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Political H20: Veronica Herrera ’03

While conducting extensive field research in Mexico, Veronica Herrera ’03, fell in love with the study of water. Tracing its complicated flow through candidates, voters, and a convoluted physical infrastructure, the assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut detailed her findings in Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico (University of Michigan Press, 2017).

Was there a defining moment that compelled you to write this book?

When I went to Mexico to do field research on the water sector, I had never formally studied it before. I was approaching it as a student of politics and was not particularly informed about the messy world of underground pipes. After 15 months in the field and 180 interviews, I fell in love with the study of water and knew I would want to turn the research into a book. I found that through studying the development of a country’s water and sanitation sector, everything was revealed. You could read a century’s worth of history in the story of water: dictators, reformers, civil society uprising, democratization, vote-buying, struggles for equity and justice. 

Mexico’s water networks were developed when the nation was still young and was under a 70-year one-party rule by the PRI. The PRI created water networks during the development of irrigated agriculture and migrations to cities—before Mexican migration to the U.S., Mexicans migrated from the countryside to Mexican cities en masse. The government needed a lot of water to grow crops to feed the nation, industrialize, and create livable urban environments. So the country spent millions of dollars developing these networks and providing water service for free or highly subsidized rates, and PRI leaders made sure that tariffs were not increased or that bill payment was not enforced because free water service was one of the many ways in which PRI consolidated electoral support.

The problems really came later, with maintenance. Building was one thing; repairing was another. The maintenance crises emerged when the PRI was losing local elections throughout the country and eventually lost the presidency to the PAN opposition party in 2000. As competitive elections began in Mexico in the 1990s, so did austerity measures—all of a sudden, cities were on their own in terms of raising revenues. Elected officials have a real dilemma: Do they raise water rates and enforce bill collection to fix the crumbling infrastructure, yet potentially anger voters? Or do they keep things the same, with poor service that is essentially at low cost, despite the slow deterioration of water quality? Because deterioration can be politically helpful, too—that is, as network systems become more informal, and more communities are desperate for water, standing in long lines for water access from tankers—politicians can more directly control the distribution of this resource to constituents. 

While doing research, did you come across information that surprised you?

I was surprised by the extent of the disrepair of water infrastructure, and the public health effects of this disrepair throughout many Mexican cities. I appreciated the many field visits that engineers took me on, where I saw water pipes that were broken and crisscrossed with sewage pipes, raw sewage being dumped directly into riverbeds because the constructed sanitation treatment plants were not in operation, and oftentimes low-pressure water service that came only a handful of times a week. In most of the cities I visited, the water utility office served its engineers and guests water from water coolers rather than the tap, which is indicative of the extent of the problem.

Learning more about infrastructure, I realized that politicians prefer to invest in big, bold, “sexy” new infrastructure construction than repair underground, “invisible” existing water networks. You can’t cut a ribbon on a repair, it turns out. The political unattractiveness of investing in repairs isn’t just a problem in the water sector; it’s a huge problem in transportation, bridges, and canals. And it’s not just Mexico or developing countries that have these problems; there are similar problems in the U.S., where many cities have water networks over 50 years old, even up to 100 years old in some places. It’s no surprise that we are hearing more stories of lead poisoning in the U.S—it’s only going to get worse unless politicians began to invest in updating existing infrastructure.

What do you hope readers take away?

In the book I describe the practice of clientelism, which is the exchange of material goods and services, such as food, cash, or public services for the vote. This was a very common practice in the U.S. in the 19th century in many cities; they were called “political machines.” Political bosses would direct control of these benefits to residents who would then pledge to support them at the polls. These practices are still prevalent in many developing countries, and it’s just one example of how politics interfere with good public services. In the book I describe how water utilities can demand that residents produce voter ID cards when having their cisterns filled, or distribute water rations during the week of elections. Again, these practices are more prevalent for public-service distribution that is not automated but rather dependent on lots of operators on the ground to turn valves on and off and drive water tanker trucks to residents. 

I hope that readers begin to understand the political issues surrounding water provision and infrastructure instead of just thinking that it’s merely a lack of money or a lack of technical expertise. There is no lack of technical expertise in Mexico. Mexican engineers are top-rate, and the technical solutions are well-known. It’s really a question of understanding the local political context, and the social and economic forces that drive certain outcomes (for example, perpetuating clientelism) over others (for example, reform). A major takeaway from the book more broadly is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to development problems, but rather that local solutions need to be based on local context and have broad-based local support. After all, policy solutions, just like infrastructure, need to be maintained over time to be effective.

What would you most like to see happen in Mexico as a result of your book?

I think that it’s important for people who are working in the water sector—whether it’s international development agencies, journalists, or activists—to understand that water access is determined largely due to political considerations. There are two major political issues that need to be overcome: creating political support for investing in infrastructure maintenance when it seems to be a politically unappealing issue, and creating incentives to move away from clientelistic manipulation of water service and toward more universalistic public distribution. 

In four of the eight cities featured in the book—Leon, Naucalpan, Celaya, and Irapuato—I found that reforms occurred when a critical mass of middle-class residents began to demand changes, and they were joined by water-intensive industries who also lobbied for reform. New political parties came to power that sought the support of these groups and began to invest in repairs, improving services and creating more equity in distribution. They were rewarded politically—these “good government reforms” helped build the political careers of elected officials who invested in them. This was accompanied by a great deal of social conflict—that is, reform is not easy. The book shows how for cities to invest in reform, they need broad-based coalitions from influential community members and even higher levels of government that can provide pressure for reforms over time. 

As a student at Swarthmore, what were you passionate about?

I most loved being surrounded by intellectually curious and hardworking students, who shared the same interests as me. I made the best friends of my life, and also met my husband at Swarthmore (Ben Wiles ’03). I loved many classes, such as political theory, Latin American politics, and history; I was thrilled studying abroad in Madrid; I had a really positive experience in the Honors Program. But first and foremost, Swarthmore is made up of the amazing people who attend and the relationships we build during and after our years there. Did I realize that then? No, of course not. But as the years go by, I appreciate this more and more.

What makes you proudest of being part of Swarthmore? 

Every time I meet a Swarthmore alum out in the world, they are always the types of people I would be friends with: witty, smart, and with a broader perspective. I am proud to be part of a community that has strong values, among them compassion and tolerance, and seeks to have not just a materially comfortable life, or one of power and influence, but most important, happiness and contentment. I love that. 

Is there a defining moment during your time at Swarthmore that helped guide you in the direction you are in now?

Studying abroad my junior year changed everything for me—I came back a more mature, self-possessed person, less afraid to assert my perspective in the classroom, more determined to figure out what type of career I wanted and make it happen. Senior spring I started dating my husband, Ben, so that was a pretty defining moment. 

Was there a professor who left a special impression?

Cindy Halpern spent a lot of time with me, through conversation and engagement in the classroom and office hours, and really helped shape my thinking. I think the most important thing Cindy did was believe in me and convince me that I could do whatever I set my mind to do. Ken Sharpe was also incredibly supportive, and it was in his classes that I connected with Latin American politics. 

Can you tell me what you wish you knew or someone told you back then?

Ladies, assert yourselves! Be confident, not arrogant, and never, ever apologize for your success. And whenever possible, pay it forward. And also … don’t stress. It will all work out. I promise.