Friday, June 21, 2024

In water disputes, what to do if authorities can’t be counted on to fix it?

A few days ago it was discovered that the LeBarón family of Chihuahua was at the center of a longstanding dispute over water.

The claim by a nearby farmers’ group was that the family had been drilling illegal water wells on their property for years, the result being much less water to go around for the surrounding properties and communities. 

It is still unknown if this has anything at all to do with the ghastly and horrendous murders of many of the family’s children and several of its women.

I personally suspect that criminal gangs set on generally sowing terror and cementing their power among even the most influential families are responsible for the massacre.

That said, when “the family denied any wrongdoing” regarding the alleged hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of water wells they drilled on their ranches, it makes me wonder how many friends they had among the surrounding communities, and whether having those friends would have made a difference regarding their fate.

After all, there are plenty of examples of organized crime acting as a shadow state, “exacting justice” on behalf of communities in their own gruesome ways. This is always the danger in our current state of affairs: where real, legitimate authority is absent, opportunities for stepping into the vacuum are plentiful.

In a country in which it’s clear that the rule of law is not something anyone can count on, the authorities can’t be relied on to prevent or solve either kind of crime; not those of rich families exploiting natural resources simply because they can and it’s beneficial to them, and not the murders of said rich families either.

(I hope it goes without saying that I do not approve of the murders as retribution for any crime. I do think, however, that the desperation over water and the lengths people are willing to go to in order to control it are very much worth discussing.)

So let’s talk about water. In my rainy city in the cloud forest (Xalapa, Veracruz), I don’t have running water in my modern, centrally-located home at least a couple of times a month. I’m forever fighting with the water company, which sends bills month after month that make it look like I’m filling an Olympic swimming pool every day — as if I even had that kind of water pressure!

Comparably, I have it easy. There is almost always water available, and I don’t have to call an expensive water truck to bring water to fill up my tank.

In places like this that receive plenty of rainwater each year, there should be less pressure to pump water throughout the city. The technology to harvest rainwater exists, and valiant efforts have been made to ensure that homes most in need — especially in Mexico City — have that technology installed first.

Other places, like the vast deserts of the north that cannot count on a steady supply of rainwater, have a harder time. Out of necessity their water comes from wells that are dug down to natural aquifers. Rain harvesting might put a dent in things for the little rain they get, but is not the kind of radical solution that it is in other places.

In these areas, water is scarce, and to whom that water arrives first and in what quantities can be a difficult issue.

“The family denied any wrongdoing” [in relation to water wells]. Okay, but what does that mean exactly? People know they can’t count on fairness. There’s always a conflict between someone’s “right” to have an equal share of a basic right like water and someone else’s “right” to “make a living.”

So when some kind of unfairness is threatening ones livelihood, whats to be done if the authorities cant be counted on to fix it? How, as a society, do we deal with injustice when no institution can actually solve it or enforce the rules that are already there?

There are plenty of places in Mexico where large companies and factories, expensive resorts, and yes, the land and businesses of wealthy families, have all the water they need, even when scarcity in the area is a problem.

Those who live in surrounding areas often go without, or have to figure out other solutions to the unequal distribution.

Like many of Mexico’s problems, our water crisis can only really be addressed by fixing the issues that make the distribution so problematic in the first place. If water really is a human right, then it’s time to step up.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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