Managing Urban Water Demand in Neoliberal Northern Mexico

Article excerpt

During the last quarter century, the focus of water management in many parts of the world has turned from increasing water supplies through the construction of large hydraulic infrastructure, to reducing demand for the liquid by users. New neoliberal water management strategies focus on recovering delivery costs from users, increasing the efficiency of water systems, and decentralizing maintenance and operation. In northern Mexico, this decentralized management of water is accompanied by educational programs designed to create a "water culture" based on shared environmental and economic values and surveillance of water use by schoolchildren. This article explores the quotidian dynamics of one such water culture program and locates these dynamics within larger processes of neoliberal water governance. A main argument of this article is that demand management depends heavily on interventions in culture and social relations.

Key words: water, neoliberalism, culture, United States-Mexico border


On June 4, 2000, the inhabitants of the city of Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas saw the river upon which the city depends run dry. Matamoros and its surroundings are located in the delta floodplain of the Rio Bravo (called the Rio Grande in the United States), one of North America's great rivers. The United States-Mexico border region is defined by aridity and sustained periods of drought, but never before had anything like this happened. The city survived on water held in treatment reservoirs until more of the liquid was sent down the Rio Bravo, but the experience made an indelible mark on popular consciousness. Many people complained about the municipal water service, but most also said that water scarcity was an environmental problem that was the responsibility of the users to solve. They had a not-very-specific awareness that the region was experiencing a prolonged drought, but many explained the problem as wastefulness resulting from the lack of a "cultura del agua" (water culture.)

In 2004 when I spoke with the director of the municipal water company, the Junta de Agua y Drenaje (Water and Drainage Council) (JAD), he patiently told me about the huge deficiencies in infrastructure and funding that made his job of providing water for the city's population extremely difficult. He also described how the scarcity of water in the Rio Bravo caused shortages in the city's supply. The JAD was moving slowly forward with a program to install water meters and enforce payments of water bills, but results were slow in coming. Despite these limitations, what the city had been able to do, he told me, was to implement a wide-reaching program to promote a "water culture" among the schoolchildren. Children are taught by this Programa Cultura del Agua (Water Culture Program) (PCA) the importance of conserving water and are trained to confront their neighbors who waste the water. These juvenile "water detectives" are empowered and encouraged to report water waste to the JAD, which in collaboration with the municipal police fines those who are responsible. "The children are our hope," said the director of the educational program.

In these pages, I discuss efforts to create a "water culture" in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the Rio Bravo from Brownsville, Texas. I begin with a review of anthropological and historical literature that describes the relation between culture, water management, and the formation of centralized power. I then discuss neoliberal ideals of privatization and decentralization of water management. I finish the article with an ethnographic discussion of the PCA carried out since 1 999 by the JAD in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. I show that the PCA has enjoyed some success in its efforts to recuperate costs of water provision and increase efficiency by placing these responsibilities on the users. However, the cultural project of managing demand also involves a strategy of decentralized surveillance and policing of water use that provokes tensions between the JAD and the population and risks undermining environmental goals over the long run. …