Program Updates

Agreement Reached After Year of Negotiation

Posted May 15, 2015

By: Daniel W. Smith, Interim Program Manager;
Recommendation to use this experience as a Success Story: Josué González Furlong, Technical Coordinator - Puebla

Like in many towns in Mexico, the newest residential area on the outskirts of San Pablo Tepetzingo does not have access to piped water. When Living Water first approached the community in 2014 the solution appeared simple: run a pipeline from an existing well in the center of town to a new elevated tank in the new area to supply water in a standard distribution system. That was a year ago. Just now on April 22, 2015 Living Water and the community finally signed an agreement to install the pipeline that will provide access to piped water to 600 people for the first time. So what took so long? How did something that seemed so simple become so complex?

The answer boils down to a power dynamic that developed between three community groups in response to Living Water’s intervention. The group that stood to benefit from the project--the residents without water service--was in favor of Living Water’s intervention from the beginning. However, the proposed pipeline needed to cross land controlled by the local communal landowners association (called the ejido in Mexico, and the communal owners are the ejidatarios). The ejidatarios, sensing an opportunity, demanded a cash payment for permitting the pipeline to cross their lands, which is within their legal rights as landowning bloc. The local government representative came out nominally in favor of the residents without water service, but over time Living Water discerned that he was actually allied with the ejidatarios. With the residents clamoring for the project but unwilling to pay the ejido, Living Water promoting it in a politically neutral a manner, the ejidatarios intransigent, and the political authority playing both sides, a stalemate developed that stalled the project indefinitely.

Living Water attempted to overcome the stalemate by reworking the technical solution. First, it considered installing a booster pump from the existing distribution system to the new elevated tank that would obviate the need to install the pipeline across the ejido’s land. This idea was discarded because it would have made what could have been a simple water system more complex and expensive to operate, which is anathema to providing a sustainable solution. Then Living Water worked with the water committee to test if the existing pump and distribution system could supply the new elevated tank without a booster pump. Unfortunately, the water didn’t have enough pressure to reach the tank.

Having exhausted other reasonable options, Living Water regrouped to engage the community’s factions in negotiations. Over the past three months, Living Water staff visited the community almost weekly, usually on Sundays, to mediate, explain, and promote the expansion of water service. Once a survey had been commissioned to demonstrate the exact trace of the proposed pipeline across the ejido’s lands, the negotiation entered into its final stage. Then, this past week, the ejidatarios and Living Water, with the agreement of the citizenry and political authority, signed an agreement that will finally allow the pipeline to be installed. The compromise was that the ejido will receive a modest payment from the residents and the pipeline will be installed with ten water connections on communal land. The next steps are to formalize the agreement with a legal document and then, at last, install the pipeline.

There a number of take-home lessons from Living Water’s experience in San Pablo Tepetzingo. First, it must be recognized that here, as in the rest of the world, water is not only related to health but also to power. Even modest projects excite the interest of stakeholders who may use their position to enhance or detract from it according to their own interests. Second, the lofty ideal of the global WASH sector to achieve universal water coverage gets blurred to the point of triviality in many field situations. Local stakeholders, to no fault of their own, often have different, local-scale motives than the intervening WASH organization. And, crucially, there is no substitute for consistent, resolute, and well-analyzed community engagement to achieve our goals in the rural WASH sector. In San Pablo Tepetzingo, Living Water staff had to navigate a tricky technical and political situation without compromising the institution’s goals. Because they were able to do so, Living Water is now looking forward to completing this project in the next few months in a way that will give it the best chance for being technically and socially sustainable.

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