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Water management in Mexico. From concrete-heavy persistence to community-based resistance

Cindy McCulligh
Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico cindymcculligh@gmail.com

Darcy Tetreault
Department of Development Studies, Autonomous University of Zacatecas, Zacatecas; Mexico darcytetreault@yahoo.com

ABSTRACT: According to Mexico’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA), after dominating for 50 years, supply-side policies were replaced by demand management in the 1980s, and this focus has been superseded by 'sustainability'-oriented policies since the turn of the century, combined with greater participation in decision-making. Despite a discursive turn to demand management and a recognition of increasing environmental degradation, in this article we argue that a focus on 'concrete-heavy' projects persists, with increased private-sector participation and facing increased resistance from local communities. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, dam construction flourished in Mexico, not only for irrigation but increasingly for hydroelectricity and urban water supply. Since the adoption of neoliberal economic policies, from the late 1980s onward, public investment in hydraulic infrastructure has decreased but we argue that the water management model has not shifted significantly in terms of its penchant for building large dams. We review socio-environmental conflicts resulting from hydraulic infrastructure projects since the turn of the century, and analyse in greater detail the case of the Zapotillo Dam in Jalisco. We argue that these conflicts highlight the reluctance of government water authorities to shift away from water management centred on supply through large infrastructure projects, and linked to ideas of progress and development. These conflicts also highlight the increasing dissonance between official state discourse, with its stress on ecological sustainability and political participation, and the actual orientation of water policies and projects.

KEYWORDS: Water management, dams, socio-environmental conflicts, Mexico