María Elena Giner
General Manager
Border Environment Cooperation Commission
View from the Top

Water Resources Improve Through Bilateral Cooperation

Wed, 02/24/2016 - 11:01

Q: What were the situations and conditions that led to the creation of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) when NAFTA was signed?

A: At the time when NAFTA was under review, there was a lot of public opposition to the treaty because of the fact that the border region between the US and Mexico experienced serious environmental issues related to water and wastewater. At that time, only 22% of the Mexican border cities had wastewater treatment and a lot of wastewater ran into the Rio Grande and other shared water bodies. On the US side, there were serious problem with communities that had no water or wastewater services, and in the case of Texas, it was documented that 500,000 people along the border lacked these facilities. There was an expectation that the growth of economic development resulting from NAFTA would cause further degradation of the environmental conditions of these cities, so the NGO community came to a consensus that attention needed to be given to environmental issues along the border. Because of that, three organizations were created: BECC, the North American Development Bank (NADB), and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which is based in Montreal. At the moment, we are working on merging BECC and NADB into one organization. Our mandate is to preserve, protect, and enhance the environmental conditions along the border with the purpose of improving the quality of life and addressing these environmental issues.

Q: Which models or mechanisms do you use to foster bilateral cooperation?

A: We have 245 certified projects that amount to a total investment of US$8.6 billion, and of these, 140 are in water and wastewater. A significant amount of work has been done in the wastewater area, so a need was created to address the bilateral issue of waste contaminating shared water bodies. This was done through a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program called the US-Mexico Border Infrastructure Fund, which contributed nearly US$700 million. About US$321 million was allocated to Mexican communities adjacent to the border and the number was matched by CONAGUA, states, and municipalities. This bilateral cooperation improved the water treatment along the US-Mexico border from 22% to 88%, which is equivalent to 450 million gallons per day of treated water.

Q: Could you outline the challenges of working on water treatment projects with municipalities?

A: All of the water and wastewater projects that we have worked on have been municipal projects, which include industrial entities that discharge into the wastewater treatment plant. In many of these projects, we have installed or assisted the communities in implementing pre-treatment programs, so when the industrial sector discharges into the municipal water and wastewater system, the quality of their wastewater does not impact the treatment plant. The issue with these programs is that there are serious enforcement issues and the pre-treatment programs lack enough funding to employ inspectors for random inspections. Although this not documented, it is what we have witnessed in the communities we work with. The communities are interested in pursuing this, but they do not have sufficient funding for operations and maintenance.

Q: What are the short- and medium-term plans and ambitions of BECC?

A: Our short-term plans are to continue with our typical water and wastewater, renewable energy, and air quality projects. In the medium to long term, I see more of an involvement in many types of environmental projects that are private sectordriven. For instance, we have not certified any projects in the maquiladora area where companies are using renewables, improving their energy efficiency practices, or improving their air quality and emissions practices.

Regarding climate change, this phenomenon is going to be one of the greatest security threats in the world. A greenhouse gas inventory completed in 2010 of the six Mexican border states shows about 80% of greenhouse emissions are coming from energy consumption and transportation. More importantly, by 2025 the combined emissions of these states is projected to reach 31% of Mexico’s total emissions, produced by only 19% of its population. Any efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require the support of these border states in terms of targeting inefficiencies in energy consumption and transportation. We have addressed this by working with utilities on energy efficiency projects, and the results indicate a possible 30% reduction in energy consumption.