Mexico quietly hands its water supply over to transnationals

June 29, 2018

While many in Mexico are distracted by World Cup matches and the upcoming presidential elections, something big and strange has been going on under the radar.

Earlier this month, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed 10 decrees that essentially give transnationals like Coca-Cola and mining companies even greater access to the country's water supply.

But there was little in the news about it. The media framed the measures as “guaranteeing water (supplies) for the next 50 years”. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also got behind the decrees, under the pretence that they protect the environment.

After academics and water rights activists analysed the legal content of what had been passed and declared their opposition, the WWF again defended the measures. It claimed the “water reserves don't represent in any way the privatisation of a resource, nor the extinguishing of any right to use water. Rather, [the decrees] clearly establish volumes of water that should be intact for biodiversity.”

WWF greenwashing

But the WWF is not impartial in Mexico, given its alliance with Mexico's top billionaire Carlos Slim. Author Wilfried Huismann denounced the WWF saying it has been “selling its soul” and “greenwashing” business operations for companies such as Coca-Cola, Shell, Monsanto, HSBC, Cargill, BP, Alcoa and Marine Harvest.

"WWF is a willing service provider to the giants of the food and energy sectors, supplying industry with a green, progressive image … On the one hand it protects the forest; on the other it helps corporations lay claim to land not previously in their grasp. WWF helps sell the idea of voluntary resettlement to indigenous peoples," said Huismann.

An analysis by Water for All, a Mexican grassroots organisation that campaigns for water rights, found that the recent decrees allow the government to guarantee water for mining, petroleum and private companies, at the expense of rural workers, indigenous groups and urban communities. The decrees lift a prohibition on extracting water from about 300 catchment areas.

They also declare that any water rights that have not been renewed are now invalid – meaning 50,000 towns, common land holders and communities, not realising they had to renew their right to access the water on their own land, have lost that right.

Furthermore, for the next 50 years, some states will be in charge of distributing water for public urban use through concessions. As seen in Puebla already, these concessions are essentially a privatisation of water, putting its management into the hands of corporations through a bidding process.

The Puebla government was the first state to successfully award a 60-year deal to a consortium to manage the local water. That consortium is run by corrupt business owners and money launderers — and as a result of the privatisation we have seen our water bills rise to 13 times what nearby states pay.

The company, Waters of Puebla, surprises residents with random water bill debts; refuses to fix broken connections while still charging water rates; restricts water access to some suburbs, seeing them go without water for months; and limits water to most poorer areas to just 60 minutes a week, while providing unlimited supply to wealthier suburbs and businesses such as Walmart.

In response to the WWF's claim that the decrees have environmental goals, Water for All pointed out that the water the decrees reserve for conservation is expressed in millions of cubic metres a year, but “protecting rivers, catchment areas and their ecosystems depends more on regulating the water flow”.


The decrees also come in a context of expanding “megaprojects” in the country. Huge construction, energy and mining projects are carried out at the expense of rural and indigenous communities, and the environment.

With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, extractive industries took off in Mexico. Mexican researchers have warned that 70% of the country's rivers are already “seriously contaminated” by extractive industry. Indigenous and rural communities suffer, as their only water sources are flooded with toxic chemicals. Already, of the 731 drainage basins, 104 are undersupplied due to overuse.

In response to Water for All's analysis, Mexico’s private media has published several articles calling the claims of privatisation “fake news”. “The privatisation of water is false,” stated one article, while another was headlined “Peña Nieto privatising the water is more fake news”.

The coverage seems to be a clean-up campaign by the private media to quickly reframe the conversation.

 Ultimately, none of these articles dispute that the decrees were passed; instead they discuss whether it is correct to label the removal of prohibitions and the concessions to private companies as “privatisation”.

The timing of the decrees is no coincidence. Left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO) is highly likely to win the July 1 presidential election, but he will not be sworn in until December 1. That gives the national and state governments a few months to award irreversible decades-long contracts and permits to corporations.

[Tamara Pearson has been an activist and journalist for 17 years, writing and fighting from Australia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and now Mexico. She blogs at Resistance Words, and is the author of The Butterfly Prison.]

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