New decrees to privatize water in Mexico?

UNAM investigator Rodrigo Gutiérrez explains the details of the water decrees signed by the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto

New decrees to privatize water in Mexico?
President Enrique Peña Nieto, in company of Mexico City's government leader Miguel Ángel Mancera - Photo: Lucía Godínez/EL UNIVERSAL
English 20/06/2018 14:01 Newsroom Mexico City Karen de la Torre, Irene Larraz y César Reveles / Verificado 2018 Actualizada 14:39

On June 5, within the framework of the World Environment Day, the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, signed 10 decrees for water reserve use, which were published the following day on the Federal Official Gazette.

His signature occurred 12 days before Mexico’s game against Germany at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, and not during the match, as some people have circulated on social media.

The water privatization debate was revived by fake news. Some personalities assured that the measure was meant to encourage water concessions, while others, such as the Ministry of the Environment and the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) have argued the opposite.

These are the two main stances held by organizations, investigators, and the Federal Government surrounding the signature of these decrees which don’t actually privatize water, but allow for the granting of concessions.

But what do the decrees actually say?

The 10 decrees seek to eliminate bans on 300 hydrological basins in the country (which mounts up to 55% of Mexico’s lakes and rivers). This change means that there will be no obstacles for water extraction from these basins.

Now, instead of a total ban on the use of water by private companies, “water reserves will be established for the domestic and public use of water, as well as the environmental care of hydrological basins,” which in theory means that the water can be put to a better use.

Each ordinance specifies the percentage of water that can be used in each basin for private concessions. All ten of them are essentially the same, but aimed at 10 different rivers. The water basins are: Grijalva-Usumacinta (Chiapas, Tabasco, and Campeche); Papaloapan (Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz); Pánuco (State of México, Querétaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León); Costa Chica of Guerrero and Costa Grande (Guerrero and Oaxaca); San Fernando Soto la Marina (Tamaulipas and Nuevo León); Santiago (Aguascalientes, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Nayarit, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas); Actopan-Antigua (Veracruz and Puebla); the Coast of Jalisco (Colima and Jalisco); and Ameca (Nayarit and Jalisco).

The Federal Government was advised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which helped them assess a way to maintain enough drinkable water for local populations for the next 50 years.

On their website, the WWF mentions that, thanks to the signature of these ordinances, Mexico has made a “historic decision to protect half of the country’s surface water, benefiting 45 million people, 82 Protected Natural Areas, 64 wetlands of international importance, and Ramsar sites.”

Was the signature of these decrees legal?

The National Waters Law gives the president enough power to make decisions such as the elimination of bans on hydrological basins through decree.

“The decision was not illegal. It is symbolically arbitrary in the sense that it was made without public consultation, making a crucial decision over a natural resource that is (literally) of vital importance,” commented Rodrigo Gutiérrez, investigator from the Institute of Juridic Investigations, specialist in social, economic, and cultural rights at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

The elimination of bans through decrees enacted by Peña Nieto is legal, since “water reserves can only be declared through decree,” explained Eugenio Barrios, director of the “water program,” at the World Wildlife Fund’s branch in Mexico.

Is water to be concessioned in Mexico?

Ramírez de la Parra explained that, although the ordinances liberalize the use of water to a certain extent, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Environment and CONAGUA, have decided not to concession water, and to devote it to environmental use.

He stated that the removal of bans had the purpose of protecting our environment and that the decision was made completely within a legal framework.

“Although we had to amend the law, we did so with the purpose of regulating public access to water, and we eliminated the bans to guarantee a sufficient water supply for the population during the next 50 years.”

This is not a privatization. We’re enabling the use of water for private purposes. Technically, it is only a change of regime, though it will allow for private companies to appropriate natural assets that were once owned by the government,” the investigator explained.

The director of the Water Program at the WWF admitted that the concession regime has been a cause for concern, but that is exactly why CONAGUA should handle this process in a transparent manner. “CONAGUA has just expressed that concessions for the industrial use of water will not be given.”

The head of CONAGUA assured that no more concessions will be granted for water use during the present administration since the purpose of the ordinances is water preservation only.