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Supporting community water management in Chiapas, Mexico

In conversation with Margarita Gutiérrez Vizcaino, director of the Area of Incidence and Systematic Change at Cántaro Azul.

WIN and Cántaro Azul are collaborating on a project for the adaptation and implementation of the Integrity Management Toolbox for small water supply systems in Mexico.



Tell us about yourselves: what do you do in the water sector, in what context and area do you work in?

Cántaro Azul was born 13 years ago with the aim of ensuring access to safe water in rural communities. We operate mainly in the State of Chiapas, in Mexico.

This State has the highest rates of marginalisation and poverty in the country, as well as the lowest rate of access to water, despite the large amount of water resources available in the area. It should also be noted that 50% of the population of Chiapas lives in rural areas and that, therefore, 2.5 million people obtain their water services through community structures.

Cántaro Azul first focused on developing the “Mesitas Azules”, which is a low-cost ultraviolet water purification technology, easy to use and access by rural communities. First, the “Mesitas Azules” were used in households and Cántaro Azul subsequently introduced them in schools.

However, it soon became clear that the technological component was not enough and Cántaro Azul began to develop a complementary social component.

Our conclusion based on our experience is very clear: without a social component, there is no good management or sustainability in the use of water systems.

Cántaro Azul operates 3 main programmes:

  • Social Franchise: is a social entrepreneurship programme, working with groups of women who build and operate water purification kiosks. Cántaro Azul provides the seed capital, technical support and fosters the articulation among women’s groups. This programme operates mainly in peri-urban areas where bottled water is largely a solution to poor water services, and where these kiosks provide a more environmentally-friendly and affordable alternative to the local economy.

  • Safe water in schools: within this programme, water purification systems are installed with linked pedagogical and recreational components. The purification system is in a transparent box that allows children to see how the water is purified through the system. An assessment is also made with the school community and school committees are created to promote hygienic habits

  • Community water management: this programme began at the family and at the kiosks level creating a social structure to support the systems, whether they were “Mesitas Azules” in households or in community kiosks. Last year we changed the strategy and began to work with the community water committees which are self-organised. Our focus moved to actively supporting more centralized systems with the aim of achieving greater efficiency and sustainability. Our key activities support the committees in strengthening their capacities and improving the water systems.

Could you share an example of a success story?

The Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez school, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, is a success story that provides safe water for around 600 children. It is located in a peri-urban area.

There, we installed a large system of rainwater collection and purification. The school committee (i.e. parents, children and teachers) took over the system and they have made it financially sustainable by selling sell water to surrounding families. With the money collected they pay for the operation and maintenance of the system, including the salary of a technician.

Another success story is the collaboration with the municipal government of the town of Berriozábal. Here, we have managed to share the problem and the proposals for a solution with a local government that serves 100 locations. The government has shown a strong commitment and created a municipal structure, endorsed by the State Congress, to institutionally support rural communities of the municipality. This municipal structure, called the “Organismo Municipal de Servicios Comunitarios de Agua y Saneamiento” (Municipal Agency for Community Water and Sanitation Services), serves 37 community water committees in rural areas.

What are the challenges you see? Are there integrity issues?

We find a major problem with regards to the poor quality of the data and information available. The official data on access to water and sanitation services do not reflect the complete reality, since they do not take into account the actual availability, the water quality or the availability of sanitation facilities. The only data available is about existing infrastructure, regardless of whether it is functional or not.

The most serious consequence of this is that decisions are made based on these data and, therefore, real issues are not taken into account. This is a serious problem and particularly evident in the sharp decline in the budget dedicated to water and sanitation in the country in recent years.

Another important challenge is that of investments. Total priority is given to infrastructure, but not to the social or governance component. One of the reasons behind this is the greater ease of diverting resources in construction projects, as well as the fact that tangible works generate more political capital. We find two immediate consequences, on the one hand not enough money is allocated to governance and management and on the other, low quality infrastructure is built without taking into account the context of the situation at all.

Another notable challenge is people’s lack of awareness and participation. They normally do not know their rights, including the human rights to water and sanitation as well as water quality criteria. Not knowing makes them hesitant to demand quality service.

In fact, when we go to the communities and ask about their water services, one of the first reactions is that they say they have no problems. Only after subsequent questioning, it turns out that the water is indeed contaminated and does not arrive every day into their homes. Why did you decide to work with WIN?

In December 2018, WIN organized a full-day event in Mexico City to introduce the integrity concept and the Integrity Management Toolbox approach to water and sanitation organizations in the country. Aided by a series of presentations and a simulation exercise, participants discussed possible ways to apply the toolbox to identify and address their integrity risks and, thus, improve the performance and quality of their services.

As a result of the workshop, we came to know WIN’s work at a very good time for us, coinciding with our change in strategy towards a model more focused on community committees and as we began to establish our methodologies. Thus, we decided not to start from scratch, but to support and strengthen ourselves with WIN methodologies, adapting them to the rural context of Chiapas. What was your experience working with the IM Toolbox for small water supply systems?

The IM Toolbox for small systems helped us identify things we wanted to, but never got down to doing ourselves.

With regards to the process and the methodology used by Cántaro Azul we were unsure about the next steps and yes, knowing and applying the toolbox helped us to define the next steps – such as the action plan with the committee(s).

The toolbox workshop inspired us greatly. On the one hand, it showed us how to build a working plan with the community. On the other hand, we greatly appreciate the tool’s self-management approach, which is aimed at avoiding paternalism and motivating the community to build their own solutions.

- Cantaro Azul working with the IM Toolbox for small systems in Chiapas, Mexico

What is your experience regarding gender? Do you work with women and other marginalised communities?

This is a very challenging issue for us and for which we have yet to conclude our reflection within the organization.

Chiapas is a State with a great proportion of the population being indigenous and living in rural areas. In these contexts, gender structures are very different from those in the west.

On the one hand, there is machismo and little space for women in decision-making. On the other hand, certain aspects are a consequence of the people’s world vision and the distribution of roles in society.

We have to be careful in trying to change the moulds without a deeper understanding and analysis, as it can close many doors. Moreover, some imported models of support for women only load them with more work. What we try to do is to make their voices heard as they are the main users of water and therefore our main stakeholders in the assessment processes.

In mestizo communities we do try to push for more. For example, the “Social Franchise” project with kiosks is carried out with women entrepreneurs, but the work is made compatible with their household chores. Although it is not surprising that even when the woman is the final authority, the husband ends up making the decisions. Sometimes it is also a challenge for women facilitators to be heard on an equal footing, just like men in certain communities, but once we have achieved this, it helps immensely to break down barriers.


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