Ramón Aguirre
Director General Of Sacmex
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Insight

Empowering Water Management Institutions

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 11:54

Water is a human right, but not one so easy to secure in the fifth-most populated city in the world, with over 9 million citizens and an area surpassing 1,959km2, according to ProMéxico. The city’s water issues are numerous and solving them starts with the ability of the country’s related authorities to step up and step in. “If Mexico wants to thrive in solving its water problems, it must empower its water management institutions,” says Ramón Aguirre, Mexico City Water Management System’s Director General.
The Mexico City Water Management System (SACMEX) is one of the most important dependencies in the Mexican capital and has a huge operational scope but Aguirre says in terms of decision-making power, it must take a backseat. “SACMEX is a directorate of the Mexico City government so it is not a priority,” he says. To start, Aguirre believes SACMEX’s structure should be modified to become a decentralized body of the city’s government and its director general should be given the power to make decisions regarding water management. “It is not about giving SACMEX superpowers but to allocate to it the water-related faculties currently fragmented between the Attorney General, the Ministry of Finance and SEMARNAT, among others,” he says.
The dispersion of decision-making power implies a delay in response times, compromising the system’s efficiency, says Aguirre. “An issue that I could sort out in one hour takes me a month, as I need to consult with other institutions,” he says. “Water priorities are not to be fragmented among a series of institutions with other important responsibilities because they are unavoidably going to fall down the priority list, hindering improvement.”
Aguirre’s requests for Mexico’s government are not only about decision-making powers; investment in water management infrastructure is also a crucial concern. “I hope the next administration will prioritize water issues. Our research indicates that properly addressing these require at least a yearly investment of MXN$5.5 billion, with long-term planning,” he says. “We are actively swimming toward a water crisis and, unless we reverse in due time, the current will pull us under.”
The current budget deficit for water management is undeniable, as most Mexican water institutions operate in the red. The need is simple: more money to better secure Mexicans’ human right to water. But he says the water management challenge is unique in that people cannot physically see the benefits. “Water management has the problem that any investment is literally buried under the surface. Nobody sees water infrastructure, that is why its investment is so low,” Aguirre says. “This is a sector in which construction works bother the population, are expensive and nobody really sees the true benefit. It is only natural that it will be neglected unless it reaches breaking point.”
The dilemma becomes one of investing in a sort of invisible infrastructure that permeates the whole city when politicians could instead bet on more visible projects, Aguirre adds. But given the government’s unwillingness to allocate the required resources to rehabilitate water infrastructure, where is the money that water systems need coming from? The most reasonable option is to turn to the private sector for help. “I am convinced that PPPs are the solution to water issues but they are simply not allowed in this city,” he says. He explains that a reform enforced in 2017 pretty much closes the door for PPPs to dive in and help to solve water problems. “The constitution establishes that there must not be private capital in water potabilization, distribution or sewage and supply services, which are the government’s responsibility.”
Seeking another approach to address this issue and lawfully bridge the budget deficit that water management institutions face, Aguirre thinks it is crucial to find a strategic balance between subsidized and paid services. Mexico City has some of the highest water tariffs in the country for commercial uses, but also the lowest for low-to-middle class residential use. This implies that most of the water used in the city is highly subsidized; another burden straining the budget.
Aguirre explains that water tariffs have remained almost unchanged over the years, except for the inflation adjustment. While he thinks it is unlikely the government will increase prices for an amenity that is considered a human right, he is convinced this could be a huge opportunity to secure more resources for water management and to promote a wiser and more sustainable level of consumption.
First, he says, it is key to establish a limit on the human right to water. “Basic residential consumption is 20-50L per day. That is the human right to water,” he says. But when carrying out the calculations, considering an average of four residents per house in the city, the domiciliary water intake would be around 200L per house daily, equaling 18m3 bimonthly. Aguirre thinks that is a fair and reasonable amount to subsidize with very low tariffs but the issue is the huge discrepancy between this and the real numbers. “The latest data we have for Mexico City is that 30m3 of water is consumed bimonthly, an average of 500L per day per household,” he says. “This is a very high consumption level that should be significantly reduced. A reasonable decrease could be 20 percent, or around 24m3 bimonthly.”
Water culture has permeated the population as awareness of taking care of resources has improved but saving the resource is not yet a widespread practice. “The need to preserve water resources is a known issue but this is not reflected in the average water use in the city,” he says. Decreasing water subsidies could be the right push to transform culture into action. Aguirre has seen it work before, as other megalopolises in Latin America have managed to lower their water consumption. For example, Bogota reduced its consumption to an average of 21m3 bimonthly.
But Aguirre says that multiple and simultaneous approaches are fundamental for all issues from water leaks to water quality, from flooding to sinkholes, and from over-consumption in urban areas to the over-exploitation of aquifers. “The city is no island, so the effort to tackle water problems must be made alongside surrounding municipalities,” he says. “We must work in tandem to fix leaks, carry out accurate measurement, purification and modernization of the infrastructure, all with long-term planning.”
Aguirre says it is more important than ever to stop letting urban water issues take the backseat and start prioritizing solutions. People in rural areas are historically used to hoarding water from artesian wells and waterwheels. “But in cities, people do not have supply alternatives. You either source water through the network or from a water truck,” he says. Establishing priorities for such a complex topic is not so easy. Aguirre wants to start by securing supply and focusing on water quality. He says poor neighborhoods should be prioritized as they have an irregular supply, often dependent on water trucks. But to solve sourcing, leaks must be fixed first. “It is pointless to seek more procurement sources if we are not addressing leaks,” he says. “We cannot keep putting more water into the strainer. That is the worst investment the city can make.”