Raúl Morales
Mexican Geohydrological Association (AGMX)
Expert Contributor

Without Water Sustainability There is No Sustainable Development

By Raúl Morales | Thu, 07/23/2020 - 13:47

For approximately two years, Mexican society has been under pressure to decide between repealing the National Water Law (LAN) or promulgating a new one, called the General Water Law. This situation represents a relevant problem for the development of Mexico.

The proposals for a new General Water Law contain valid opinions, ideas, approaches or points of view, which should be considered. However, it gives the impression that the authorities in charge are trying to build a legal framework for water from scratch, as if the National Water Law (LAN) was totally useless, inadequate or obsolete, with nothing salvageable.

But it should be considered that the LAN was not created in a few months, as an initiative resulting from a change of administration. The law has antecedents that date back to at least the middle of the last century (Farias, 1993). In essence, part of the provisions of the Constitution regarding water resources have not been the product of improvisations or situations. On the contrary, it was elaborated and modified on several occasions by officials and specialists highly experienced in the disciplines involved in the different aspects of water administration, among which are numerous recognized figures from the public, academic and private sectors who for many years lived with the water problems as they evolved or emerged with the country’s population growth and development.

This is not to say that every problem has been adequately addressed in the administration of water resources. Many of the problems have been neglected for some time, while others are more recent. However, most of these are not due to deficiencies in the law, but to a lack of political and social will to comply with the law.

Politically, the water sector has never been assigned sufficient resources compatible with the vital importance of water for all sectors, nor has the hydraulic authority in turn had the energy to apply the restrictive or corrective measures required to achieve water sustainability because it has been considered politically unpopular.

Socially, water users generally resist respecting the official provisions regarding compliance with the obligations established in their concessions and violate the law in different ways, taking advantage of the reduced monitoring and surveillance capacity of the hydraulic authority.

Technically, the results of basic studies to determine sustainable water volumes and to guide resource management are disqualified because they do not meet all scientific rigor. That is without considering that they had to be carried out with the little information available at the time, that they had to cover the country in its entirety (2 million km2) and that they could not be updated with the desired frequency due to lack of financial resources. However, they were carried out by specialists from universities, institutes, companies and the authority itself, many of whom had or have extensive experience in the field, not only in practice but also in teaching and research. It is true that most of the studies need to be updated and supplemented, since the condition of the water sources is dynamic (it is modified over time by natural or anthropogenic causes). But even so, the information available at the present, although it is not completely correct, has guided water management and helped reduce as much as possible discretional extraction.

Without detracting from the good intention and knowledge in the matter that the participants may have in the elaboration of the proposals of the General Water Law, it is natural that most of them do not have professional training, much less knowledge of the current law and the knowledge of the multitude of problems that the administration of water resources raises. In addition, many cases are prejudiced by the perception that everything previously done is wrong.

In general, it seems that they had the idea that the task is only to write a new law. Note that an infinite number of technical, administrative and legal instruments are derived from the current law, including technical studies, reference framework, regulation of the law, operating rules, specific regulations, closures, reservations, guidelines, official standards, agreements, methodologies, procedures, concessions, assignments, permits and links with other laws. Therefore, the modification of all these instruments to adapt to a new legal framework would be almost unfeasible in the short or medium term, which would surely provoke strong reactions from the current concessionaires and would generate even greater distrust of the government for not respecting the previously acquired rights.

Likewise, the proposals do not seem to take into account that the current law is linked to other legal systems, with which the new law would have to be reconciled, especially if these are also to be partially or totally rebuilt.

Given the above, the following questions arise: Is this entire legal framework and its legal effects to be repealed and replaced with one elaborated with the best intentions, but done hastily? Are they going to modify the entire geographical reference framework (delimitation and official name of the management units) on which the water administration is currently based? Are the results of the technical studies, the execution of which took more than five decades, to be disowned and replaced by other studies of dubious quality? Are existing concessions going to be suddenly modified, overriding the rights of current concessionaires?

The proposed organic structure for water administration includes the creation of numerous entities such as the National Citizen Council, National Service for Water Management, regional, local and community councils and state representatives, in addition to the participation of other official agencies and organizations. The installation of the new entities, the modification of the current ones, the selection and designation of the holders and members of each one with personnel moderately aware of the country's water problems, the definition of their functions and jurisdictions, the elaboration of their rules of operation, the induction of the participants to the topics and tasks entrusted to them… all of these will take at least the remainder of the presidential term of office if not much longer.

On the other hand, what remuneration will the new non-official actors have? Or are they going to participate voluntarily with the continuity and time required? And in practice, can a coordinated operation be expected from a group so heterogeneous in its formation and approach, with the efficiency and agility required to the attention of the multitude of issues to be addressed, some of which already have a significant lag? The experience so far proves the modest usefulness of the Basin Councils (CC) and Technical Committees on Groundwater (COTAS) created in previous administrations caused by the discontinuity of their operation and changes or subbing of the titular members, who generally attended the sessions with little knowledge of the issues to be discussed.

If the content of the current law is objectively and impartially analyzed, it will be found that many of the objectives or purposes sought with the proposed law could be met by making the pertinent modifications and, above all, assigning to the competent authorities the necessary resources. In part, the difference between the current law and new proposals is in form, not substance. The wording is only changed by introducing the latest terms and concepts, which are already implicit in the first with other words. But in the end, the important factor is whether water resources will be recognized for their real importance. Without water sustainability there is no sustainable development and the necessary resources must be assigned to competent authorities. Otherwise, we may have an ideal law, but if meager resources continue to be allocated for investing in the knowledge of the water resource and its administration (not for the construction of hydraulic infrastructure and subsidies), we will have the same poor results.

In any case, for the new legal framework to be fully implemented, not only the drafting of the new law but all its instruments, it will take several years. Meanwhile, water problems will continue to grow and there will be no way to solve them if the hydraulic authority continues to be dismantled, symbolic resources continue to be allocated to it, and the application of the current law is further neglected with the argument then becoming: What is the point of providing increased attention and resources to this law when a new one is already on the way? The greatest damage will be felt by the water sources, the environment and the poorest population, which the law is supposedly trying to protect.

The foregoing results from the knowledge acquired by experts who have experienced first-hand the problems of water administration, in particular from engineer Rubén Chávez Guillen who has contributed these ideas that are of vital importance. Mexico is about to experience chaos in the administration and management of its water resources, which in the short and medium term will lead to a serious water supply crisis in all sectors and will weaken the country economically and socially. In this situation, the Mexican Geohydrological Association proposes that all actors – politicians, academics, private sector and society in general – analyze, without passion, the serious repercussions that will result from throwing overboard what is already built and we reiterate: Without water sustainability there is no sustainable development.

Photo by:   Raúl Morales