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Interview with Julia Carabias

images[2]By Daniel Huacuja

In general terms, what is the water situation in the world?

Carabias: In the time that we on planet Earth, we have an image of a blue planet, and that’s because the dominant component of the Earth is water. The planet is 70% water and 30% corresponds to the earth’s surface. This suggests the false idea that the water resource is practically limitless, but that’s not the case, because 97.5% of the liquid is salt water and only 2.5% is fresh water. In addition, 2.5% of that is frozen most, almost 70%. The other part is in the aquifers, a scant 30%, and more accessible surface water for human consumption is less than 0.3%. This is a very important limitation to consider that water is an essential component of living things. This constraint modulates all human society relations. So the history of civilization is closely linked to freshwater bodies, water available, surface water.

On the other hand, water has a very heterogeneous distributed. There are areas where the amount available per capita or per individual exceeds 99 000 m 3 per capita per year (as is the case in Canada), while in other areas or desert countries this amount is not even a thousand m 3 per capita year. It is a very heterogeneous distribution of water in the world. And when we see within countries are also generated important differences. The water issue has been a factor, since the beginning of mankind, has modulated the growth and strengthening of human societies, and today is a stress factor of enormous pressures between countries, between regions and between entities each of the countries. There have been many conflicts between countries in border areas. We have had difficult situations with the United States on many occasions. The water in the dams has always been a source of conflict between states of the Mexican Republic, as in the case of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, have been very difficult situations within watersheds, among those living above and catchment basin below, which reflect different interests in water use. We can analyze the faces water presents on the economic, the social part, on the environment. We will always run into problems. The water on the planet is not going away-is a renewable natural resource that is controlled by the hydrological cycle, but changes state (solid, liquid and gas) and changes, therefore, the potential to access that society can have on this resource. When we pollute the water, the availability of water for human consumption decreases. Climate change exacerbates the situation. When frozen areas such as glaciers or permafrost melt in other areas increases the amount of water causing flooding, or many dry regions tend to become drier, and others are becoming more wet wet. Water availability is changing the relationship between the human population and aquatic ecosystems.

In Mexico we have a strange situation. The area economically rich country, which is in the north, has little water, and the poorer, which is in the south, has so much water that often suffers flooding. What do you think about this?

Carabias: This is part of the heterogeneity of water distribution. On average our country has an acceptable availability per capita, which is one of the ways measured. We have 4500 m3 water / inhabitant per year, however, the water distribution is very heterogeneous. In southern Mexico has a tropical influence in the north has an arid influence. In addition, the topography of its great mountain ranges that stops moisture from the winds carry the seas and prevents the passage to the continental slope of the mountain ranges, creating large areas of deserts, so the rain falling into the south in great abundance , while it is rare in the north. Therefore, in the north have an average availability of scarce water 2000 m 3 per capita per year, while in the south this ratio is more than 14 000. In general terms we can say that 80% of the country receives 30% of the water and generates more than 80% of gross domestic product, while 20% of the territory receives 70% of the water and generates 15% of GDP. So, water has become a factor of pressure, a lot of tension in the north. Although I must say that there is little precipitation in the north is compensated by the rich aquifers that exist in Mexico. Our country has 653 large aquifers, which in the center and north are used to supply the needs of the population of the cities, and to irrigate a third of the agricultural area.

Thus, while in the south it depends on surface water drained by large rivers, in the north depends on aquifers. But having such intense development in the center and north-there is generated most of the country’s economy, higher pressures are generated.

Despite these inequalities, I would assert that the water resource is not a constraint for Mexico. The country has enough water to grow, meeting the basic needs of the population, the needs of industry, agriculture and other productive systems. The problem we have is a problem of water use and distribution. This has historically been a huge problem.

What is the problem of water in agriculture?

Carabias: About 77% of available water in Mexico is used for agriculture. And this amount is wasted between 40 and 60% by poor irrigation technology. What’s worse is that most of that water comes from aquifers wasted. Therefore, the country’s 653 aquifers are over-exploited-102 and these are unfortunately the most important. It is a process that has been exacerbated in recent decades. The other aggravating is that the water of many of these aquifers are overexploited, is water and not renewed, because it has accumulated over thousands of years. A good part of it is regarded as fossil water, product of glaciation, as is the case in many aquifers of Baja California. This type of water should be seen as a nonrenewable resource, like a mineral.

There must be another logical use of water. What we are doing is to destroy aquifers and waste water. And not a matter of lack of technology. When systems become more efficient, there are savings of water, and that’s the point. The goal should be to reduce the extraction of water from aquifers. There must be a change in the regulation, because the concessions already given. But the effect on aquifers is unacceptable from an ethical, social, economic and environmental.

If water is used in agriculture anyone would think that’s okay, because the water is used in the production of more food, but the issue is that a lot of that water is going to alfalfa forage production, the detriment of aquifers. That equation is wrong, and we have to think about decreasing levels of extraction, and mostly use privilege for public consumption.

All this is mixed with another issue that complicates things, because for a water body can continue to exist as a living ecosystem (rivers, lakes, aquifers), has to be removed just over, contrary what will be renewable ..

How much is water availability that natural ecosystems can provide as an environmental service to society, without losing its essence as ecosystems?

Carabias: These are measures that do not yet exist, there are approximations, but that is an effort that the country has to do. We have to measure that which is called green spending. How much water can be extracted from water body without affecting its renewal and its existence? How much rain? How much water gets? How much water needs to the flora and fauna of the site to not lower the lake levels as Chapala?

Cuatro Cienegas is a dramatic example. There you that there are fossil water. It is a unique natural wealth on the planet. There are pools with a variety of endemic species, which have evolved over thousands of years. Before it was an area under the sea. And there were precisely implemented irrigation with water from aquifers to grow alfalfa, which ultimately goes to forage for food of cows and milk production. That’s the most inefficient and unsustainable milk that can be produced. What has been done is damage to the environment that is absolutely irreversible.


It is essential to limit the extraction of water for water bodies remain as they are and are renewable, and on the other hand you can not return the contaminated water to water bodies.

How polluted is the water in Mexico?

Carabias: About 70% of Mexico basins have some degree of contamination, and the basins where the largest populations are settled are those who suffer most. The Lerma-Santiago basin, for example. And of these basins, approximately 30% is heavily polluted. Contaminated water decreases the availability of water for the population, and has a profound impact on the functioning of bodies of water. It affects the flora, the fauna is affected, and this is very detrimental generating a change in the hydrological cycle and ecosystems.

Could we compare to some other country, in terms of water pollution?

Carabias: The Mexican case is similar to cases in Latin America, although in Chile and Argentina the cities best treated waters. The same happens in Brasilia. We are better than what happens in Central America, but we are far worse than what happens in the United States. Say we’re in the middle of the table, but Mexico should not be there. Mexico should be in the group of specimens countries are making good use of its waters, it is not a technological problem, not a problem of lack of water is a problem of management and financial resources. The truth is that it has invested a lot of money, and the results have not been the best. Plants have been abandoned treatment, which cost more than it should cost, have diverted the money or the utilities have been used as petty cash resources for electoral purposes, and often served as utilities Award consolation to disgraced politicians, and there has been a lot of corruption. So there is no money available. Mexico has invested heavily, and should have better conditions, both in supply infrastructure and for water treatment.

What are the agents that are polluting the water?

Carabias: The industry is contaminated with products not assimilated by nature: chemicals. In cities, the home waters are those that generate more pollution. In terms of volume, domestic sewage are the most polluting. But as far as quality is industrial. In addition, chemicals play an important role in the contamination of water bodies.

Are you missing social participation?

Carabias: The issue of social participation in water is another major setbacks we have. Efforts are widely dispersed, small groups trying to make changes in their populations, which is very important, but water is a national issue because of water stewardship has to have the State, and can not be processes outside society participation. Water management can no longer be a matter for the government. To be a state policy, involves the participation of government and society.

There are sectors that are linked to water are well organized, as the producers of the irrigation districts, but they are not sharing a vision for the country, because they lack the balances of other sectors, which do not appear in this equation. The new law of 2004 was very important, because it opened for watershed councils spaces important to society, but that it had to regulate. The watershed councils would have to operate with the new regulation, but that regulation has not been issued. We’re ten years of delay in that field. Then again it does not apply, and continue with the old ways but with new law. The regulation is the responsibility of the executive, but was stopped because the National Water Commission disagreed with these reforms. These reforms were too little consensadas, and although they have an important insight about sustainability in water management, in many management guidelines CNA disagreed. And everything depends on the regulation, then the Executive hampers application of the innovations of the law. Here we have a very important legal issue, there is a legal framework that we have to solve. The law picked very important parts of social participation in the context of water management, but have not been put in practice. The National Advisory Council has a seat on the governing body of the ANC, but that does not answer Advisory society. There is a consultation process, or society participation to carry around their proposals. It’s a process of support that expression of different social groups. And in the absence of such mechanisms for participation, what are the conflicts arise.

What are the basic ingredients for a sustainable policy for water?

Carabias: First, protect the hydrological cycle. That means that all the components in which the water passes during your cycle must have a proper health. Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems linked to the water cycle must be retained. They have restored all sites involved in the hydrological cycle, including the banks, the forests, wetlands and the water itself has been contaminated. Clean rivers, prevent discharges and maintain healthy ecosystems. We have to remember that water is a resource that comes out of the pipes, but its origin is in natural ecosystems.

The second approach would be a sustainable use of water, which is to limit the extraction to the amount that the water body can provide, and that the distribution of that surplus water is primarily for human consumption, and then for agriculture .

The third element is to establish the necessary measures for the prevention and adaptation to extreme natural phenomena, which are called natural disasters but that derive from social and human errors, because the town sits in places where it should not be. Here the adaptation and management entail very important actions to address natural hazards that climate change will continue sharpening.

Fourth, improved attention to human needs of both drinking water and sanitation, under a governing logic of not taking more water from natural bodies that can replenish, not download more contaminated water that can absorb, and preserve the full hydrological cycle.

How to achieve that? There must be mechanisms for planning at the watershed level, where not only consider the water of the basin but all watershed environmental components; must have actual mechanisms of engagement with society and with users in all three levels of government, and a greater commitment of all stakeholders. After all, what is missing is a state policy.


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