Victor Lichtinger
"Toward an Effective Environmental Policy for Mexico"

October 2, 2000

Ezekiel 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.

In 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.

Victor Lichtinger
Lichtinger 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.

Sustainable 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."

Lichtinger identified two principal causes of waste ­ misallocation of water as a result of entrenched subsidy programs, and decaying water supply and treatment infrastructure.

According 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.

Less 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.

To 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.

The 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 quality water."

In 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.

Population 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.

Lichtinger, 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 October.


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