Women’s work in both Amatenango (ceramics) and in Zinacantán (weaving) brings in a significant portion of the cash income that families live on. As a further contrast, in this community it is believed that water is a sacred gift provided by the Gods and it is against the law of the local authority to purify and sell this community’s water (although water from outside the area can be sold here). It was expected that residents would have less access than in Zinacantán, both due to their distance from San Cristóbal and their low income. On the contrary, this is the only community in the study that enjoyed the highest level of continuous access with 64% reporting continuous networked tap water service that provides for all of their needs.

22The third village, Chanal, provides us with the final contrast. Chanal (population: 12.181) is at the end of the road, about eighty minutes Southeast from San Cristóbal. Along isolated mountainous, highways were only paved to give the army access to the region after the 1994’s Zapatista uprising. The community lacks any significant economic activity and residents here are almost completely reliant on the rain and the crops they produce. Chanal is one of the poorest communities in Mexico [CONEVAL, 2017]. In Chanal, 96% live below the income poverty line, 69% are in extreme poverty and 46.4% are not connected to the public water system [CONEVAL, Chanal, 2010]. Water service is intermittent, pumped out of a river 25km away, with most households receiving water once every two weeks.

Key findings and discussion

El Salto: Months without service and bathing with bottled water

23The basic premise of this research was confirmed. The researchers looking into the commodification of access to water hypothesized, as has been supported in the literature [Bakker, 2010; Shiva, 2002; Swyngedouw, 2005; Sultana 2018], that the provision of household water by purely market mechanisms leads to superior service for those with more ability to pay while those with less resources would be left out, or forced into costly coping strategies. While these authors refer to the poor as being left without service, our research findings are more nuanced. The relationship with the nation’s housing policy, subsidizing the construction of millions of housing units beyond the reach of existing water infrastructure, has greatly contributed to the current crisis in water access and the rise of the bottled water industry in Mexico. These same poor who are enticed to relocate to these peripheral areas are forced to the market to access the water they need. Our 2017 pilot study in El Salto showed that in extreme cases, when families had no access to tap water for multiple weeks and in some cases months, household water expenses rose to very high levels. In these cases, multiple households reported purchasing bottled water as a last resort for drinking, bathing and housework, when their taps ran dry for several months. During these periods, household water expenses became prioritized over other expenses, and reached levels averaging 10% of income, peaking at 18% for several cases. In contrast, for high earners the overall water expense was less than 2% of income. Our research also shows significant variation throughout the year as quality and quantity of water delivered through the network varies. When the hot dry season comes, water scarcity becomes the biggest burden on the poor. An important finding, which needs to be confirmed through further research, was the portion of cash supplements received by poor families that was being absorbed by water expenses. In several cases, households that buy more expensive water for health concerns report spending their entire welfare check on bottled water. This suggests an indirect federal subsidization of a commodified water paradigm.

24To begin with, our findings show that despite having the infrastructure necessary to have tap water, the service in El Salto is very irregular and of low quality. Almost a third (22%) reported having tap water service only one day per week, with another 25% reporting two days per week, and only 18% reporting daily service. Additionally, when it does flow, 26% receive it for 3 hours or less and another 24% get water for 4 to 6 hours. At the same time, households report spending an average of 1027 MXN (mexican pesos, $50 USD) per year on this service. For 41%, it was difficult to make this payment while another 11% said it was unaffordable. In all, 34% reported that this poor level of water service had a somewhat negative impact on their quality of life while an additional 11% reported this as a significant negative impact.

25In order to cope, residents engage in a variety of market and non-market strategies. In El Salto, every single household (100%) reported purchasing bottled water as their drinking water but about 18% buy water from a TNC, while 90% buy from local small water shops. About 7% buy from both, typically meaning that they buy the expensive TNC water for drinking and the cheaper water for other household uses like washing vegetables, making beans, and perhaps bathing. In one of the study areas, La Azucena, 17% report using bottled water to bathe. Those who buy bottled water from the TNCs report spending an average of 3758 MXN ($190 USD) per year on bottled water. Those who reported buying from local water shops, buy more water (4.1 19-liter containers per week, compared to 2.6) at a lower price and averaged 2301 MXN ($118 USD) annually. This is the equivalent of two weeks wages for most of the workers here, and twice as much as they pay for network water (or for “not having network water,” as they say.)

26Furthermore, despite universal tap water access and universal bottled water consumption, 40% of residents in this region reported relying on water trucks to supplement their needs. This implies further expenses for these families as they average 8.6 deliveries per year per household with an average weighted cost of 307 MXN, for an average of an additional 2745 MXN per year ($188 USD).

San Cristóbal de las Casas: Fresh water for the tourists; turbidity for the periphery

27San Cristóbal’s public water service is equally plagued by rapidly expanding urban demand, diminishing water resources and a lack of funds. Interviews with water managers and local experts and activist confirm that the conflicts over water resources in this area are as complex as those in El Salto. In El Salto, industrial production has compromised existing water resources while simultaneously commanding the supply, whereas in San Cristóbal, the same was accomplished by the tourism industry. Water resources are prioritized for the town’s center, where more than 100 hotels and 35 hostels operate. Our survey showed 14% of the region’s residents receive daily water service. Here, 70% of residents receive water three or fewer days while 25% of those who are connected to the piped system receive it for less than five hours per day. Compared to El Salto, San Cristóbal residents experience relatively more problems with the water they do receive. Water authorities in San Cristóbal confirmed the lack of a potable treatment plant, yet, compared to El Salto, San Cristóbal has a much higher number of consumers who use the water for drinking: 12% drink it directly from the tap (0.34% in El Salto) and 16% use it directly for tea or coffee (1.31% in El Salto). Furthermore, 42.15% of San Cristóbal residents that have piped water say they treat their tap water before using it (16.24% in El Salto), mostly by boiling it; 85.5% of this population reports using this “treated” tap water for drinking. This means that roughly 38% drink tap water. This should be taken into account, while showing that much more residents in San Cristóbal find problems with the water’s quality. Only 23.8% receive high quality water with no quality problems (this compares with 59% in El Salto). Meanwhile, 39.4% report the water leaves a residue, 32.6% report it has a distinct color, 22.5% report smells, and 17.1% report a bad taste. This coincides roughly with information produced from water authorities who reported that the region’s main aquifer provides high quality water to a quarter of the region while the rest of the population was supplied by unprotected wells contaminated by surface waters during the rainy season. Residents in the densely populated periphery receive low quality water during the rainy season and then lack water during the dry season. The health results, not only from exposure to this contaminated water as in El Salto, but also from consuming it, were noted with 17% of residents, who reported experiencing diarrhea from drinking the tap water (2.9% in El Salto) and 15% reported skin problems, but only 5% in El Salto.

28A higher percentage (56%) reported that it was difficult to pay the yearly water bill of 1.367 MXN ($69 USD). In San Cristóbal, because of irregular water service, frequent and lengthy service interruptions (averaging 13.6 days), a significant number (16%) report buying or receiving trucked water. Furthermore, 91% buy drinking water from bottled water companies, with 82% of these buying from small shops and 11% buying from TNCs. Interestingly, the TNCs charge less in Chiapas: an average of 20 MXN per 19-liter jug in Chiapas, compared to 28,2 MXN in El Salto. In contrast, the small water shops in San Cristóbal charge more, an average of 13,4 MXN (11 MXN in El Salto), so while TNC water is offered at a 30% discount in San Cristóbal, local water is offered at a 20% surcharge.

Zinacantán: Close enough to small water providers to make a difference

29Zinacantán, the closest of the three communities to San Cristóbal, relies on a central spring in the center of the village which is then pumped high into the mountains where it is redirected to parts of the community. There is simply only one pump and each of the four neighborhood districts receives water once every four days, although some residents who live on the main lines receive water more frequently: 9.5% report receiving water once per week, and 59.5% report less than 5 hours of service per day. More importantly, 88.1% report knowing beforehand when the water is coming and thus a similar number (81%) report no inconvenience. Fewer residents here (26%) either receive from the government or buy trucked water, but those who use trucked water do so on average 8.54 times per year. In Zinacantán, 50% report buying bottled water but they do so substantially less than in either of the larger cities in this study, averaging 7.6 liters per person per week (compared to 18.5 in El Salto or 13.9 San Cristóbal).

30The public water service in Zinacantán is administered through the Mayordomo system which requires young men who participate in the community’s religious-cultural leadership to volunteer for several years ensuring the maintenance of the community’s well and water distribution system.

Amatenango: Where bottled water is against the law and the tap water still runs

31In Amatenango, their water source is well protected and the distribution to the residents in the city center is reliable. All residents surveyed (100%) reported a tap water connection within their home or on their property. Almost 88% of residents report daily water service with an average of 18 hours per day. Interviews in this area show that those with less regular service live further from the source. Almost none of the residents here buy trucked water. Furthermore, their water is thought to be of high quality, with 60% reporting no problems with contaminants and 72% reporting they drink it directly and only 6% report getting sick from drinking this water. No skin irritation was reported. Despite the customary perspective that selling and buying water is wrong here, we believe from interviews with authorities that because representatives from the nation’s conditional cash assistance program (PROSPERA) insist that households buy bottled water for safety, 62% of households reported buying bottled water. Even so, per capita consumption was low, averaging just 6.8 liters per person per week (compared to 19 in El Salto).

Chanal: Too poor for markets

32The final community in our analysis is Chanal, the poorest and the most isolated of the locations in this study. It is also the community with the worst access to regular tap water service. Water comes from 25km away, down the mountain and far away, brought to town by two pumping stations and long pipe extensions. Neighborhoods receive water once every two weeks. Villagers living on the central distribution lines receive more frequent service bringing the average service level to 1.7 days per week. On our survey here, 25% of the surveyed reported diarrhea from using this water while official reports suggest higher levels, as noted above.

33Unlike other areas in Mexico, residents in Chanal do not buy water from trucks or bottled water (10% reported buying bottled water), but even for those households, the average is very low, at 6 liters per person per week. To supplement their water consumption, residents (38%) carry water from public wells that are common in this region and 24% report having private wells. These sources are unprotected: 37% of residents report poor quality for the public well; 58% report that their private wells are contaminated and 45% report the same for their tap water. While the survey sample was small (n:20) for those using public well water, 68% report they drink it as did 75% (n:12) of those using private well sources. Interviews conducted here suggest that contamination is worst during the rainy season when both the wells and river (the main source for the tap) are turbid, and cases of diarrhea are common.


34The results from our 2018 fieldwork reflect the stark realities of a world where access to safe water is provided by market mechanisms. First of all, the quantity of water being purchased in the two urban study areas is much higher than previous estimates. It has been reported for much of the last decade that Mexico leads the world in per capita bottled water consumption. Typical estimates, such as those provided by the International Bottled Water Association [Rodwan, 2017], show that Mexicans consume 240 liters per person per year. The IDB [2011] study on bottled water consumption showed an average of 480 liters. Our results in El Salto show an average of almost one garrafón per person per week, or 960 liters per year. In three case studies in the new housing development La Azucena, where water service shut off for long periods, per person bottled water consumption was 1.235, 1.799 and 2.125 liters per person per year. In San Cristóbal, this number was slightly less (731 liters), perhaps reflecting the reliance on drinking boiled tap water and the poorer circumstances of households, but these findings still far exceed previous estimates. Of equal significance is the number of consumers in both places who buy their water from small providers (90% in San Cristóbal and 88.5% in El Salto). As revealed by our 2017 fieldwork characterizing the supply side of this market in El Salto, 52% of these businesses are unregistered and their very existence is a new phenomenon. The fact that these small providers are currently supplying so much of the market needs to be further explored.

35As this study confirms, access to water for the nation’s population “measured only in infrastructure” is not enough. In the classical sense, access to water supposes having a tap water connection that implies a household’s access to water. In both of the urban study areas, and in two out of the three village settings infrastructure did not guarantee access. Furthermore, even when households did have access to tap water, in all of the municipalities this water was delivered as is, without treatment. This implies, as individuals and household members know too well, that the water is not safe.

36The indigenous areas included in the analysis show that differences in household access depend not only on income, but also on isolation from small water providers. Using average monthly expenses on food as reference, El Salto households spent in average 4.715 MXN per month on food, while, in San Cristóbal, the same number of occupants spent 2.878 MXN. At the far extreme, in Chanal, with 50% more people per household, residents report spending only 1.640 MXN per month. Similarly, while bottled water and trucked water consumption is progressively lower in these locations, access to water, in all of its alternative marketed forms, is highly dependent on income. These findings match those in El Salto, where 33% of households state that they would buy more bottled water from the small water businesses if it was cheaper; 48% of households in San Cristóbal would do the same. In the poorest community, Chanal, 67% state that they would the same. The results show that proponents of ensuring universal access to water through market mechanisms may in fact be reproducing the same exclusion which they are attempting to address.

37Finally, opening up this market space to businesses as means to resolve the crisis in water access is producing unexpected outcomes. The emergence of small water providers in both El Salto and San Cristóbal has introduced substantial competition into the market, capturing the majority of it. This significantly addresses the needs of the working poor majority who have little disposable income, yet still need water. Nonetheless, simultaneously in the three smaller villages that were included in the study, access to small water providers is dependent on the distance to San Cristóbal, where they are concentrated. It is our supposition that the absence of these businesses in Chanal is entirely due to the population’s poverty. The population with the highest needs for safe sources of drinking water continues to be the one least able to afford access.


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1 In our five areas of study none of the water was treated before it was delivered to our case studies. It was not treated before it was pumped through distribution systems.

2 WHO and UNICEF [2017] report that 73% of the population in Mexico drink bottled water. Previous research from IBD [2011] showed that bottled water use in Mexico is geographically segmented with users in the northern cities continuing to rely on tap water systems while the rest of the nation relies almost exclusively on bottled water. Our survey in the region of El Salto, which is representative, reported 100% of households relying on bottled water at least for drinking. In San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, 91.14% of residents relied on bottled water.

3 This reflects the only year for which data has been encountered: Government of Chanal, 2011.

4 Only in one of the smaller indigenous communities, Amatenango, Chiapas, was household access characterized by continuous service.

5 This estimates the current size of the bottled water industry in Mexico as $15 billion, based on earlier estimates by Ivan Castano in his Forbes March 12, 2012 article ‘Mexico’s Water War,’ suggesting it would reach $13 billion in 2015 and the recent growth rate of 4.3% as reported by Robles and Wiese [2016]. This is compared with the $250 million the Mexican government budgeted for drinking water services in 2018 [Presidencia de la Republica, 2017].

6 Civic leaders from Chanal, one of the study areas, report they have never been contacted by federal water officials but that the Coca-Cola truck arrives every day.

7 Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, Global Water Report, New York, BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research, Sept. 28, 2011, p. 11.

8 This is according to the “Bottled Water Global Market Report 2018,” published by the Business Research Company, London.

9 As reported in the newspaper, El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in a Feb. 6, 2020 article titled: “Ocultan por 10 años contaminación en rio de Jalisco; niños enferman de cáncer.” See also: Huerta J.C., “Río Santiago, el más contaminado de México, pone en riesgo salud de 24 mil niños”, El Financiero, Feb. 2, 2020.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Methodology for research carried out in Mexico from 2016-2020, with the University of Geneva Water Sanitation and Financial Inclusion Project supervised by Solene Morvant-Roux
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Joshua Greene works and lives in Guadalajara, Mexico where he carries out ethnographic research at the intersection of water and development and social reproduction. He continues to look into the way households manage under conditions of extreme pollution, when safe water is scarce. Working on the banks of Mexico’s most polluted river he is currently documenting the way extinction and ecological dispossession are experienced, resisted and transformed at the most local level. He has a PhD from the University of Geneva and is the director of a community water education program helping households improve their access to safe drinking water.

Anna Peixoto-Charles is a doctoral candidate at the University of Geneva. Her work focuses on the linkages between financialization and commodification among vulnerable population segments. She mixes quantitative data analysis on large surveys with qualitative in-depth analysis on subsamples.

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