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The politics of water privatization in Mexico

Whenever people ask me why I avoid some research questions I remind them that there are policy areas where I don’t think we can do much or where I feel that I cannot contribute. For years, I shunned the literature on water privatization because I was (and still am) in the politics of wastewater governance. I thought to myself that water privatization would never need to be part of my research agenda. I felt that this body of scholarship was incredibly politicized (just read some of the research that this Google Scholar search yields to see what I mean)

I used to avoid this body of work particularly on the one hand because I had other research interests, but also because the vast majority of publications on the human geography field on this topic point to neoliberalism as “the root of all evil”, as I often write in jest. Well, I will be damned (and I may have been assimilated by The Borg), because I am currently working on a project on privatization of water supply in Mexico, and my literature review has proven interesting to say the least. The links between my research topics are quite obvious, if one looks beyond the surface. Wastewater treatment is part of the infrastructure provided by municipalities. Infrastructure includes water supply, treatment and distribution. Water supply can be public, private or a mix. And privatized water supply is a really interesting topic. So there you have it, I’m finally studying water privatization.

Several Mexican municipalities have privatized their water supply in one way or another. Some of them, like Mexico City, have allowed for foreign interests to participate in an alternative service delivery model where some components of water supply are offered by private companies. Others, like Aguascalientes (where I live) have offered a transnational consortium (Veolia Water) a concession contract for public water delivery through a joint venture, Proactiva Medio Ambiente. There is, as you can imagine, strong resistance from Mexican activists to the privatization of water supply (mirroring the worldwide tendency to fight against corporatization of water resources and for a global right to water).

While obviously private companies will deny any wrongdoing or inefficiencies, several analyses I have found point out to a sad reality: water privatization doesn’t always work. Mexicans are quickly advancing towards reaching the top place as bottled water consumers. Making inferences in this case isn’t hard. If Mexicans feel that they can’t drink their tap water even under conditions of water privatization, then efficacy isn’t reached and thus, would probably be better to resort to remunicipalization (or public water supply).

I can understand that some times, in order to provide a better service to the public, you need public-private partnerships. Surely there are some places where privatization does work because it provides much needed infrastructure, particularly in urban contexts where municipal governments cannot provide it. But from what I have been investigating, private intervention in the Mexican water sector doesn’t seem to be a case study in good public service delivery.

This leads me to the main issue: I can now understand how neoliberalism as a philosophy of work can have (and possibly has had) an impact on how water supply processes are designed, and why does it get such a bad reputation in the human geography scholarship. Because market solutions don’t always mean the best solutions.

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Posted in academia, bridging academia and practice, water governance, water policy.

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