Fri, 09 Jun 2023

MEXICO CITY (CN) - "The final revolution will not be for money or material goods, it will be for water, and I think it will be worldwide," Jorge Zapata Gonzalez said within earshot of the bronze statue of his grandfather, legendary hero of the Mexican Revolution Emiliano Zapata. "Without water, there is no life."

Emiliano Zapata fought and died for a set of ideals that have since been boiled down to the pithy phrase "Land and Liberty." However, more than a century after his murder, his descendants in the southern state of Morelos find themselves fighting what is essentially the same battle: access to resources and economy.

"This is a huge responsibility," said Zapata Gonzalez. "It isn't an easy job, but someone has to do it, and if that person is me, I'll do it gladly. I prefer to see my people free and healthy, not riddled with cancer from these terrible projects that only end up polluting."

And they are not alone in their plight. People all over the country are living in conditions that serve as a glaring example of why the United Nations observes World Water Day each March 22. Simply and starkly put: Mexico is running out of water. 

Statistics published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico tell a harrowing story: only 58% of the country's population has daily access to running water; approximately 6 million people have no access to potable water and 11 million lack sanitation services; and only 14% of the population receives water 24 hours a day.

Jorge Zapata Gonzalez stands near a statue of his grandfather, the legendary hero of the Mexican Revolution Emiliano Zapata. More than a century after the general's death, his grandson fights the same fight for land rights and access to resources. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

For years, Zapata Gonzalez and others in the state where his grandfather led his historic rebellion have opposed a thermoelectric power plant that threatens their water supply. It is part of a larger megaproject called the the Comprehensive Morelos Project (PIM), that links the state of Morelos to those of Puebla and Tlaxcala with a 107-mile natural gas pipeline. 

The PIM includes an aqueduct that takes water from a nearby treatment plant to the power plant to cool the turbines. Government documentation for the project claims this water will simply be poured back into the Cuautla River for farmers to use as irrigation as they have done for generations. 

But the process is not a one-to-one equation. The treated water that goes into the plant comes out reduced in both quantity and quality. Farmers downriver call the little that is left over for them "agua muerta" - dead water. 

"It's dead water because it has no more oxygen," said Teresa Castellanos, a land defender from Huexca, Morelos, where the plant is located. "If farmers can't sow, we don't eat."

Castellanos has opposed the PIM since its inception in 2008 by former President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, who envisioned a project that would make Morelos a bastion of electric energy production. 

The struggle has taken over her life. She laments everything from missing important family events because of her activism to being threatened and beaten by men she believes to have been linked to organized crime. She even lost a friend in the fight: the activist Samir Flores of Amilcingo, Morelos. The outspoken critic of the PIM was murdered by gunmen outside his home on Feb. 20, 2019. 

"Samir was part of us, part of our land and water defense front," Castellanos said with tears streaming down her cheeks. "Samir was my brother, my comrade, my family. He was part of my life, and they snatched him from us. This project is bathed in blood."

Water flows through a small canal between a street and family houses. Orange flowers bloom on a tree next to the canal
Clear water flows through a canal in Cuautla, Morelos. The city will see its water supply greatly affected if the nearby thermoelectric power plant comes fully online. It is currently running limited operations during an initial testing phase. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Land defenders across Mexico are under similar threats. In September 2022, the environmental watchdog group Global Witness published a report citing Mexico as the deadliest country for land and water defenders in the world. It documented the killings of 54 activists in 2021 alone. 

But as water becomes more scarce, activists are not the only people living under threat in Mexico. Problems of water scarcity have led Courthouse News to the northern state of Nuevo Leon, where reservoirs nearly dried up completely last summer; to Ecatepec, north of the capital, where mafias run an illicit water trade; and to the heart of Mexico City, where sprawling mixed-use developments threaten the already dwindling water supply by using millions of gallons per day. 

Several of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's pet megaprojects also threaten Mexico's water supplies. Environmentalists have warned of the risks posed by the Maya Train to the system of subterranean rivers and sinkholes known as cenotes. And AIFA, Mexico City's new airport near Ecatepec, is using inordinate amounts of water and will use much more as the facility sees more traffic. 

Complaints of water scarcity are popping up in more and more places in Mexico. A hotel owner in the surfer's paradise of Puerto Escondido, on Oaxaca's Pacific coast, recently said her main worry is now water. She has been forced to make weekly purchases from tankers just to have enough for guests at her five-bungalow vacation property. 

And concerns over polluted water supplies can be found all over Mexico, as well. 

"Seventy percent of our water in Mexico is contaminated to some degree," said Ricardo Ovando, an activist with the nonprofit Agua Para Todxs (Water For All). 

He and his fellow water protectors trace all of these problems back to one root cause: the 1992 National Water Law signed by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gotari ahead of the 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

"The law obviously privileged the companies that came to invest in Mexico under NAFTA," said Ovando. "It is a law that tolerates water pollution. It is a permissive law that has led us to a serious crisis, because it also allows for the privatization of potable water, sewage and sanitation services."

A bright red semi truck is parked in front of the entrance to a warehouse. Bottles of water and soda pop are stacked up in the warehouse
Jugs of potable water are stacked to the ceiling in the warehouse of this Coca-Cola bottling plant in Cuautla, Morelos. The soft drink industry is one of the biggest recipients of water concessions in Mexico in recent decades. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

That law took the power of water service controls from local and municipal authorities to the president of Mexico. The change was an enormous boon for industry, but it has wreaked havoc on local water supplies. 

"It creates a system of water concessions based on the free market that are given on a first-come-first-serve basis," said Ovando. 

Mexico is now paying the steep price for decades of this kind of water management. More than 514,000 water concessions were granted from 1989 to 2017, according to Angel Martinez, an employee of Mexico's National Water Commission (Conagua) and activist who attended a protest outside the commission's offices in Mexico City on Wednesday.

"These concessions favored real estate developers, agricultural and pig farms, companies making soft drinks, cement, sugar and textiles, as well as the automobile industry," said Martinez.

Conagua declined official requests for interviews.

The concessions had slowed dramatically in recent years thanks to the work of a woman named Elena Burns, a member of Agua Para Todxs who served as Conagua's deputy director from September 2020 to October of last year, when she was suddenly and unceremoniously fired and blocked from entering the agency's offices one morning. 

Conagua said in a press release that she had been ousted due to "a need to accelerate the granting of concessions."

Agua Para Todxs is demanding the passage of a new national water law based on human rights and the idea that water is a common, rather than commercial good. 

A trickle of black water runs through a ravine, widening slightly as it nears the bottom of the frame. A concrete bridge can be seen in the background
Dirty and foul-smelling water runs through a ravine in Cuautla, Morelos, on Mar. 20, 2023. While the river generally runs low in the dry season, neighbors told Courthouse News that they have seen levels drop and the water become more contaminated over the last 10 to 15 years. (Courthouse News/Cody Copeland)

"The overarching spirit of the current water law is one that views water as merchandise, but the one we've proposed does not treat it like that," said Carlos Vargas of Agua Para Todxs, who also attended Wednesday's rally outside the Conagua headquarters. "It treats water as a common good that must be managed with equitable and sustainable citizen participation."

Similar calls were made at a march in downtown Mexico City on Wednesday afternoon, but they may not have been as loud as organizers had hoped. Only around 60 of the 400 demonstrators expected by police turned up for the march.

Colorful signage and cute children in fish outfits were enough to catch the eyes of Rogelio Martinez and his wife, who were visiting the capital from Guadalajara. They said that while they had yet to see problems with their water supply in the state of Jalisco, they are indeed worried about the water crisis, because they hear horror stories from their relatives in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.

"Yes, what the marchers are saying is right, we give too much water to big business like industrial beer brewers," said Martinez.

Water issues were also among the reasons that activists from Oaxaca's Isthmus of Tehuantepec held a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City on Tuesday to denounce U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry's visit to the region to oversee advances on another water-guzzling megaproject: the Interoceanic Corredor. 

The project is an industrial and transportation belt running between Mexico's Pacific and Gulf coasts that the governments of both Mexico and the United States hope will give the Panama Canal a run for its money. 

Kerry did not make public statements during his trip, nor did his office answer questions sent via email. Lopez Obrador said in February that the United States would fund four wind farms in the region.

Five small children wearing colorful cardboard fish outfits stand in front of a banner with Spanish text on it. People behind the banner hold baby blue water droplets
Demonstrators sport colorful outfits and signage at a march for World Water Day in Mexico City on Mar. 22, 2023. Their banner reads: "It isn't drought, it's plundering." (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Protesters like activist Miguel Angel Garcia denounced Kerry's visit, calling the project a "farce of so-called green capitalism." Despite their eco-friendly reputation and promises to improve local economies, the wind farms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec are big polluters, primarily through oil leaks, and have led to conflicts over land rights between locals and the companies that operate them. 

"Water is a serious problem for all of the megaprojects of this government," said Garcia. "In his delirious, messianic, pharaonic vision, Lopez Obrador is not worried about the future. He just wants to go down in short-term history as a great hero." 

Back in Morelos, Zapata Gonzalez and other residents are feeling the effects of the president's ambitions acutely, and the project has yet to go fully online. It remains in a limited testing phase, because there is already not enough water to operate at 100%.

"It is in everyone's interest that the PIM does not go fully online, because if it does and Morelos rises up, the uprising will be nationwide," said Zapata Gonzalez with a boldness that must be genetic. 

"The only thing the president is achieving is making the people want to rise up, and I can assure you that if they rise up like they did for the War of Independence, like they did for the Revolution, there is no human power that will be able to stop that."

Source: Courthouse News Service

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