© C. Fernandez Fernandez

Access to socially useful data on water in Mexico

What it takes to translate the right to information into a socially useful tool for citizen participation in the management of water resources

A strong legal framework but a complex reality

In Mexico, access to public information is a recognized human right in the Constitution. After more than a decade since the publication of the first Ley Federal (Federal Law) and numerous reforms, our legal framework has been rated the best in the world, according to the Global Right to Information Rating, developed by the Centre for Law and Democracy. And, indeed, Mexicans have an excellent legal framework on the right to information that was built with the participation of various social actors, including civil society organizations (CSOs) with extensive experience in the use of public information to monitor government performance.

Water is also included in the framework. We can currently find very large volumes of public information on water, from the government and various other actors: academics and other specialists, CSOs, foundations and corporations. The variety of government information available is remarkable: from the situation of water resources, quality, infrastructure, uses, concessions, municipalities at risk of drought, to open data on the number of wastewater treatment plants and volume treated, and much more. Good news, don’t you think?

Yes, but…

We sometimes find flaws in the government information that is publicly available. For example, it is not always updated or does not correspond with what can be directly observed. For example, according to an investigation y ControlaTuGobierno on the National Inventory of Treatment Plants, some of the infrastructure reported as “operational” is actually not working or treating even a tenth of the declared volumen.

In addition, the abundance of information does not always translate into useful public knowledge, ie. that can be used by the population to know what to do during emergencies or natural disasters, or that serves to make better decisions in purchasing goods and services. It certainly doesn’t always translate into data that people can use to solve their daily affairs, improve their quality of life, or reduce corruption.

 

The role of civil society: from local to national and vice versa

An intermediary is required for information, just like water, to reach those who need it the most. That is precisely a role of CSOs can play. They are the ones translating government information into socially useful information and making it available to vulnerable populations. The good news is that there are many organizations that know how to find the information people need in Mexico, have the ability to process it, and make it accessible for the population.

For example, ControlaTuGobierno has been working in the area of the volcanoes since 2005 with organizations that have roots in the region, like Centli, Guardianes de los Volcanes, and the Basin Commission Comisión de Cuenca de los Ríos Amecameca y de la Compañía, advising them on the use of public information and its potential to conserve water resources of communities.

Another example that brings together several organizations of various states is the Agua para todos movement, which involves neighbourhood and community organizations, research and academic institutions, small businesses and many others stakeholders throughout the country, all interested in conserving water resources and ensuring their sustainability for current and future generations.

Various online tools and applications that facilitate interaction between citizens and government for the water sector are available thanks to different Mexican CSOs. For example in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states with many water issues, CSOs in collaboration with the state government have developed a website to report failures and any problems with supply or drainage. They have secured a commitment that theses issues be addressed immediately. Another example is the portal Nuestra Agua, where a map can be used to locate water sources, infrastructure, organizations and a host of geo-referenced information on water. This project, designed and managed by civil society, is based on open data from public and private institutions. It provides socially useful information, which is needed by ordinary people to make decisions, participate and, most importantly, make sustainable use of water in Mexico.

At the national level, Mexican civil organizations are also working on water issues. For example at the legislative level, they have developed the Bill Ley General de Aguas  (General Water Law) by conducting a series of forums, workshops, events and consultations with different sectors in 29 states. Currently, the deadline for issuing this law has expired, but the Bill is still being discussed in Congress. In parallel, it is important to highlight the participation of CSOs in the preparation of the Third National Open Government Plan for Mexico 2016-2018 where it has been possible to include a commitment on drinking water of utmost importance for the conservation of this resource.

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A non-operating water treatment plant in the State of Mexico

© C. Fernandez Fernandez

 

The importance of consulting the population

Today in Mexico, the large amount of information that is publicly available is an undeniable reality, especially since the entry into force of the Ley General (General Law), which clearly states the characteristics of the information that public bodies must make available to the public in their electronic portals [1]. One of the objectives of the law is to “encourage citizen participation in public decision-making in order to contribute to the consolidation of democracy”[2]. This however is still often not the case.

Let’s look for example at the real case of a farmer in Huitzilzingo, in the State of Mexico. One day this man woke up with the news that there were plans to build a wastewater treatment plant on his property. No one consulted or informed him about it; his neighbors told him that there were machines on his land and people measuring and making calculations on the plot –which certainly ruined his harvest. The paradox is that the information is public: anyone with internet access and a computer can find, in the transparency portal of National Water commission, CONAGUA and its state counterpart CAEM. The tender for the construction of the plant, the winning company, the assigned budget and the date of completion of the works are all published. Neither the farmer nor his neighbours, who could all benefit from the treated water, not even the municipal authority, knew anything about the project. All this despite the constitutional mandate and the existence of numerous laws that require the government to consult the people before planning and building infrastructure.

The study by ControlaTuGobierno on wastewater treatment plants and the reports of the Supreme Audit Office, emphasizes the importance of consulting the population before planning and building of such infrastructure. The benefits are manifold. First of all, the treatment plant would be constructed in accordance with the resources available in the area, for example near a source of electricity. In addition, if the plant responded to a social need, the community would not feel it is an imposition and be considered as a public good that belongs to and benefits everyone. As a consequence, it is highly likely that the community would care for its maintenance. Information in this case would not only discourage corruption, but also be the most efficient way to protect the public interest and its associated goods.

What happens to people when they have no information and cannot participate? There are many scenarios: in some regions neighbourhoods are flooded and people observe how in a couple of hours water destroys their properties, in other areas vegetables are irrigated with sewage due to lack of potable water, in many housing complexes in large cities water rarely flows through their pipes… Should you be living in a rural area, you may also be very careful when using water from a well, since it is not uncommon that such water is poisoned by spills from nearby (or even faraway -water finds its way) industry.

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Information in movement

A good law, coupled with an alliance between civil society and a transparent government, seems to be the best way to set public information in motion. In the water sector this is particularly relevant because it implies that the huge public investment in water infrastructure reaches its destination and fulfills its function, which is to achieve an integrated and sustainable water management. The information in the hands of people is dynamic information, which is used and contrasted with reality and thus enriches the data produced by the government. For example, in the case of the farmer from Huitzilzingo, ControlaTuGobierno mobilized the information on the treatment plant that is planed on his land by sharing it with him, setting the basis for a real involvement of the community in the project.

When discussing data and public information for the water sector, we cannot forget that we are talking about individuals and families, often vulnerable, and about nationally recognized human rights: access to drinking water and sanitation.

 

[1] “oportuna, congruente, integral, actualizada, accesible, comprensible y verificable”. Ley General de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública, Artículo 61.

[2] Art. 2, fracción VIII de la Ley General de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública.

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