14 December 2007

Across Mexico, water bills go unpaid

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By David Agren
The News

For six months of the year, water flows only intermittently from the taps in Guadalupe Nava’s apartment in the capital’s Colonia San Rafael neighborhood, often forcing her to haul buckets down to a local well for filling.

Nava grumbles about the price she pays for the unpredictable utility, which is subsidized by the city and costs just over three pesos per 1,000 liters. The elderly homemaker would prefer not to pay at all, though not necessarily because of the inconsistent service.

“For households, it should be free,” she said while washing clothes at a laundry in another neighborhood due to a lack of water at her apartment.

Even so, Nava says she always manages to pay her water bill, though it’s often a late settlement on an overdue account, and one that’s made largely made due to pressure from the other tenants in her cooperative apartment complex.

Nava’s story illustrates a Catch-22 of water service in Mexico, where many users, citing poor quality and a belief in the constitutional right to free water, pay infrequently or not at all. For their part, providers say the lack of reliable customer payment prevents them from making much-needed infrastructure and service improvements.

A DEEPLY ROOTED PROBLEM

According to the National Water Commission, or Conagua, 60 percent of water bills go unpaid nationwide. In some municipalities in the Valle de Mexico, the agency says, the delinquency rate reaches 90 percent, causing some water providers to give up on pursuing deadbeat customers.

In September, Conagua director José Luis Luege Tamargo called the present water billing problem “extremely critical” and blamed payment delinquency for leaving the country's water infrastructure in a sub-standard state. He went on to warn that the lack of revenue from payments could jeopardize the long-term supply of water in northern and central Mexico, where more than 70 percent of the population resides and one of every six aquifers is “overexploited.”

In an effort to address the problem, the Environment Secretariat, or Semarnat, launched an ad campaign over the summer, warning consumers of the long-term consequences of not paying their water bills – like continued inconsistent service, a lack of new pipes and persistent drainage problems.

The effort to rally citizens to pay their water bills may be largely in vain, said Sylvia Gutiérrez y Vera, a sociology professor at Universidad Iberoamericana, who added that the idea of free water is ingrained in the psyche of many Mexicans.

“In Mexico, it used to be said very clearly that water should not be denied to anyone,” she said.

The concept originated in a social pact between the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the citizenry, Gutiérrez y Vera said. It resulted in local laws that barred utility companies from cutting service to delinquent customers – no matter how much they owed or how long they had owed it.

And the culture of nonpayment extends beyond cash-strapped pueblos. Some of the country's best-known institutions – and even the federal government – have accumulated enormous water debts.

Popular soccer franchise Chivas left an unpaid 5-million-peso water bill upon closing its Guadalajara sports club last fall. In September, Ramón Aguirre Díaz, water systems director for Mexico City, criticized the federal government for running up a debt of 4.6 billion pesos with his municipal utility.

Aguirre Díaz also accused Conagua of owing 2.8 million pesos, a charge hotly denied by the agency. Federal officials maintain that a constitutional amendment exempts them from paying for water services.

ONE CITY TAKES A STAND

In the central city of Aguascalientes, capital of a small, semi-arid state 500 kilometers northwest of Mexico City, a private waterworks concessionary demands timely payment and cuts service to delinquent customers after just two months.

According to the waterworks, Concesionaria de Aguas de Aguascalientes, or CAASA, 90 percent of its customers remit payment before the deadline. By comparison, in Mexico City, where service is seldom – if ever – suspended for nonpayment, one-third of bills go unpaid after two months.

Water customers in the city of 633,000 pay some of the highest rates in the country: 8.80 pesos per cubic meter, or 1,000 liters. The fee covers the full cost of the liquid flowing from users’ taps, something rare in a country awash in government subsidies.

“In the (country’s) 100 biggest cities, only four or five will charge the real price for water,” said former Aguascalientes governor Otto Granados Roldán of the PRI, who presided over the water privatization.

CAASA, a French, Spanish and Mexican partnership that assumed control of the Aguascalientes waterworks in 1993, says its network serve 99 percent of the municipality’s residences, up from 70 percent at the time the concession was granted. In addition, some 80 percent of city neighborhoods receive 24-hour service, a jump from 51 percent in 1996, according to CAASA. The firm also boasts that nearly all its wastewater is treated, while nationwide, Conagua put the number at around 30 percent.

Per-capita water consumption also dropped by 20 percent after privatization, added Granados Roldán, now a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Aguascalientes.

“What we wanted, in effect, was a measure – like the concession was – to change people’s habits,” he said.

Still, some Aguascalientes residents complain about the relatively high price of their water. And CAASA recently landed on the consumer protection agency Profeco’s list of most complained about companies.

Enriqueta Medellín, legal representative for the (NON-GOVERNMENTAL?) environmental group Conciencia Ecológica de Aguascalientes, agreed with the idea of making delinquent customers pay their water bills. But she said that CAASA’s service is too expensive for poor residents and the quality fell short of what was mandated in the original concession.

“It’s been a bonanza for the water company, but from a social point of view, no,” she said, pointing out that in her own neighborhood, service is often intermittent.

“It’s the same or even worse service.”

Water issues surfaced in summer municipal election as the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and Convergence Party promised to revoke CAASA’s concession. Both parties, however, finished well behind the PRI and the incumbent National Action Party, or PAN, which have shown a more favorable attitude toward the concession. In 2006, the PAN and PRI voted down a measure that would have revoked CAASA’s right to suspend service.

BUT WOULD IT WORK IN THE CAPITAL

Water tariffs in Aguascalientes, a relatively prosperous industrial city, increase regularly to keep pace with inflation. But in Mexico City, PRD Mayor Marcelo Ebrard opted this fall to keep prices low and not to impose a retroactive rate hike for the remainder of 2007. Instead, the mayor said the capital would improve on its collection rate before raising tariffs.

David Barkin, a water expert at the capital’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, said charging higher rates or bringing in a concessionaire wouldn’t necessarily solve Mexico City’s problems. As evidence, he cited mixed results after four private companies were hired in 1994 to handle commercial affairs for the municipal waterworks, including billing.

Barkin also questioned the fairness and viability of charging poor residents high rates for a service so essential for life.

“How can you charge a private rate of return to people whom the system doesn’t pay a living wage?” he asked.

Nava, the San Rafael resident with intermittent service, said “the poor shouldn’t pay for water,” but citing the example of a neighbor that never remits payment, she acknowledged, “Some people would abuse it.”

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