Provision of public services, such as water, is often subject to the political motivations of government leaders. In her book, Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico, Veronica Herrera analyzes water services in eight Mexican cities and shows how electoral considerations can either incentivize reform or perpetuate a cycle of low-quality resource provision. World Policy Journal spoke with Herrera, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, about water politics in Mexico and how communities have lobbied for better and more equitable services.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you give me a little bit of background on your book Water and Politics? Why did you choose this topic? And why did you choose to focus on eight cities in particular?
VERONICA HERRERA: When I started working on this project, I wanted to understand variation in government capacity and quality of public services—why some cities provide better public services than others, why some governments perform more effectively than others. Focusing on water opens up a whole new area of study about the environment, too. I chose the eight cities in Mexico to have variation between high performers and low performers. I wanted to understand the situation in Mexico, a country that represents a lot of other countries that have shifted from authoritarianism to democratization. Mexico in particular shifted from one-party rule to electoral competition and decentralization. So local governments are as of the 1990s responsible for providing public services in the context of electoral competition—they now have to both provide public services and win elections. You see these macro trends of democratization and decentralization in Mexico and elsewhere, and yet you also see such variation on the ground in terms of performance. Why are these processes of decentralization and democratization leading to better-performing public services in some cases and not others? Of the cities I chose, four are doing really well, and have reformed their water services, and four that didn’t reform are doing poorly. Two of the low-performer cases, Nezahualcoytol and Veracruz Port, are doing much worse than before, when the central government was doing everything for them.
WPJ: You described in your book the ways in which different political parties used control of water infrastructure to manipulate elections. Thinking about the examples you give in the book, as well as the Bolivian water crisis in Cochabamba and the water issues in Flint, Michigan, how does the way politicians control water change across different levels of government and within different countries?
VH: Broadly, politicians care a lot about the water sector because it’s of such high political relevance everywhere, but especially in developing countries where it’s seen as a social equity or welfare issue. In low-income communities, services can be provided in exchange for votes. The quality of water provision varies from one place to another not due to technical constraints. It’s not the technical know-how or the financial component that’s lacking, even in developing countries. It really comes down to political considerations. If you want to understand why politicians control water and intervene in water distribution, you have to look at the simple fact that they’re trying to get re-elected. And you have to look at who their constituents are, and how water plays into their voting patterns. In the cities I look at in my book, it’s clear that politicians responding to low-income citizens, rather than industrial users or middle-class communities petitioning for better quality services, became entrenched in this cycle of offering low-quality services that were essentially free but were also increasingly deteriorating. There was an exchange of really poor water services for continuous political support.
In contrast, in cities where new political leaders come from centrist parties or center-right parties that are catering to middle-class voters or industrial users that need high-quality water services for manufacturing, you start to see processes of reform over time. Part of the puzzle is whom these politicians are responding to electorally. Public services like water are manipulated—particularly through clientelism, an exchange of a material resource such as a public service, cash, food, or housing for the vote. A clientelistic exchange is also more likely to happen at the local level than at higher tiers of government because local politicians such as mayors are often closer to what’s happening on the ground than a president or a governor.
WPJ: How does the administration of water services differ under private versus public ownership?
VH: That’s a great question, and certainly one that’s been one of the most contentious areas of research on water politics. There’s been a lot of attention paid to community backlash—you mentioned the Cochabamba case, and there are others. There’s also a lot of attention paid to companies coming and privatizing public water supplies. One of the things I found interesting in my research, though, was that the reforms I examined are not privatization at all—there’s a commercialization aspect. These public-service providers are attempting to put an economic value on water supplies, but not full cost recovery. It’s not so different than what we have in the U.S., where fees are determined by how much you consume. It moves from being free to having some economic valuation, also depending on how much money you make—that is, lower-income residents receive subsidies. The four reformed cities I looked at—Naucalpan, Celaya, Irapuato, and León—drastically improved their water services, and one of the ways they did this was by increasing tariffs for the first time in decades, especially for high-income consumers, along with a cross-subsidy for low-income consumers.
Yet there was so much backlash: Communities organized and mobilized, and there were strikes, sit-ins, and burning of effigies at the city hall. It was not as extreme as the Cochabamba case, where there was armed violence and a stage of siege, but there was a lot of conflict—and it was with a public-service provider. There’s going to be social mobilization against these types of reforms, whether it’s a private concessionaire or a public provider, because communities—especially low-income communities—will resist the placement of an economic valuation on the service. However, when water is privatized, some of the accountability present when it’s in the hands of a public-service provider is lost. Even if tariffs increase and changes are made that citizens may or may not agree with, they can still file petitions with the government and hold the government and public officials accountable. With a private concessionaire, it becomes much more problematic, because who do you hold accountable? The mayor or the governor will be quick to say, “Well, it’s not my problem, it’s the private concessionaire’s problem.”
The privatization of water services has had mixed results in Latin America and in other regions, but private concessionaires, especially international concessionaires, have consistently failed to deliver on their promises of increasing or updating capital investments. That makes privatizing water in developing countries not particularly effective, even if you don’t disagree with it ideologically, because they’re not investing a lot of funds into the infrastructure. This makes sense because investing is not very lucrative, especially in large low-income communities. That’s why privatization has been a failure in some places—not to mention the problems with equity and access when there aren’t good, targeted subsidies for the poor.
WPJ: How have communities fought for better access to water? What strategies have been most effective?
VH: In the low-income communities I was studying in the book, mobilization was often led by leaders of opposition parties, like the PRI and PRD. They tried to organize their bases on the ground to do strikes and sit-ins and burn effigies. In part this was to derail the new political parties, in many cases the right-of-center PAN, from implementing these reforms, but it was also the first time the PRI was out of power after being in power for 70 years. And so it was really contentious, even dangerous, in some places for these new political leaders. There was real frustration and anger on the part of citizens, but there was also a lot of political organizing to make it into a partisan issue.
One of the tools that low-income citizens in particular had was mass mobilization, which might be the only way for them to get the government’s attention. If you are middle class and educated you might have more access to government or connections with elected officials, but when you are poor, one of the ways to get the government’s attention is to get organized and take to the streets. In some cases, communities that mobilized were able to extract concessions, such as reduced pricing, subsidies, and avoiding metering systems in their neighborhoods. These communities felt the reforms to be regressive and hurtful. A key takeaway from the book is that these are not just technocratic reforms; they have to be negotiated with the communities involved. The more the players involved are able to demand concessions and give concessions, the better chance the reforms will be successful.
WPJ: Over the years, how much has changed in the cities you studied?
VH: When I study these cities, I’m looking at reforms over a 20-year period. In some cases the reforms are consolidating and strengthening, but new challenges always come up. One thing that changed was the volume of protests and conflicts surrounding the elimination of clientelistic water provision and the imposition of these reforms and increasing water tariffs, though this is accompanied by improvements in water service. You still see some backlash, but the organized backlash in all the cities I examined isn’t as common anymore because people get used to a new status quo where water is more costly but of better quality. Social conflict has diminished in the cities that reformed. But one of the major challenges in Mexican cities, as well as in other countries, is that when a new political party, or even just a new leader, takes office, they bring in their own people and replace all prior staff and often enact all new policy. There are new municipal governments every three years in Mexico. It’s a miracle that anything functions properly at all. But the cities that reformed were able to overcome this challenge. There is always a risk that a new politician will go in a different direction—a lot of politicians don’t want to consolidate reforms made by a prior elected official because they want to put their own stamp on policy. But one of the reasons the high-reform cities performed so well was that citizens—middle-class users, engineering associations, architecture associations, and in some cases industrial elites—demanded reforms and then helped to oversee the implementation even as elected officials came in and out of office. This showed that with strong civil-society participation and oversight in water-sector reforms, success over time is more likely. These groups can check the overly controlling impulses of elected officials who sometimes want to act like monarchs. It’s not a precise formula, but it’s an ingredient in the sustainability of reforms over time.
WPJ: It’s like a perfect storm.
VH: Exactly. That’s why you see reforms in some cities and not others. The cities where I saw reform were the wealthier cities with higher concentrations of middle-class communities. It’s complicated, and politically very sensitive, when you talk about water because it should be available for all. But I will suggest a flip side: One of the things I see in the low-reform cities is the dramatic and in some cases life-threatening deterioration of water services, because now the federal government isn’t overseeing everything. In these cities, there is no reform, water quality continues to be poor, and city governments make no efforts to collect water fees. There’s just no injection of money or resources to keep up with updates and infrastructure needs, which leads to lead poisoning, sewage lines interconnected with water lines, and all sorts of public-health crises. Those are often low-income cities, and it’s tragic that there aren’t federal subsidies or intervention by international development agencies to support those communities.
In the low-reform cities I looked at, some had piecemeal reform and in others there’s nothing and the situation is really extreme. Responsibility is decentralized, so it’s in the hands of the city. There’s no interest from elected officials to upset the status quo and start charging for water because a lot of communities will not be able to pay very much anyway, but there’s also no injection of resources to improve water services. That’s why such a high percentage of consumers throughout the developing world don’t have water service at all, but pay 50 to 80 to 100 times more for big containers of water from informal tankers. And it just gets worse, because whatever existing water infrastructure those cities have that’s already limited and crumbling is getting more and more outdated. So it becomes a humanitarian crisis as well—so the costs of not reforming are also very high.
WPJ: What needs to happen for Mexico, or any other country for that matter, to improve its water system?
VH: I wish I had the perfect answer, but unfortunately there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. If there was, we wouldn’t have the crisis we’re having. In the 1990s, there was a one-size-fits-all approach, but it was not an answer to the problem because an effective approach depends on solutions that consider the social, economic, and political conditions of a particular community. So one of the things I look at in my book is the economic makeup of a city. The distribution of industry, middle-class, lower-income, and residential consumers can indicate which reforms are likely to be most successful. We also have to consider the extent to which political parties are involved in the sector, what their preferences are, and which local economic and social actors they are aligned with, because those are the key players that will either help implement or completely block the reforms. There are local power players everywhere, and they have to be included in conversations about designing local solutions to improve water services. But people often don’t want to hear about this because the one-size-fits-all solution is much more convenient and can be drafted from Washington, D.C., or Paris and then distributed everywhere. But information about the local context is needed to draft these proposals, and local support needs to sustain them after the architects of the reforms are no longer in the picture.
Social scientists who study water tend to either be pro-privatization or anti-privatization, and the question has become whether to commercialize it or not. One of the things I say in the book is that we have to get money to do infrastructure maintenance and provide services, and that’s just step one. That doesn’t mean we completely commercialize water services, but we do need to talk about money and where it’s going to come from. And we need to remember equity and to remember that local coalitions are either going to support the reforms or block them, so getting their buy-in is absolutely critical.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews.
[Interview conducted by Emily Goldstein-McGowan]
[Photo courtesy of Veronica Herrera]