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Statements Special Procedures

End of Mission Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation Mr. Léo Heller

15 May 2017

Mexico City, 12 May 2017

I address you in my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, at the conclusion of my official visit to Mexico, which I undertook at the invitation of the Government from 2 to 12 May 2017. The main objectives of my visit were to review the access to water and sanitation services in Mexico, to identify the main obstacles hindering the full realization of those rights and to recommend legislation, policies and other measures for tackling these obstacles and for ensuring the enjoyment of these human rights by everyone in society.

First of all I would like to thank the Government of Mexico for the invitation and organisation of my visit, and for the open and constructive dialogues that took place. I am grateful to the numerous Government representatives and local authorities who met with me and provided information. During my stay, I met with numerous civil society organisations, community representatives and people living in urban and rural areas and I particularly wish to thank the very committed civil society organizations and individuals that helped to organize essential elements of my visitI thank all those who took the time to meet with me and provide information, particularly those residents of communities that I visited who told me about the challenges that they face and invited me into their homes.  

During my visit, I travelled to Mexico City and different locations within the city that are experiencing challenges in regard to the provision of safe water and sanitation services, including Iztapalapa (Santa Maria Aztahuacan and Lomas de San Lorenzo) and Xochimilco (San José Obrero). In the State of Veracruz, I visited the municipalities of Papantla (Emiliano Zapata) and Filomeno Mata. In Chiapas, I went to communities in Tuxla Gutiérrez and in the vicinity of San Cristobal de las Casas. I also visited San José del Rincon, in the State of México. 

I emphasize that this statement outlines only my preliminary findings and recommendations based on my meetings and visits to different locations. I will be reviewing all of the vast quantity of information provided to me before submitting my final report and recommendations. My report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council at its 36th session in September 2017.

To begin with I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the three levels of the Mexican government for the positive progress of the provision of water and sanitation, for example, in the extent to which infrastructure coverage is in place in the country. Institutions are working hard to deliver services and I have been impressed by the numerous officials, as well as community-based engineers, whom I have met and who demonstrated their dedication to operate and improve services, often under difficult circumstances. Innovative solutions have been found or are under development and should be expanded, including through cooperation with other countries experiencing similar challenges.  

Mexico faces numerous challenges to ensuring the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation to its population of some 120 million inhabitants living in urban areas and rural communities throughout the country. Many live in regions of high or very high water stress, experience low levels of development in dispersed rural communities and experience significant levels of poverty, requiring specific approaches for service provision. Adding to these challenges in recent years has been an economic environment in which Government revenues have sharply diminished, in large part due to falling oil prices, and federal budgets for essential services have been significantly reduced, reportedly by over 37 per cent from 2016 to 2017 for the water and sanitation sector. Such cuts will have a potentially dramatic effect on the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation in the short and medium term. This impact can be enhanced by the institutional situation of the sector, described by one expert as being “on life support”, due to its current political, financial and budgetary conditions. I therefore consider that my visit is particularly timely to enable me to consult the government and assist it to meet its human rights obligations.  

From the outset I recall that the primary obligation for the realization of all human rights, including the rights to drinking water and sanitation lies with the Government of Mexico that is expected to use the maximum available resources to meet that end. I was concerned to hear from different authorities that the rights to drinking water and sanitation were not among the highest priorities of the Government in the context of its human rights obligations. Civil and political rights issues including addressing allegations of torture and forced disappearances were noted as high priorities of concern to Mexico. While this is vital, I encourage the Government, as required under international human rights law and standards, to give equal and appropriate attention and to provide necessary resources to addressing critical economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Besides the obligation of Mexico under the international human rights law, it is relevant to remember that the national Constitution, under Article 4, guarantees the rights of all individuals to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and affordable water and sanitation services, included explicitly since 2012. Mexico must be commended for this development, which provides a valuable Constitutional foundation upon which to build. Now it is time to fulfil the promise of the Constitution and transform those obligations into a real enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation by all Mexican population, overcoming several challenges that I have observed during my visit.

Legislation and institutions

The Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the human rights to water and sanitation required the adoption of an updated water law to be enacted within 360 days. More than five years later it is regrettable that no such law has yet been adopted and progress to pass a law seems to have stalled. The existing Law of the Nation’s Waters remains in operation while it does not reflect the human rights framework and the Government should move forward in consultation and collaboration with all key stakeholders, especially civil society, to pass a new law.

The adoption of a general law on water and other appropriate legislative provisions will be an important and necessary additional step to ensuring the rights to water and sanitation in practice, creating the legislative environment for concrete policies and programmes to be formulated and implemented and allowing individuals and communities to claim their rights under domestic law. The law will also be instrumental in helping to ensure an institutional environment with clearly defined roles and responsibilities that better meets the increasing needs of the country. Nevertheless, a strong legal framework must be accompanied by an efficient national water and sanitation policy, comprehensive and participatory planning and implementation. A human rights-based approach to safe water and sanitation should recognize people’s needs and put them first in all parts of the country. 

Under Mexico’s three-tier system of Federal, State and Municipal Government, the provision of water and sanitation services falls under municipalities. It is essential to ensure that municipal service delivery to communities fully matches the national obligation and commitment to provision of safe water and sanitation and I am concerned that this is not frequently the case. Necessary resources, technical capacity and monitoring and control of service provision must all be amongst the highest priorities at every level of governance to ensure the delivery of the best possible water and sanitation services to all, including the poorest and those in dispersed rural communities. It is also a matter of concern that Mexico has no formal regulatory bodies for both private and public providers. The Federal and State governments should establish an adequate regulatory system and play a key role in supporting municipalities in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Access to safe water and sanitation

Government officials frequently provided me with statistics that 94 per cent of Mexican population has drinking water coverage and for sanitation provision the figure is 93 per cent. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that these figures, while impressive, reflect only the existence of some form of infrastructure and definitively not actual access to water and sanitation in people’s homes that is dramatically lower. In this regard, and in the face of budget reductions, I am concerned about the possibility of complacency in regard to service provision, based upon these figures, which may detract from or delay the implementation of essential measures to improve services.  

There remain significant populations for whom the provision of water and sanitation services are extremely limited or non-existent. Even within Mexico City, the picture is highly varied with continuous and reliable water provision unavailable to the majority of the population. According to the Human Rights Commission of the Federal District, 70 per cent of the population receive water during less than 12 hours per day. Some communities in Mexico City complained to me that despite the presence of adequate water sources in their localities, water is being diverted to other high usage and higher cost areas for residential, commercial, industrial or tourist users, leaving them without adequate provision and reliant on water trucks, springs and bottled water. I learned that this situation is concerning several other parts of the country. I remind the government that the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation requires that the domestic needs of all individuals, families and communities must be the first consideration and highest priority among the various water uses.  

With regard to informal settlements, it was argued by a number of officials that to provide water and sanitation services to such locations and populations would be to legitimize illegal settlement or occupation of lands. In this regard I remind the authorities that the human rights to water and sanitation must be respected, protected and fulfilled for all in society irrespective of their social and economic conditions and their housing situation. Indeed efforts should be made to formalize informal settlements and extend water and sanitation services to such locations. I visited the community of San José Obrero in Xochimilco, where residents have to pay unaffordable prices to transport water by donkey to their hillside homes and to buy bottled water for drinking, as they are considered not to be eligible for full access to water on the basis of the legal status of the community. In Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the residential community of Real del Bosque also has not been provided with full legal status with severe implications for municipal service provision to over 8,000 households. 

I remind the Government that it must continue to strive to overcome the various barriers to achieving universal access to the highest attainable standard of water and sanitation provision for all individuals in Mexico. I was particularly concerned to learn that many schools in Mexico commonly lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. A programme to install water fountains into schools throughout the country is a very welcome development, while progress in implementation has reportedly been slow and should be stepped up, particularly in States with the highest levels of poverty.

Overall I was concerned by many cases of costly infrastructure projects for water provision and wastewater treatment by the Federal and State authorities that quickly cease to function at the municipal and local levels, due to lack of maintenance and skilled operation, as well as the high energy costs to run them.    

The national provision of sanitation services, particularly for urban and rural areas that are not connected to sewerage systems, is a cause for concern and a factor that must not be neglected, requiring necessary attention from the national Government, States and municipal authorities. In some localities that I visited, the sanitation system was extremely basic or inexistent, poorly functioning or had ceased to function entirely with consequences including untreated wastewater being discharged directly into local streams and rivers. In Filomeno Mata, Veracruz, San José del Rincon, State of Mexico, and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, expensive wastewater treatment plants were standing useless as a result of lack of maintenance. I was alarmed to learn that out of 194 wastewater treatment plants in the State of Chiapas, only 12 were functioning, resulting in a major problem of contamination of water sources. The tourist town of San Cristobal with over 200,000 inhabitants has no wastewater treatment, resulting in wastewater flowing untreated downstream into water sources. All these situations have serious implications in terms of hygiene, health and the potential for untreated wastewater to lead to contamination of water sources.

Quality of drinking water

Numerous community representatives and non-governmental organizations raised concerns relating to the quality of water supplies, while officials admitted that the quality of the water varies greatly and it is frequently not suitable for drinking. Residents frequently mentioned that they have no clear information on water quality and provided me with samples of their water during my visits noting that the colour and smell gave rise to concerns over quality. They felt that they received insufficient responses from authorities when they raised their concerns or sought testing of water samples and assurances over water quality. In several communities, inhabitants noted their reliance on bottled water for drinking due to concerns over quality, which adds an additional and considerable financial burden to those who are often living in the poorest areas and with the lowest incomes. The fact that Mexico has the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world (480 litres per year) is eloquent evidence of the distrust of the Mexican population in the water supplied to them.

During my visit, I was informed of numerous cases relating to contamination and pollution of water sources due to factors including mining and industrial projects, hydroelectric power and hydrocarbon extraction, including the use of fracking in some States, as well as indiscriminate and uncontrolled use of pesticides. It was demonstrated to me that, in numerous cases, these issues of environmental concern can impact directly or indirectly on the drinking water quality and health protection in affected areas. For example, in locations where piped water provision systems offer only sporadic and unreliable supply, communities continue to be heavily reliant on local rivers, springs and creeks for their water consumption. In some locations, these water sources are now unfit for human consumption. There must be recognition of the impact of largely unregulated economic activities on water and the potential and actual harm caused to local people who may have no choice other than to use contaminated water sources. Prompt action to address this situation is necessary. Local communities and their representatives expressed their frustration that their complaints go unanswered, that they are not properly consulted prior to the project implementation and that their right to safe drinking water seems to be a low priority of the authorities and private bodies.    

With regard to the quality of drinking water, a number of measures are necessary, when we apply the human rights lens to this issue. Strengthening the control of the quality of drinking water by providers, combined with a more comprehensive surveillance of water quality, will ensure a more reliable picture of the risks associated with water consumption in each community and city. Additionally, the right to information must be ensured by water providers, giving systematic information to users on the quality of the water they consume, irrespective of individual requests or complaints made. A national guidance on this issue would be most welcome.


Affordable services are essential to guaranteeing the rights to water and sanitation, especially for the poorest in society. A classification system, through a vulnerability index, is in place in Mexico and is used by some providers to establish their tariff systems and cross-subsidies, which is very welcome as it protects those living in the most vulnerable situation against unaffordable bills, if proper implemented. However, I was informed that services are allowed to be cut in the case of failure to pay water bills, and that there is no legal safeguard impeding disconnection due to the lack of economic capacity to face the cost of services. It is important to remind the Mexican government that disconnection of services based on this ground is considered a violation of human rights under the international human rights law.  

Some communities that I visited expressed their concerns regarding the cost of services and the proportion of their incomes required to provide families with adequate quantities of water. While the financial sustainability of the water and sanitation system is essential and relies on an appropriate system of water tariffs, it must nevertheless ensure that services are fully maintained to those with the lowest incomes or experiencing poverty. I had the opportunity to identify that those unserved or underserved experience the highest economic and social impact, since they must rely on expensive alternative ways to get water, such as bottled water, trucks and informal providers. This means that the poorest often pay more for their water and spend more time to get, impacting particularly women and girls. The poor and marginalized must be the first priority, the consequence of not reaching everyone is to leave the poor behind.

Equality and non-discrimination.

Indigenous peoples constitute a significant proportion of Mexico’s population and a high percentage of those in poverty and in situations of marginalization. They have a unique and special association with their lands and territories, including water sources. It was evident that indigenous peoples also frequently face some of the most severe challenges relating to the provision of water and sanitation. They have unique cultures, customs, practices and leadership structures, including with regard to their relationship with water and wastes that must be considered and respected in service provision. In some cases, I was informed that solutions for access to water proposed by the authorities were not appropriate to them for a number of reasons, including the digging of wells on their lands or provision of pipelines, and they noted that they did not feel that they had been adequately consulted or able to participate in line with national and international law and standards. Some indigenous representatives reported perceptions of neglect of their communities. The Government must ensure equality of access for all communities without discrimination.  

I visited Filomeno Mata in the State of Veracruz. I was disturbed to find there an urban community of some 13,000 inhabitants whose access to safe drinking water and sanitation   is highly problematic and in need of urgent intervention. While piped water and sanitation infrastructure is in place, each household receives drinking water for only three hours per month under a failing system. The community is almost entirely reliant on natural springs which require them to constantly fill containers for all their water needs, an almost full-time occupation for many family members, mostly women and girls. The situation is critical and yet no adequate solution is in sight to improve the service to community members. As previously noted, a wastewater treatment plant installed some years ago has, according to local authorities, only functioned for one month due to blockages and lack of maintenance. This failure results in wastewater flowing directly from the town into the local river downstream which is a source of water for other communities in the basin. The mainly indigenous population feels neglected and frustrated at the lack of service provision to the community which some believe reflects discrimination.

I also visited the State of Chiapas where I met with State and Municipal authorities and visited an urban community and rural indigenous populations experiencing a lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The challenges for local authorities related to water shortages and provision of services to remote and dispersed rural communities in many municipalities are evident. I was concerned by the lack of provision even to large urban communities in Tuxtla Gutiérrez who complained to me of infrequent supply, poor quality water and services being cut-off even for those struggling with low incomes and for some with chronic health conditions. Accountability for service provision must be urgently addressed. I also visited indigenous communities who have been provided with infrastructure projects that have ceased to function effectively and who have now returned to using surface water sources for drinking water that are clearly a threat to the health of community members due to the quality of the water.      

As States are required to now put in place national plans and targets to achieve goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a key message of that process has been “leave no-one behind” and Mexico must ensure as the highest priority that no individuals, families or communities are left without adequate services.

In all communities that I visited I was told that information provision relating to water and sanitation services, as well as meaningful consultation and participation in decision making processes, was generally inadequate and in many cases absent. I remind the Government that such elements are essential and ongoing commitments. They ensure that communities are properly informed, involved in planning, and able to raise their issues and concerns with the appropriate authorities and rapidly receive responses and resolution of their problems, including to judicial mechanisms. While numerous community representatives noted to me that they had pursued complaints via the relevant bodies and some recommendations have been made relating to water and sanitation, by human rights institutions, it was evident that such complaint processes are currently insufficient to achieve rapid and effective solutions for affected communities, if at all.      

Numerous other cases of concern from various regions and States in the country relating to my mandate were brought to my attention by public authorities, civil society organizations and community leaders and representatives during the course of my visit. While I do not have the possibility to address these now, I will be studying the information provided to me closely in order to reflect further on these cases in my full report and to provide recommendations where appropriate.

In conclusion, I would like to once again thank the Government of Mexico for its invitation and cooperation with my mandate and I look forward to continuing our constructive engagement ahead.