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Community Water Systems on the Rise

Water providers, essential to quenching our daily thirst, usually aren't household names, their logo swooshed across a baseball cap. If we think of them at all, it might be a big city utility. And yet, many urban neighborhoods, and vast stretches of rural areas, are served by tiny, often invisible community operators. In Latin America alone, over 145,000 small community operators serve 70,000,000 people. They are making good – or at least trying to - on the human right to water and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals....

By Daniel Moss

Water providers, essential to quenching our daily thirst, usually aren’t household names, their logo swooshed across a baseball cap. If we think of them at all, it might be a big city utility. And yet, many urban neighborhoods, and vast stretches of rural areas, are served by tiny, often invisible community operators. In Latin America alone, over 145,000 small community operators serve 70,000,000 people. They are making good – or at least trying to – on the human right to water and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

With climate change and water mismanagement aggravating water scarcity, flooding and contamination, the job of water operators has become more challenging – and critical. A relatively young network, the Latin American Confederation of Water and Sanitation Community Organizations (CLOCSAS), recently celebrated eight years of seeking to strengthen community water systems. It’s a growing network.

Speaking to a crowded assembly of water providers stretching from Chile to Mexico, the president of CLOCSAS, Rolando Marín, described his local association’s beginnings in Costa Rica. Urban development was metastasizing in his neighborhood; impervious asphalt prevented rain from percolating downwards and recharging groundwater reserves. The community organized to rein in urbanization and study the health of their subterranean sources. A zoning plan for the town emerged, as did a community water enterprise. CLOCSAS’ goal is to help small operators learn from one another and advocate for laws, financing and technical assistance so they can do their jobs better.

Human Rights, State Support and Community Autonomy

Governor Graco Ramírez of Morelos, Mexico admitted to the CLOCSAS assembly that he wasn’t entirely sure of the number of community water operators in his state. “There’s no register. We have 33 municipalities and over 1000 towns. Not all are served by municipal water systems.” Under-served households often hail down water trucks, more expensive per cubic meter, resulting, he said, in “the poor paying more than the rich.” Worse, he continued, “people don’t drink from the tap. 95% consume bottled water.” Many of his colleagues nationally want to privatize water but, in his opinion, ”it’s culturally better that we take care of it in our own communities.” Although Mexico followed the UN’s lead and approved the human right to water in 2012, the governor said that national politicians are “playing with peoples’ rights.”

At the two-day assembly, there was no dearth of pronouncements in favor of government support for community water operators. But with a caveat. Support must not undermine local autonomy. Autonomy from state government is of particular interest to indigenous communities like Segundo Guaillas’s, which have long had friction with the colonial state. With the long braid, fedora-like hat and shin-high pants characteristic of his indigenous region in Ecuador, Guaillas said, “I’m a communitarian. Communitarianism is a political and economic proposal that has to do with territory, not just one sector, not just water. Local authorities that manage schools, manage water. Not in a fragmented way but from a territorial perspective. Water is power, part of a political and economic dispute for autonomy.”

From his perspective, resources for community water provision and water source protection are essential and welcome – but without political interference. An autonomous and decentralized system is, in his opinion, a win for the government because it more effectively and equitably guarantees public health and other public goods. Lil Soto, from the Avina Foundation, a key CLOCSAS supporter argued that community water systems “strengthen democracy and solidarity”.

In Mexico and other countries, municipal governments are legally responsible for water provision, but community operators often do the work. Municipalities are essentially getting a free ride, argued Luis Velasco, a CLOCSAS board member. Latin American municipalities off-load water provision responsibilities to community systems, saving roughly $435 million, without giving the community operators credit and resources.

Discussion wasn’t all barbs about “big government”. State regulation to ensure water service quality and source water integrity was embraced rather than rejected. At the same time, a participant from Huatla, Mexico lamented that he’d been unsuccessful in getting regulatory agencies to do their job,”we don’t know how to get access to the local and federal agencies.” Another participant expressed frustration with watershed councils – which although not regulatory bodies are increasingly in-vogue as participatory bodies that govern water resources. The councils exist, he said, “on paper. Nothing more. In the end, decisions are made by CONAGUA.” CONAGUA is the Mexican national water agency which doubles as a regulator. Community water operators argue that their proximity to their users ensures greater transparency and responsiveness. Their role can’t substitute for strong regulatory agencies but does offer some grassroots oversight.

Protecting Water Sources

Response was mixed to a presentation by development banks and other funders – about their strategies to support community water systems. One person stepped to the microphone, “water is not only infrastructure”. Without investing in human resources – training – the best water infrastructure in the world will fall apart or be improperly used.

A debate about “grey” vs. “green” infrastructure followed. Why don’t funders talk more about keeping watersheds healthy rather than just about technologies and water delivery efficiencies? “It’s the misuse of land that leads to the abuse of water.” said a participant from Michoacán. “Donor investments tend to be driven by an engineering mindset,” he said, and “defense of ecosystems takes second place. How much would we save by investing in protecting ecosystems, not just in water treatment? There’s talk of watersheds, but how many resources go towards keeping glysophates out of the water?”

Another participant, his voice rising, expressed frustration that it took over a year to get approval for $35,000 from a funder to buy land to reforest around around a critical water source. “The Earth’s temperature is rising,” he said. “We’re talking about our lives.”

CLOCSAS commissioned a survey across 11 countries to investigate how water operators’ protect their water sources and watersheds. An Andean water operator said, “In Cajamarca, Peru, mining affects the water yet Peruvian laws don’t ensure responsible mining.” Despite unfulfilled promises of economic development, “politicians don’t want to get involved: they’re scared of upsetting the mines.” The same survey found that 90% of operators surveyed worry about the effects of deforestation on their water sources. Although some water operators work with allies and foes to ensure that land and water is managed sustainably, the survey found that they generally lack the political and economic might to protect and rehabilitate their watersheds and aquifers.

Away from the microphones, over coffee, some conversation turned to whether the banks’ own investment portfolios in mining and industrial agriculture might contribute to degrading water resources. On the street, a small but vocal group of protestors denounced sponsorship of the conference by development banks and a private foundation with alleged ties to Nestle, a major bottled water distributor. Their flyer claimed that international donors support privatization of water services and “promote models of management that ignore the collective, historic, cultural and political construction that characterize community water systems.”

Municipal water providers can’t keep up with growing water demand and lack the resources to reach into the countryside where so many families still lack basic water and sanitation services. Community water systems have become an essential feature of the urban and rural landscape to satisfy thirst and adjust to climate change. New thinking about water services, even amongst engineers, is shifting towards decentralized models that rely on everyday neighbors to manage water delivery systems and safeguard ecosystems. Community water operators are close to their users, the land and the local economy; they know the socio-political complexities of their micro-watersheds. They are – or could be – embedded in integrated governance that features a territorial resource stewardship approach. With CLOCSAS’ support, they might just get the recognition and support they so urgently need.

Daniel Moss has worked in community-based resource management in the U.S. and Latin America for 30 years. He writes on water issues for a variety of journals and blogs and directs Water Commons. He recently published a study entitled, “Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together”, about how Latin American water operators collaborate with upstream communities for watershed protection and water governance.

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