Here’s how the politics of urban water access plays out, in three primary ways:
1) Maintaining water infrastructure = high financial cost and high political cost. These costs involve new equipment and labor, but also mean ripping up roads, highways and other paved spaces, while avoiding underground conduits such as electricity lines. For large public works such as dams or water treatment plants, the costs can be astronomical.
Water networks are often invisible, sunk underground — very much “out of sight, out of mind.” Maintaining these systems is hardly politically sexy — and the existing water infrastructure is probably a web of interconnected networks built long ago by other politicians. Spending millions of dollars repairing infrastructure that a prior politician inaugurated is rarely politically appealing. As political commentator/comedian John Oliver aptly put it, “You don’t get to cut a ribbon after routine repairs. Infrastructure is like Legos: Building is fun, destroying is fun, but a Lego maintenance set would be the most boring toy in the world.”
The financial expense and political unattractiveness of maintaining existing infrastructure skews political calculations toward construction of new water infrastructure — treatment plants, storage tanks, new network extensions — over maintenance of aging infrastructure. Infrastructure is a maintenance crisis. Given this logic, it’s not surprising to read that water infrastructure in the United States, as in Mexico, is aging badly. In many places, the U.S. infrastructure is more than 50 years old and producing serious public health risks.
2) Poor water systems = opportunities for direct political control of services
In many developing countries, politicians actually benefit from keeping services low-quality and low-tech, managed through manual levers rather than digital automation. This gives politicians more direct control over the distribution of public services to their constituents.
In political science, this is called clientelism, which is the exchange of a material good or resource — food, cash, public services — for the vote. Clientelism was pervasive in major U.S. cities in the 19th century, when “political machines” controlled the distribution of money, food, services and jobs to potential voters through a vast web of political lieutenants.
Politicians can exchange services for votes in water systems that are not digitized or updated; low-level workers are able to respond to political bosses quickly, moving water services, by pressing manual levers, to one community and taking it from another.
This clientelistic water provision system depends on public officials’ ability to hoard and manipulate information as well as their perpetuation of a low-quality, crisis-prone service delivery system. Political clientelism in public services is perverse, but it’s difficult to change because so many public officials and “fixers” benefit both politically and financially from these arrangements. Studies have shown how other services, such as electricity, also are controlled for electoral gain.
Clientelism may be a thing of the past for U.S. cities, but politics continue to determine access to good water in many places. It is no surprise that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), in deciding to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River, did not worry about the effect on a community where the majority had not voted for him.
3) Higher water prices = political suicide. People don’t like to pay more for basic public services such as water, so politicians are concerned about the political backlash from raising prices. Higher prices could be used to maintain infrastructure or create more equity in service provision. Yet communities tend to mobilize against proposed water hikes.
In Latin America, protests against water tariff increases are most commonly associated with privatization attempts, but in my book I show how citizens in the cities of Leon, Naucalpan, Celaya and Irapuato also mobilized when public service providers attempted tariff increases.
As these examples suggest, the provision of safe drinking water is a political problem. But the case of Mexico suggests that there are also political solutions. These four cities also overcame these challenges, relying on a critical mass of middle-class residents who began to demand clean, safe water over the past two to three decades. Industries that relied on stable water supplies also engaged in political lobbying.
In these cities, new political parties, middle-class citizens and industrial elites formed new coalitions, insulating themselves from political pressures to implement unpopular water tariff increases and break decades-old traditions of exchanging water service for the vote. These cities began to maintain existing infrastructure through increased user fees, using them as matching funds for federal government programs incentivizing these initiatives.
These new political coalitions used print and radio ads to brand “infrastructure maintenance” as a sign of their governing success. These cities invested in political branding, justifying tariff increases, and advertising new service extensions, all while making it clear which political party had brought these changes.
Water pressure and potability improved, and intermittent service problems decreased. Water utilities modernized, adding customer attention centers and easier billing options. These coalitions also demanded more access to information about how water funds were being spent and a say in the governing decisions of local water utilities.
My research indicates that broad-based support — from influential community groups, businesses and even higher levels of government, such as the state or the federal government — is critical to overcoming the political pathologies that keep water supplies deficient and preventing the next public health crisis.
U.S. cities and neighborhoods can learn something from Mexico’s experience building broad-based political coalitions in the face of decaying infrastructure. Politics can interfere with reliable water access, but when infrastructure is part of a good-governance platform, politics can also be part of the solution.
Veronica Herrera is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and the author of “Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico” (University of Michigan Press, 2017).