Shedding the waters : institutional change and water control in the Lerma-Chapala Basin, Mexico

P. Wester

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    Water resources development has led to water overexploitation in many river basins around the world. This is clearly the case in the Lerma-Chapala Basin in central Mexico, where excessive surface water use nearly resulted in the drying up of Lake Chapala, one of the world’s largest shallow lakes. It is also a basin in which many of the policies prescribed in international water debates were pioneered. This thesis investigates the histories and relationships between water overexploitation, water reforms and institutional transformations in the Lerma-Chapala Basin. In particular it focuses on the role of the hydraulic bureaucracy (hydrocracy) in the creation of water overexploitation and in the articulation of water reforms. It shows how water reforms have reordered modes of water control and transformed domains of water governance in the Lerma-Chapala Basin, but have not led to a reduction of water overexploitation. Three main themes are developed in the thesis, namely 1) the links between the hydraulic mission, hydrocracies and river basin closure, 2) water reforms and decentralization, and 3) water allocation and river basin politics.

    This thesis conceives of water reforms as sociopolitical processes and analyses the historical, political and bureaucratic processes that engender and sustain water reforms. Such an analysis, which centers on policy actors and policy articulation, clarifies why water reforms are effectuated and how alliances are negotiated through which reforms gather momentum, or are made to fail. Grounded in the notion that water resources management is politically contested and that policies embody the governing ambitions of bureaucracies, this thesis argues that water reforms are not “inevitable”. Rather, they are produced by particular constellations and have particular effects, such as reordering modes of water control. To understand the making of water overexploitation and the articulation of water reforms it is necessary to analyze the histories of the relationships between water users, water technologies and the government agencies mediating water control. The spatial and material dimensions of hydrosocial-networks form an integral part of these histories. Such a sociotechnical perspective on water reforms is developed in this thesis to analyze changes in water governance in the Lerma-Chapala Basin.

    In Chapter 2, a historical analysis of the creation of water overexploitation in the Lerma-Chapala Basin brings out how water resources development is a recursive process in which hydrocracies, water infrastructure, water and water users mutually constitute each other. Between the 1920s and 1970s, the construction of irrigation schemes and river basin development in the Lerma-Chapala Basin, coupled with the bureaucratic-authoritarian character of the Mexican state and the hydraulic mission of its hydrocracy, led to water overexploitation and the strengthening of state control over water, water users and space.

    A major rupture for the hydrocracy in Mexico was the merger of the ministry of hydraulic resources with the ministry of agriculture in 1976 and the dissolution of the river basin commissions. Chapter 3 analyses how this merger reduced the autonomy of the hydrocracy and resulted in bureaucratic struggles and a politically expressed demand for renewed autonomy on the part of the hydrocrats. The chapter focuses on policy articulation to elucidate how the historical, political and bureaucratic transformations relating to water in Mexico between 1976 and 1988 led to the consolidation of a water reform package and the reconstitution of the hydrocracy in 1989. It argues that the composition of the Mexican water reforms and the commitment to them emerged from a contingent process of bureaucratic struggles and political accommodations that was strongly driven by the hydrocracy’s quest for renewed autonomy and its ambition to be the sole water authority in Mexico.

    Chapter 4 analyses the articulation of the IMT policy in Mexico in the early 1990s, focusing on its emergence, standardization and acceleration. It argues that much policy making actually takes place during policy implementation and that policy making is a continuous and on-going process that is potentially self-reinforcing, but often fragile and reversible in practice. This argument is constructed by showing that the articulation of the irrigation transfer policy was not an uncontested process but one that resulted from interactions between policy actors such as hydrocrats, water user leaders, politicians and international lending agencies. This led to the development of a standardized policy package, consisting of specific policy techniques assembled through experiments, consultations and clashes in the field and negotiations at the national and international level. Feedback mechanisms coordinated by the hydrocracy led to a convergence of distributed experiences and ideas on how to make transfer work, which contributed to the acceleration of the transfer process.

    Chapter 5 details the major water reforms of the 1990s as they played out in the Lerma-Chapala Basin. These reforms, such as irrigation management transfer and river basin management, were intimately linked with the overriding concern of the hydrocracy to regain its autonomy. Through these reforms, the hydrocracy regained discursive hegemony in the definition of water problems in the Lerma-Chapala Basin in the early 1990s. However, the dynamics of these reforms, which entailed a shift from authoritarian and centralized government to distributed governance, coupled with larger changes in Mexican society, resulted in institutional gridlock in the late 1990s and increased water use. While the hydrocracy furthered its territorial and governmental ambitions by using the concept of river basins as the natural units for water management, it only very partially succeeded in increasing its control over actual water use. The chapter concludes that to reduce water overexploitation, deeper shifts in governance are needed based on collaboration, combined with an equitable approach to the curtailment of primary water use.

    Chapter 6 delves into river basin management, focusing on stakeholder representation in river basin management. It argues that increasing the capacity of water users to influence decision-making is crucial in river basin management reforms. It assesses emerging forums for river basin management in Mexico and South Africa and concludes that the pace of democratization of water management in both is slow. Mexico is characterized by continued government dominance and attempts to include already organized stakeholders in decision-making, while substantive stakeholder representation is lacking. South Africa is placing emphasis on social mobilization and transformation, leading to a slower implementation process and struggles over the redistribution of resources. While not a panacea, moving from stakeholder participation to substantive stakeholder representation in river basin management holds more promise of achieving equitable water management.

    Chapter 7 analyzes attempts to reduce groundwater overexploitation in the Lerma-Chapala Basin, particularly in Guanajuato State, through state regulation and user self-regulation. It argues that the political economy of groundwater use is a strong impediment to reducing groundwater overexploitation. Thus, individual water users continue to have nearly unfettered control over their pumps, the federal government continues to provide cheap electricity to agriculture and the hydrocracy seeks rents through the legalization of illegal pumps. This chapter suggests that these strategies remain in place and are stronger than attempts to reduce groundwater use as the majority of the actors involved in groundwater management have a stake in the situation remaining as it is.

    Chapter 8 continues the analysis started in Chapter 5 by focusing on the politics of surface water management in the Basin after 2000, in particular water transfers from irrigation districts to Lake Chapala and the negotiation processes surrounding the revision of the 1991 water allocation agreement. The continued decline of Lake Chapala from 1999 onwards and the water transfers to the Lake led to increased conflicts between states and water users in the Basin and complicated renegotiating the 1991 agreement. The changing dynamics of water user representation in water governance from the field to the basin are explored through an analysis of a farmer initiative to influence decision making at the river basin level in response to the water transfers. While a new water allocation agreement was signed in 2004, no provisions were made for environmental flows or for compensations to farmers for reductions in water allocations. This brings out how difficult it is to readjust water allocations after basin closure, let alone reduce water use and secure environmental water requirements, even if parties are willing to negotiate.

    Chapter 9 presents the main findings and conclusions of the thesis. Two important findings are that the articulation of water reforms was only very partially driven by river basin closure and that the reforms did not lead to a reduction of water overexploitation. Rather, the sociopolitical analysis in this thesis of the water reforms pursued in the Lerma-Chapala Basin brings out that an important driver of the water reforms was the objective of the hydrocracy to strengthen its bureaucratic autonomy and control over domains of water governance. The active role of the Mexican hydrocracy in the articulation of water reforms shows that it supported change processes that it initiated and controlled and that would bring benefits to the hydrocracy. Its marked disinterest in making environmental sustainability and social equity the priorities of water reforms needs to be seen in this light. As long as these concerns do not bring benefits to the hydrocracy, and without strong political and social pressures being brought to bear on the hydrocracy to make these concerns its priorities, water overexploitation and the further concentration of water rights will continue. The thesis concludes that an explicit recognition of the powerful interests linked to water use and finding ways to bring these interests to the negotiating table is a necessary first step for making the “water transition”.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Vincent, Linden, Promotor
    • Torres, L.G., Co-promotor, External person
    Award date19 Mar 2008
    Place of Publication[S.l.]
    Print ISBNs9789085048992
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


    • water management
    • resource management
    • water use
    • water use efficiency
    • water policy
    • institutions
    • mexico
    • politics
    • administration

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