Social conflicts, water scarcity and pollution in mexico

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Patricia AVILA GARCIA, Rural Studies Center-El Colegio de Michoacan, MEXICO

I.- Water scarcity and conflicts

Water is a natural resource that is distributed disproportionately in Mexico, a country which is 31% arid, 36% semi-arid and 33% sub-humid. The average annual precipitation is 780 millimeters and the annual volume of water is 1630 cubic kilometers, 27% of which drains into rivers, the deepest of which are located in the southeast. By contrast, only 19% drains into the northern and central regions, which make up more than half of the country. Similar situations occur with underground water.
The rapid urban and industrial growth experienced since the 40's, together with the creation of important irrigation zones are factors that have contributed to the increased demand for water in the country. At present, 67% of the population, 70% of the manufacturing industry and a great part of the irrigated agricultural surface are concentrated in the north and center of the country, which are the poorest hydrological areas. Though more than 25% of Mexico's population lives over 2,000 meters above sea level, they receive only 4% of the water volume of the rivers, whereas the comparably-sized population that lives less than 500 meters above sea level receives more than 50%.

Mexico: Demographic Summary

Over the last fifty years, the population of Mexico has increased more than four times, from 19,653,552 inhabitants in 1940, to 81,249,645 in 1990. In the same period, the urban population increased from 35% to 71% of the total population.

Between 1980 and 1990, the demographic growth rate was 2% for the total population, 2.7% for the urban population and 0.4% for the rural population.

At present, 45 % of the population lives in communities with more than 100,000 inhabitants; Mexico City alone contains 20% of the total population. At the same time, 90% of Mexican communities have fewer than 500 inhabitants and comprise 12% of the total population.

In 1990, the population distribution by gender was 49% men and 51% women; and 13% of the population spoke an indigenous language.
Reference: Population Census of Mexico, 1940-1990.

This situation has increased the social and political conflicts resulting from of the use of water and has also generated an unequal scarcity of water that has affected above all the most vulnerable population: the urban and rural poor (because of the social segregation and unequal distribution of water), as well as the farmers and fishermen (because the water is diverted to the urban and industrial centers).

An interesting case is Mexico City, situated more than 2000 meters above sea level, where 20% of the total population and 16% of the industry are concentrated. Its demand for water of 60 cubic meters per second is covered 75% by the exploitation of local underground water and the remainder by water imported from other regions. The imported water needs to be elevated to the city by pumps, which must lift it approximately 1,200 meters. The cost of water is consequently very high and water management in Mexico City is clearly not sustainable.

The problem of water scarcity is also a function of the distribution of water services, both piped and fresh water. In urban settlements, 76% of the inhabitants have water service, while in rural settlements only 49% do. At the same time, there are gross differences in water consumption: the urban population uses an average of 150 liters per inhabitant daily, while the rural population uses less than 50 liters.

For example, in some regions of Mexico, particularly in the indigenous zone of the “Purepechas”, the population must either wait at the springs for two days or walk 15 kilometers to obtain water. Their water consumption is only 10 to 20 liters per inhabitant per day.

When the water distribution to localities is unequal, there is a differential kind of scarcity. For example, in Mexico City the poor areas have unreliable water service -water is often available only one or two days out of the week and average consumption is just 15 to 75 liters per inhabitant per day. In contrast, in rich areas where the water service is better, the water consumption reaches an incredible 600 liters per inhabitant per day.

Thus, the problem of water scarcity in the human settlements in Mexico is not only a function of the population growth of the last few decades. It is a complex problem that also includes geographic, socio-cultural, economic, political, and technological factors.

II.- Water pollution and its conflicts

In contrast, the quantity of waste water generated by the urban and industrial centers has increased as a result of changes in the consumption patterns and the adoption of new technologies. This has also increased the quantity of polluted wastes that flow, without previous treatment, to the rivers, lakes and seas. According to the Environment Ministry, 184 cubic meters of waste water are generated at the national level, of which 105 correspond to urban waste water and 79 to industrial waste water. The principal sources of pollution are organic substances, greases and oils, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals and detergents. Yet, less than 15% of waste water receives treatment in the country.

This situation has contribuited to the ecological deterioration of many zones of the country, as in the case of: the Lerma-Santiago, Pánuco, Balsas, Río Blanco and Papaloapan river basins; the Chapala, Pátzcuaro and Cuitzeo lakes; and the coastal zones near the industrial centers of Coatzacoalcos, Salina Cruz and Lázaro Cárdenas.









106 cubic meters/year

ORGANIC LOAD tons/year
























Source: EDUE (1986)

Furthermore, water pollution has deteriorated the natural base which supports the productive processes of agriculture and fishing. For example, there has been a decrease in land productivity due to salt concentrations and toxic substances in the water used for irrigation in some regions of the country. This has also increased the mortality rate of fish because of the existence of toxic and organic substances in the water.
Similarly, sanitary conditions have deteriorated because of the low quality of water and the consumption of polluted food (principally vegetables and sea food). This has contribuited to an increase of water-borne deseases, such as cholera.
Finally, the problems associated with water pollution have contributed to an increase in the number of social and political conflicts among the population. And because of this, many fishing and farming movements have arisen in the past few years demanding a lower level of polluting substances in the water.

The movements have gone from accusations made directly to the President to taking control of goverment offices and industries responsible for pollution. These cases involve movements in the farming regions close to Ixmiquilpan, Durango, Uruapan and Morelia, and the fishermen of Lázaro Cárdenas and Cuitzeo.

II.- Social and political conflicts over water in a region of Mexico:

the city of Morelia and its district irrigation case

II.1.- The region of study

Morelia is a city located in west-central México and is the capital of the state of Michoacan. Its principal economic activities involve the tertiary sector and to a lesser extent the secondary. On its outskirts several primary activities are developed, for example: the temporal and irrigation agriculture, forest exploitation, cattle-raising and fishing.

Water has been a fundamental resource for the region: from the high forests some water runs down in the form of rivers and spring water and is stored in a dam to supply the city and industry and to irrigate the agricultural district. Finally, the water is drawn to a lake and there it is used for fishing and recreation.

Especially in the last 20 years, the problems associated with scarcity and pollution have caused several transformations in the region, since the highlands are now seriously deteriorated because of deforestation, which affects the sources of water. The urban and industrial demand for water has grown rapidly, as well as has the amount of waste they produce. Industrial and urban wastes are poured directly into a river (without previous treatment) which is used for irrigation and cattle-raising; and the waste materials from agriculture and cattle-rasing are chaneled towards Lake Cuitzeo.

As a result of this, the conflicts brought by the use and management of water have increased. In the city, they have occurred basically because of urban-industrial competition. In the fields the conflicts have arisen because of the effects that water pollution is beginning to have on productive activities.

II.2.- An example of conflicts over water pollution

Since the creation of irrigation systems during Lázaro Cárdenas´s presidential term, the farmers have been in charge of supplying food and raw materials to Morelia and to Mexico City (principally: corn, wheat, tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, carrots and other vegetables).

At present, 19,860 hectareas are cultivated, 13, 882 of which are irrigated with polluted water (70%), the rest by deep wells. But in the presence of the possibility of the spread of cholera, the use of polluted water for some vegetables has been prohibited or restricted. The idea is to reorient the production of staple cereal crops without governmental support, such as credits and seed.

This looks to deregulate some state functions concerning water, since the National Water Commission has an exclusively normative character and only acts as an arbitrator in water conflicts. Among the principal changes present in the districts are:

- In relation to the Federal law concerning water, since 1992, the irrigation district 092 Morelia-Querendaro works with the economic resources obtained from fees. The National Water Commission only covers the salaries and traveling expenses of its personnel, charged with the administration and operation of the district.

- As a measure to improve the financial situation of the district, through criteria of economic efficiency, tariffs for water have increased by almost 2000%: from $5 to $90 per hectare. Nevertheless, according to the National Water Commission, the goal of self-sufficient financing has not yet been reached: it would require an increase to a minimum of $150 per hectare.

- The canals and small dams are in poor condition and water quality is poor. The farmers must pay for that: although it represents an increase in their costs of production and at the same time a reduction in income. In cases where the tariff for water service is not covered by the farmers, the National Water Commission suspends service until such time as the tariffs are paid in full.

Also, with the goal to introduce sanitary restricitions to vegetable production, the National Water Commission has established certain measures and legal sanctions against the farmers who seek to irrigate with polluted water. These measures range from bringing charges and imposing fines to suspending the irrigation service and even destroying crops.

In response to these, some movements have arisen among the farmers, such as taking control of public buildings and reporting to the mass media. The inconformoty to these measures is evident. Their argument is that they are paying the cost of pollution that they do not create. Thus for them, the solution of the problem must be: reducing the wastes that the urban and industrial activities generate.

One example is the discharging of polluted water from the city and industries, and in particular that generated by paper processing and cellulose company (CRISOBA) in the margins of the Río Grande of Morelia, which have been a source of conflicts produced by the noxious effects of their operations upon farmers of the Morelia-Querendaro district and the fishermen of Lake Cuitzeo. The accusations-denouncements have come in several ways: a) the concentration of the polluting substances in the water causes burns on farmers feet and hands when irrigating; b) the high salt concentration and the toxic substances in the water affect the quality of the soil and the aquatic life of the river and lake; and c) the commercialization of their products has been affected by low water quality and irrigation that risks the spread of cholera.

Together with these accusations, such movements have been carried out as a means of bringing pressure so that the water pollution problems in Morelia be resolved. For example, in 1991 and 1993 a group of farmers and fishermen pressured to the Urban and Ecology Ministry to close the paper and cellulose company.


Among the principal conclusions that arise from this study are the following: a) serious problems of water pollution caused by the cities and industries have affected the environment, and agricultural and fishing activities; b) the changes in water policy have responded to the necessity to reduce the water pollution, control the spread of cholera and restrict state functions; c) the water pollution problems as well as the introduction of new water policies in the rural zones have increased social and political tensions. Finally, other additional conclusions are:

- The central point of the conflicts over water in the region of study is the coexistence of two development projects that are opposed in social and environmental terms: on the one hand, the urban-industrial project and on the other the rural-agricultural one.

- The environmental costs of water pollution must be subsumed by those who generate it: it is necessary to introduce new technology in industry and in the city for the treatment and recycling of water. Also, reductions in the use of plaguicides and other toxic substances in the agriculture will be important. But the main problem is that those who produce such contamination take responsability for their actions, although this could mean an increase in their costs of production. The idea is: those who pollute, must pay.

- The success of the current water policy in rural zones is doubtful unless social and environmental criteria are incorporated. This means that the rural modernization cannot be based only on economic efficiency, nor on assigning the greater part of the environmental costs to the farmers. A development strategy is required that is less harmful to the environment and that is designed to improve the condition of life for the population as a whole.


Athié, Mauricio, Calidad y cantidad de agua en México, Universo Ventiuno, Mexico, 1987

Comisión Nacional de Agua, Ley Federal de Derechos en Materia de Agua, Mexico, 1992a

Comisión Nacional de Agua, Ley de Aguas Nacionales, Mexico, 1992b

Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecología (SEDUE), Programa Nacional para la protección del medio ambiente 1990-1994, Mexico, 1990

Various authors, Agua limpia: estrategia nacional, Colegio de Ingenieros Civiles, cuadernos técnicos, no. 3, Mexico, 1991

Social conflicts, Water scarcity and pollution in Mexico Patricia AVILA GARCIA, Rural Studies Center-El Colegio de Michoacan - Mexico

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