Minaya and Jim Downing
Mexico's most urgent environmental need, clean and
sustainable sources of water, will require $100 billion to
address, according to a member of President-elect Vicente
Foxıs transition team.
a talk at UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies
on October 2, Victor Lichtinger, environmental co-chair of
Fox's transition team, estimated that an annual investment
of $5 billion for the next twenty years would be needed to
improve water supply and waste water treatment systems.
considers water to be at the heart of Mexico's environmental
crisis. Scarce water and degraded land, he said, have driven
countless Mexicans off their land. "They either go to
the United States or come to the big cities," he said,
increasing both illegal immigration and unsustainable urban
growth. This growing environmental crisis, Lichtinger said,
threatens to derail his nation's hopes for economic prosperity.
management of Mexico's water resources is critical to the
country's ability to attract foreign investment and feed
its citizens. "Where trade, industry and agriculture
are growing [in Mexico], water is becoming an obstacle to
development," said Lichtinger. "And at the same
time the small amount of water we do have we waste."
identified two principal causes of waste misallocation
of water as a result of entrenched subsidy programs, and
decaying water supply and treatment infrastructure.
to Lichtinger, the current subsidy structure favors the rich.
Large farms receive highly subsidized irrigation water, and
municipal water prices (for industries and residents connected
to the water distribution network) are so low that the public
water companies recoup from ratepayers only one tenth of
the cost of water delivery. The poor, who often don't have
a tap from which to draw water and instead depend on water
trucks or communal pumps, pay the highest rates of all.
than 16% of sewage from Mexico's cities and towns receives
any sort of treatment the rest runs directly into waterways.
Many towns have wastewater treatment plants which were constructed
through development programs but have now fallen into disrepair.
As a result, said Lichtinger, "we cannot reuse the water" it
is too contaminated to be used for domestic purposes by downstream
communities. Instead, farmers often divert untreated wastewater
flows to irrigate their fields, exposing both farmworkers
and consumers to a host of health risks.
remedy these water problems, Lichtinger proposed two major
water policy changes. He would first reduce government support
for irrigation water. This action would have two effects a
reduction of farmers' demand for water, which would free
up water for urban areas, and an increase in funding available
for new municipal water projects to serve poor areas. Changing
the subsidy status quo is likely to be politically difficult.
But, as Lichtinger noted, "there are ways to do it and
now, during Fox's honeymoon with the Mexican people, is the
time to do it." Fox and his conservative National
Action Party (PAN) won the presidency on July 2 on a
platform of sweeping change. His victory ousted the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power in Mexico
for over seventy years.
second water management change that Lichtinger hopes to see
is increased private investment in the construction and operation
of Mexico's water infrastructure. "We do not want to
give up control over water, but water supply and waste water
treatment can be done more efficiently by the private sector." Water
supply privatization programs and their subsequent rate increases
have prompted riots in several Latin American cities this
year. However Lichtinger is optimistic that Mexican citizens
will see the benefits. "We do not have [potable] water,
so it is easy to understand that you need to pay for good
addition to these water management problems, Mexico faces
a geographic mismatch between water and people. The dry central
highlands have 75% of the nation's citizens, 70% of its industry,
and 75% of its irrigated agriculture, but only 25% of its
rainfall. The majority of rainfall is in the countryıs tropical
south where cities and industry are comparatively scarce.
pressures in the highlands have compounded Mexico's water
problems, Lichtinger noted. Land reform programs which encouraged
the clearing of hillside forests for agriculture have left
Mexico the most deforested country in the hemisphere. Subsequent
farming on these marginal lands reduces ground water recharge
because the hard-baked land is less able to absorb rainfall.
Increased runoff leads to erosion and flooding. These trends,
in turn, render land unsuitable for farming, driving rural
populations to the cities and the Northern border.
whose father immigrated to Mexico from Poland in the 1920's,
was the first executive director of the Commission for Environmental
Cooperation (CEC) a tri-national environmental oversight
body created with the passage of the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Lichtinger, who holds masterıs
degree in agricultural economics from Stanford, resigned
from his CEC chair in 1998 to enter the private sector. He
visited Berkeley as part of the CLAS speaker series, "New
Directions for Mexico," which runs through the end of