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The multiple faces of water insecurity

Wherever I go, I’m always “on”. That is, my researcher mind keeps looking for things that are associated with my research, or that seem to defy explanation. As I went into one of our favourite restaurants with my brother (who is visiting) and my Mom, I realized they didn’t have running water. A common hygiene practice before eating food is washing your hands. But I couldn’t do it with water from the tap. The restaurant provided a bucket and a small bowl so we could wash our hands. As someone who has lived in regions and cities where running water hasn’t ever been much of a problem, but also someone who studies water insecurity, I felt the immediate physical impact of water insecurity, within the comfort of a restaurant where I’ve eaten hundreds of times.

Mexico’s urban water infrastructure has been deficient for decades. In my research I have found that water insecurity in Mexico isn’t only the result of poor maintenance and unclean pipes. Water insecurity in Mexico is also an expected outcome of a problematic institutional architecture that puts the onus on municipal governments to provide safe drinking water but where the federal government offers little of the financial, infrastructure and human capital support to ensure that drinking water is safe at the household level.

Much is asked of local water utilities, but little is offered in intergovernmental cash transfers or strengthening water utility operators’ skill level. Even the financial support that is offered through intergovernmental transfers is not enough to improve water supply coverage in many Mexican municipalities. I have found in one of my studies that one of the reasons why why bottled water consumption in Mexico has risen to make the country the global leader in per capita consumption. Capitalizing on the fear of tap water, bottling water companies have fostered quasi-universal consumption of their product within the Mexican population.

As my friend and UConn colleague Dr. Veronica Herrera has also found (and describes in her recent book), the political landscape also hinders safe drinking water provision in Mexico. As her book and research shows, “politics can interfere with reliable water access, but when infrastructure is part of a good-governance platform, politics can also be part of the solution.” (Herrera, 2017).

There are many ways to measure and analyze water insecurity. A recent paper by Drs. Amber Wutich, Wendy Jepson, Shalean Collins, Godfred Boateng and Sera L. Young offers an overview of recent studies of measurement of water insecurity. But what I found interesting is how powerfully did the bucket with a small bowl portray in a very visual and tangible form the challenge of water insecurity in Mexico. Rationing water is a well-known and commonly used strategy that municipalities use to increase reported coverage and offer some degree of access to what should be a human right. But when household infrastructure fails and it is no longer the government’s fault for failing to provide water access, individuals must also engage in other forms of water fetching and rationing.

I often see this during my fieldwork, but seeing this up close during a leisurely outing with my family really hit home hard. There are definitely multiple faces and manifestations of the phenomenon of water insecurity.

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