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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

versión impresa ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.16 no.2 Texcoco abr./jun. 2019  Epub 25-Feb-2020 


Governance in the integral management of water resources in the Rio Sabinal and Cañon Del Sumidero watersheds in Chiapas, Mexico

Verónica Gutiérrez Villalpando1  * 

Emma Zapata Martelo2 

Austreberta Nazar Beutelspacher1 

Benito Salvatierra Izaba1 

Celia Ruíz de Oña1 

1El Colegio de la Frontera Sur. (,,,

2Colegio de Postgraduados, Campus Montecillo. (


This study analyzes the processes of water governance in the Rio Sabinal and Cañon del Sumidero watersheds in Chiapas, Mexico, with the goal of providing an overarching vision of their principal structural problems, as well as the mechanisms of governance designed to address them. Using the Governance Analytical Framework (GAF) set forth by Hufty (2004), it analyzes three distinct water governance scenarios in which numerous governmental and non-governmental actors come together. Five analytical dimensions are employed: problem definition, interaction nodes or spaces, actors, norms or mechanisms of regulation and interactive processes-to evaluate the efficacy of the various sectors in constructing an effective and participative water governance system.

Key words: water; governance; integral management; watersheds; nodal points; sustainability


Se analizan los procesos de gobernanza del agua de las subcuencas Río Sabinal y Cañón del Sumidero en Chiapas, México, con el objetivo de ofrecer una visión de conjunto de los principales problemas que las afectan y los mecanismos para abordarlos. Se utiliza el enfoque metodológico denominado Marco Analítico de la Gobernanza (Hufty, 2004) para dar cuenta de tres experiencias de gobernanza del agua que aglutinan a un nutrido grupo de actores. Se abordan cinco dimensiones analíticas: definición del problema, nodos o espacios de interacción, actores, normas y procesos de interacción, valorando a los sectores involucrados en la construcción de una gobernanza del agua participativa y efectiva.

Palabras clave: agua; gobernanza; gestión integral; cuenca; puntos nodales; sustentabilidad


The conception of water as a water resource has suffered a substantial transformation; today it is recognized that the components of aquatic ecosystems are those that allow satisfying the water demand for different purposes in a basin, as an input of production and relevant factor for the conservation of biodiversity (Retamal et al., 2013). A decrease in the integrity of the basin as an ecosystem generates the deterioration of ecosystemic services, to which the impact of climate change on the hydrological cycle and the water management systems is added (White et al., 2008).

Retamal et al. (2013) point out that in order to face these challenges, new forms of governing ecosystem goods and services provided by basins are necessary (Kallis et al., 2009), through sustainable water governance.

The term “water governance” is a concept under construction. The Global Water Partnership (GWP) defines it as “the group of political, social, economic and administrative systems that have the possibility of developing and managing water resources and distributing water services at different levels of society” (Martínez and Reyna, 2012), while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2011) makes a distinction between governance and management of water, by defining the latter as “the operative activities for the fulfillment of specific objectives, among them water supply, consumption and recycling”. Therefore, it could be concluded that water governance refers to the political-administrative framework within which water use is defined (who decides), while water management is related to the physical requirements for its distribution (administrative and technical infrastructure) (Martínez and Reyna, 2012).

The most explored facet of this concept has been the analysis of community forms of water management, considering it as a common good (Ostrom, 2000). These meanings refer to the exercise of government, or else, to the form of self-government of a community; they describe and explain the decentralization that characterizes the current direction process of society, multi-polarity, and its nature as a system (Aguilar, 2007), resulting from changes in the structures, government processes, and the new ways of conceiving it (Waylen, 2008). In turn, Paz (2012) defines governance as the cooperative and responsible interaction of governmental and non-governmental actors, social and private, in the construction of public policy.

In the Sixth Global Water Forum, one of the main conclusions was that “societies face a crisis in water management, which could be characterized as a crisis of governance” (Martínez and Reyna, 2012).

For Murillo (2012), water governance entails two modes of application: the promotion of social participation and the mechanisms of negotiation between social and institutional-government projects, and the institutional performance and rules and regulations that arise from formal institutionalism. In this sense, the governability of water is focused on the hierarchically built authority (vertically), while water governance looks for consensus, negotiation and dialogue (horizontally). Governance implies the integrated management of water resources or management by basins, as efficient forms, but also the recognition of traditional forms of management for local spheres (Domínguez, 2007).

Beyond the concept of water governance, it is convenient to rescue the emergence of the discourse of governance in the environmental sphere. According to Kooiman (2004), governance is the set of interactions between public and private actors directed at solving their social problems, with the aim of creating opportunities within a normative framework. Traditionally, the field of environmental policy and natural resource management has operated based on hierarchical strategies of command and control, which are still dominant (Briggs, 2003; Holling et al., 1996). However, in recent decades, we have witnessed the emergence of new strategies of interaction between a wide range of actors, political and social, who have started to design and experiment with novel institutional mechanisms, seeking a more efficient and legitimate approach to inter-dependence, complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty that are characteristic of the environmental quandary (Bäckstrand, 2010).

These transformations in the conducting of environmental public issues are related to deeper changes in the nature of the State, whose action sphere decreases, according to some actors, or transforms, according to others, into an enabler and driving force of these coordination experiences for the design of public policy (Kooiman, 2004; Mayntz, 2001; Rhodes, 1996; Zurbriggen, 2011).

Grouped under the term of “new modes of environmental governance” (Holley et al., 2011; Bäckstrand, 2010), these strategies adopt different configurations, but they agree in their emphasis on the participation of different government actors for the design of environmental policies and in decision making; in the coordination, both sectorial and through territorial scales; and in the endeavor to integrate scientific knowledge and social experience in the design of environmental policies, in an effort to make them more transparent and democratic (Arts and Leroy, 2006; Holg et al., 2012; Lemos and Agrawal, 2006; Newig et al., 2007). However, governance processes are sustained by the need to establish regulation mechanisms in plural societies, based on the principles of western political democracy (Vargas, 2008). In relation to this, Mayntz (2001) pointed to certain conditions of structural and institutional basis that are necessary for the exercise of governance to be carried out, such as the presence of democratically legitimate and solidly established political authorities, as well as a dispersion of power in the different sectors of society “in a non-fragmented and efficient manner” (Mayntz, 2001: 3). Although Mayntz admits that these are ideal conditions, it is important to point out that the practice of governance in Latin America will be conditioned by a sociopolitical structure that is often unstable and in different degrees of democratic consolidation, in many cases with government authorities that lack legitimacy.

In this study, the COLMEX-CONAGUA-IMTA-ANEAS concept proposed by Domínguez et al. (2012) in their work “Toward a positioning of water governance in Mexico” (Hacia un posicionamiento de la gobernanza del agua en México) is adopted, where water governance is understood as “the processes in interactions between social, economic, political, environmental and government systems, with the aim of attaining a joint vision about the use and future of water resources and implementing mechanisms that facilitate its achievement”.

From the perspectives of water governance, it is suggested that the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is the adequate form of managing the water resource, with the basin as management unit, as established in the current normative framework of the National Water Law (Ley de Aguas Nacionales) (SEMARNAT, 2004). IWRM is a process that promotes the coordinated management and development of water, soil and other resources related, with the aim of maximizing the economic results and the social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems and in close relation with “sustainable development”.

For the application of this law in relation to this concept, water and forests are mainly considered (García, 2010). Borquez et al. (2007) mention that the current quandary of integrated water resources management has its origin in three factors that threaten their sustainability: 1) accelerated growth of the population and of economic activity; 2) lack of programs for poverty mitigation, combined with socioeconomic inequity; and 3) irregular distribution of water and scarcity in the sectors of greatest demand.

Governance Analytical Framework (GAF)

Hufty (2004) proposes an alternative approach to analyze governance, called Governance Analytical Framework (GAF), developed in the North-South program of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. A central trait of the methodology is the analytical elements or observable dimensions of governance: the problem, the actors, the social norms, the nodal points and the processes, whose configuration produces different types of governance, and, therefore, of citizenship. Likewise, Natera (2005) mentions that both social capital and public leadership are specific decisive conditions to guarantee the success of the governance which he conceives as governmental action, referring to the management of networks integrated by a multiplicity of public and private actors who interact in a complex way and whose analysis receives preferential attention.

Context of the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins

Chiapas is one of the states with greatest water resources in Mexico, with a contribution of 40 % of the country total. In 2005, 71.1 % of the inhabited private households had piped water (SEDESOL-INEGI, 2005), proportion that increased to 73.5 % in 2010 (INEGI, 2010); this represents a minimal increase (2.4 %), quite below the growth of the demand. In this state there are springs that run out of water for long periods of time, and rural women of low income are the ones most affected because they must carry it to their homes. The lack of water is also associated to deforestation, soil degradation, pollution, and overexploitation of the aquifers. Facing this situation, Land Regulation Programs (Programas de Ordenamiento Territorial, POET) have been implemented, as well as emergency plans, such as in the case of the Sabinal River sub-basin (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 2010).

The Sabinal River sub-basin is a source of water supply for human consumption in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, city that has 553,374 inhabitants and has presented an accelerated growth in the last decade (INEGI, 2010). There are also ecological reasons to seek its conservation, given that in the area of the Sabinal River sub-basin there are relicts of mountainous cloud forest that are confined to narrow altitudinal zones of the mountainous regions, where there are frequently clouds at the height of the vegetation. Within the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins there is the “La Pera” state Natural Protected Area with category of Zone Subject to Conservation, which is part of the Sumidero Canyon-“El Ocote” Rainforest biological corridor, integrated by other protected areas, such as the Sumidero Canyon National Park, the Villa Allende Forest Protection Zone, the Laguna Bélgica Zone Subject to Ecological Conservation and the “El Ocote” Biosphere Reserve (SEMAHN, 2015). The Sumidero Canyon-“El Ocote” Rainforest corridor allows the continuation of functional ecological connections, as well as natural genetic dispersion (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas 2010).

The Sumidero Canyon sub-basin belongs to the Grijalva River Basin, where the La Angostura, Chicoasén, Nezahualcóyotl and Peñitas dams are located, which contribute 23 % of the electrical energy used in the country. However, the sustainability of the water resources is threatened by the inequality in water availability, disordered urban settlements, degradation of basins, overexploitation of aquifers, and effects from climate change. This sub-basin has an approximate surface of 6700 square kilometers, distributed in 16 municipalities, and constitutes the main source of water resources used in the agricultural, tourism and urban sectors (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas 2010:190).


Governance was analyzed based on the theory by Hufty (2004), known as Governance Analytical Framework (GAF), to address five analytical units: problems, nodal points, actors, norms and processes. These governance processes are analyzed around the government sectors that participate in the committees, boards and strategies for the conservation of water resources and the sustainable management of water in the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins in the state of Chiapas during the period 2014-2015.

The research was carried out in four stages:

  • 1) Analysis of the water problems in the basin. Secondary, bibliographic and cartographic information from the basin was consulted in databases (SEDESOL-INEGI, 2005; COLPOS, 2010).

  • 2) Interviews with key informants who understand water management and the basins in the study zone. To identify the actors and their processes, semi-structured interviews were performed, with open questions about water problems, their participation in work groups for the solution of conflicts and the main agreements. The following authorities were interviewed: municipal (Director of Agricultural and Livestock Promotion, director of the Drinking Water System and Drainage of Berriozábal), state (officials from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural History: research coordinator, specialist from the Research Coordination, Director of Natural Areas and Wild Life, analyst in charge of La Pera State Natural Protected Area), and federal (Director of the Sumidero Canyon National Park, director and technicians from the Villa Allende Zone of Forest Protection and Director of the National Water Commission in Chiapas).

  • 3) Nodal points and their norms. The interviews helped to understand the spaces where the quandary of water and the ecosystemic services in the basins are discussed. The norms were analyzed through a consult of guiding documents.

  • 4) Perceptions of the people interviewed in relation to water governance and social participation, section that contributes to explain the governance processes perceived from the institutions involved.


Normative-institutional context

The initiatives of attention to problems of degradation of the Sabinal River sub-basin are defined in three guiding documents: Study of Integrated Water Exploitation and Flooding Control of the Sabinal River Basin (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 2004), Program of Territorial Ecological Planning of the Sub-basin (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 2010), and Management and Integrated Management Plan of the Sabinal River Sub-basin (COLPOS, 2010), which expose the importance of stopping land use change and reverting the indicators of environmental deterioration through actions of environmental conservation and restoration (Gordillo et al., 2012).

In 2004, the governement of the state of Chiapas commissioned the Autonomous University of Chiapas with the elaboration of the study of Integrated Water Exploitation and Flooding Control in the Sabinal River Basin, which originated from the flooding that took place on June 25, 1996, and October 6, 2003. In the latter, the flooding covered approximately six kilometers of the Sabinal River and in some zones the water reached a level of 2.5 meters. It was the worst flooding suffered by the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez (Gordillo et al., 2012:14); therefore, it constitutes an important precedent in the water knowledge of the basin and, derived from this, it suggests scenarios and alternatives for solution to avoid or decrease the risks of flooding, defining the optimal solution from the engineering point of view and with structural actions. Likewise, the need to address the quandary with non-structural alternatives, such as: sustainable exploitation of aquifers, control of land use change, and conservation and restoration of forest areas (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 2004).

In 2010 the Government of the State decreed the Program of Territorial Ecological Planning of the Sabinal River Sub-basin (POET, 2010). The current state of the basin’s sub-systems is described in it (natural, economic and social), and it is recognized that in 20 % of the territory it is necessary to implement a policy for restoration from the approaches of conservation and sustainable exploitation. Because of the methodology of the instrument, elaborated with the participation of key actors and through public consult, it is considered an example of legal instruments derived from a participative process. Presently, the document is being updated, due to the accelerated change in land use experienced by the sub-basin in the last five years.

The Management and Integrated Management Plan of the Sabinal River Sub-basin is the first effort that demonstrates the need to address environmental deterioration with the basin approach, based on a cause, condition and effect scheme. The recommendation of developing a program of environmental rescue emerges from this, accompanied by productive and economic projects, with the premise of soil and water conservation and, if possible, for these to be agreed upon with the population and governmental authorities (COLPOS, 2010).

According to the guiding documents of the basin, and taking into consideration that there is still a way to go in order to internalize the cost and importance of the contribution of ecosystems to the integrated management of the Sabinal River Basin, in August 2011 the specialized work group or “restoration table” was integrated, in charge of aiding the Sabinal River Basin Committee in decision making.

Next, there was a stage of strategic planning, in order for the restoration table and the Committee to have an instrument for operative planning for the hydrological-environmental restoration, at the request of the Management Office of the Sabinal River Basin and the project “Strategy for the restoration and rehabilitation of the Sabinal River Basin: An ecosystemic approach for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity associated to hydrographic basins in Chiapas”, coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural History, and the concurrence of institutions and users implicated in projects and practices for restoration. With this initiative we began to respond the concerns from the “Restoration Table” of analyzing, recognizing and applying actions that tend to reverse the indicators of environmental degradation in the basin (Gordillo et al., 2012).

Degradation of the basin from accelerated/chaotic/ill-planned urbanism: The case of the Ciudad Maya neighborhood in Berriozábal, Chiapas

From the interviews with officials of the Drinking Water and Drainage System of the municipality of Berriozábal (Sistema de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado del Municipio, SAPAM), it can be deduced that one of the main problems of the region is the growth of the urban sprawl toward Berriozábal. Such is the case of the Ciudad Maya neighborhood, which was located in Berriózabal with re-munizipalization. Presently, this neighborhood demands piped water services from the municipality that supplied the building company before. In Ciudad Maya there are approximately 2400 households, with a population of 10 000 residents. Until today, in this neighborhood only 146 water contracts have been signed; when elaborating the contract, two thousand pesos are paid and a commitment is made to pay 200 pesos monthly. SAPAM supplies pipes to the people that it has a contract with, and provides 8800 liters per month per family, with a cost of 0.025 pesos/liter of water. The residents without contract purchase water pipes from private companies, with a higher cost, for example, 400 pesos for 4400 liters.

Staff from SAPAM installed a service module in Ciudad Maya, with the aim of registering the people interested in signing water contracts, but they were stopped by some residents in the neighborhood, who did not want to let them leave until they committed to supplying water. To avoid this type of incidents the service module was withdrawn and now the inhabitants of Ciudad Maya must go to the SAPAM offices in Berriozábal.

One of the solutions suggested to supply water to the municipal township of Berriozábal is the operation of the hydraulic work “Brazo Norte”, where the Municipal System of Drinking Water and Drainage (Sistema Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado, SMAPA) of Tuxtla Gutiérrez will begin with the drinking water supply for the municipality of Berriozábal.

In 2011, the then governor Juan Sabines Guerrero inaugurated the works “Ciudad del Agua” in Tuxtla Gutiérrez and “Brazo Norte” in Berriozábal, with the objective of supplying water to the inhabitants in the center and north of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and in 13 neighborhoods and eight boroughs of Berriozábal; the investment was more than 1.1 billion pesos (La Jornada, December 21, 2011). However, after nearly five years the “Brazo Norte” has not been managed to be operated. The period of impenetrability and hydrostatic tests to clean the pipes has concluded, and soon the supply will begin. Through the Brazo Norte, the SMAPA will take water to the “La Carreta” tank -located in the Plan de Ayala ejido, in the western exit of Tuxtla Gutiérrez-, and from there the local government of Berriozábal would pump it toward the municipality. The tank has a capacity of 15 thousand cubic meters and to supply water through a conducting line that reaches the municipal township of Berriozábal, the local government will sign an agreement with the Commission of Federal Electricity (Comisión Federal de Electricidad, CFE). This project would require the SMAPA to reprogram the supply: “an adequate batch system” so that taking water to Berriozábal does not represent a lack of supply in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

As an alternative to address the quandary of water supply for the inhabitants of Ciudad Maya, the SAPAM official mentions the following:

“Once the Brazo Norte operates and the water reaches the municipal township of Berriozábal, piping could be installed to reach the supply tank of Ciudad Maya, but this would require a strong investment and I don’t think that the residents of Ciudad Maya would be willing to pay it”.

Regarding the environmental impact that this type of works could generate in the ecosystems, one of the interview respondents mentions:

“The Brazo Norte would partially solve the problem of water supply in Berriozábal, but the water that would be brought from the “City of Water” of Tuxtla comes from the Suchiapa and Santo Domingo rivers, which are the most deteriorated sub-basins, and could finish off the ecosystemic services from where they are originated” (Biol. Adrián Méndez Barrera, Director of CONANP).


Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission

Since 2005 the Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission was created, which up to date has only been in session three times. Based on the testimonies, it is questioned whether the agencies of the Sumidero Canyon Basin and Sabinal River have the capacity and the resources to solve such a big quandary. Some interview respondents are of the opinion that due to this disarticulation, there has been no advancement in the problem of pollution by solid residues in the federal national protected area Sumidero Canyon National Park:

“There was a meeting of the Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission. At the round table there were representatives from state and federal institutions, and the users of the Basin were placed in other chairs, behind the table. From the simple arrangement of participants, from there, you are giving less value to the participation of people sitting on the edge of the table” (Biol. Adrián Méndez Barrera, Official of CONANP).

Regarding water pollution in the Sumidero Canyon, the interview respondent said:

The data are not reliable and are quite variable. It can be said that they are manipulated at convenience, for example, when swimming competitions are held, the water pollution data decrease” (Biol. Adrián Méndez Barrera, Official of CONANP).

The perception is that CONAGUA does not take on the attributions that correspond to it, as in the case of cleaning solid residues in the Sumidero Canyon:

Although they are cousins to SEMARNAT, CONAGUA receives more resources, followed by CONAFOR, then PROFEPA, and lastly CONANP; the CONANP has invested more than three million pesos per year in cleaning pollution from solid residues in the Sumidero Canyon and that is why it ceases to perform other activities that do correspond to it” (Biol. Adrián Méndez Barrera, funcionario de CONANP).

“There is a factual authority, but not practical, which is CONAGUA. An integrated management is necessary that includes ecosystemic services” (Biol. Froilán Esquinca Cano, Technical Research Coordinator, SEMAHN).

“In this six-year term the policy is not to support the basin committees”. (M. Sc. Mercedes Gordillo, specialist of the Research Coordination, SEMAHN).

The people interviewed agree that CONAGUA does not perform the functions that correspond to it, although officials from the Commission mention that there are instruments as the Integrated Management Plan of the Sumidero Canyon Basin and the Management and Integrated Management Plan of the Sabinal River Basin, documents for planning that regulate the Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission and the Sabinal River Basin Committee, respectively. Both plans are divided into six objectives: decrease damages from meteorological phenomena; adequate exploitation of forest resources; decrease the pollution of soil, water and forest; strengthen agriculture and livestock development; improve drinking water and drainage; and improve sociocultural habitat.

Due to the scarce follow-up and participation of the members of the Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission, it was necessary to search for a new mechanism to solve the problem of contamination from solid residues; thus, the initiative of the Inter-municipal Board of the Sumidero Canyon Basin.

Contamination from solid residues in the Sumidero Canyon: The case of the Inter-municipal Board of the Sumidero Canyon Basin (JICCAS) initiative

The decentralized public agency “Inter-municipal Board of the Sumidero Canyon Basin” (Junta Intermunicipal para la Cuenca Cañón de Sumidero, JICCAS) was created on November 27, 2014 (Official Newspaper no. 152 of the state of Chiapas). The initiative of municipal management to address problems of solid residues arose in France, where the concept of management and problem resolution through the grouping of municipalities arose.

In Mexico, based on this initiative, favorable results have been obtained in the Ayuquila River and Armada Basin, with the Inter-municipal Board of Ayuquila River in the state of Jalisco. The JICCAS is a similar initiative, adapted to the conditions of Chiapas, which involves the three levels of government, society and the private sector. The following are the aims to be achieved: 1) active and real participation of the municipalities in the long term, without regard to political orientations or triannual change in the local governments; 2) continuity of projects, human and financial resources; 3) that municipalities make decisions in function of the integrated management of the basin and regional needs (with specialized technique, direction and priority are given to actions for the solution of problems related to conservation of the basin and maintenance of ecosystemic services, such as water, landscape and disaster prevention); and 4) addressing problems of urban and rural solid residues.

The Sumidero Canyon faces a specific problem of contamination from solid residues that increases each rainy season; it comes from 15 municipalities that make up the medium basin of the Grijalva River and the Sabinal River Sub-basin: Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapa de Corzo, Berriozábal, San Fernando, Villa Flores, Villa Corzo, Acalá, Chiapilla, Venustiano Carranza, Totolapa, San Lucas, Veinte de Noviembre, Nicolás Ruiz, Ixtapa and Suchiapa.

The objective is to form a decentralized public agency among the 15 municipalities of the Sumidero Canyon Basin that allows giving continuity to the basin restoration works, river sanitation, management of solid residues and the environment. These municipalities integrated a decentralized public agency and a trusteeship that would be financed by federal, state, municipal and private instances. Among the benefits of the JICCAS, the following stand out: 1) Continuity: the initiative allows performing medium and long term projects, surpassing triannual administrations; 2) Governance: the vision of integrated management of the basin promotes the order between basin users and focuses on strategic environmental projects; 3) Resources: the resources from JICCAS will be operated transparently, through a trusteeship, and observed by the basin commission and the agencies of the Board; 4) Economy: the development of scale economy is promoted, through tourism and integrated management of residues.

The testimonies reveal the following:

“The JICCAS will have their strengths and weaknesses, because not all the municipalities involved participate. The important issue would be that the strategy of restoration could be adopted within the JICCA, for it to have instruments of planning, management and programming, because otherwise they would be isolated efforts” (Gordillo et al., 2012).

Regarding water governance, in the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basin, the interview respondents are of the opinion that:

“A new kind of governance is lacking to face the obstacles in water management with political will, qualified human resources and transparency” (Biol. Froilán Esquinca Cano, Research Coordinator, SEMAHN).

“Governance is subject to political cycles that are dynamic. Within the legal framework of the LAN, it should be explored that these limitations be left aside, since with the change in representatives and municipal presidents, and the electoral closed season, we cannot meet to talk about technical issues” (Mercedes Gordillo, specialist from the Research Coordination, SEMAHN).


Strategy for the hydrological-environmental restoration of the Sabinal River Sub-basin 2011-2021 (ERSABI)

The Strategy for the hydrological-environmental restoration of the Sabinal river Sub-basin 2011-2021 is part of the project “Strategies for the restoration and rehabilitation of the Sabinal River Basin: An ecosystemic approach for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity associated to hydrographic basins in Chiapas”, which was financed with the COCYTECH-CONACYT mixed funds.

In a long-term vision (to 2021) and through ERSABI, the current governments with influence in the territory could: “contribute to the hydrological environmental restoration of the Sabinal River Basin through the rehabilitation and natural regeneration of the ecosystems, from the valuation of ecosystemic services, articulating institutions and stimulating social participation”.

The ERSABI suggests objectives, lines and strategic actions to contribute in the prevention of threats, the attention to causal factors, and the effects of environmental deterioration directed at attaining the recovery of ecosystems, with the aim of these continuing to supply goods and services, fundamentally those whose nature provides goods to society and regulates functional processes in the ecosystems that are closely related to human welfare. About the problems faced in understanding the concept of restoration, the following is mentioned:

“A good comprehension about the theme by actors is necessary. They confuse reforestation with restoration; in a basin reforestation helps, but its contribution is limited. The strategy should lower the scale to users and be able to contextualize it. There is also the need to have an impact at the level of officials to obtain financing, because the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins are not priority areas; it is necessary to position them as priority at those levels” (Mercedes Gordillo, specialist of the Research Coordination, SEMAHN).


In this study the difficulties of carrying out a coordination of the actors and sectors that allow water management based on governance are identified (Lemos and Agraval, 2006). A sustainable governability of water should integrate a broad range of actors, and Lebel et al. (2006) point out that this is achieved when actors share and exert power. The analysis of water governance processes in the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins reveals that they are still incomplete, particularly in what refers to participative strategies, the application of normativity, and the execution of consensual decision making, but above all in the implementation of strategies. According to Domínguez (2011), it is a fact that not everything depends on the legal framework, and that the opposition presented in the formal rules that are found in the law, in the informal rules from social agreements and even from the authorities, is causing social conflicts over water management. Although it is true that spaces for concertation and deliberation are created, these do not manage to involve all the actors relevant and the norms established formally in decision making are not considered. The conflicts that emerge from the confrontation of water management systems, established at different administrative and spatial scales, are also not settled. For example, concerning water scarcity in rural localities, in Berriozábal there is a community organization (Gutiérrez et al., 2013a) and social participation to make agreements in water management through community committees for water, where low participation of women was found (Gutiérrez et al., 2013b). The sole government instance that participates at this local level is the municipality and its intervention is reduced to providing chloride. Retamal et al. (2013) mention that there is an increase of social demands that require more transforming participation in water governance and that the concept of participation is the key element that should be defined between the various systems/actors that make up the governance process, which is closely related to the level of comprehension about the socio-ecological dynamics of the country’s basins. Likewise, the case of water supply for urban zones of recent creation, such as that in the Ciudad Maya neighborhood, suggests a different governance problem: decisions are made between two drinking water systems, the one in Berriozábal and the one in Tuxtla, for the purchase of water that would be distributed by the “Brazo Norte”. However, these agreements are not crystallized, nor is there consensus with citizens with regards to the costs that they will have to pay for this service, and the environmental impact is also not visualized generated by bringing water from another deteriorated basin. The case exemplifies how consensual decision making between water management entities maintains a strategy of exclusion of citizens, the water users or which, at least, does not contemplate users as a legitimate decision making group.

Finally, the problem related to physical deterioration of the basin has four nodal points: the Sabinal River Basin Committee, the Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission, the Inter-institutional Table to Solve the Problem of Tierra de Hoja, and of recent creation, the Inter-municipal Board of the Sumidero Canyon (JICA), made up of 16 municipalities, where the quandary of contamination from solid residues at the Sumidero Canyon Natural Protected Area is attempted to be resolved, which agrees with the model of the Inter-municipal Board for Integrated Management of the Ayuquila River Low Basin (JIRA), where the bureaucratic-administrative part should not be overlooked (Zamora, 2011) and which, according to Ruiz et al. (2010), is a governance process at the regional level that has strengths such as the geographic area, including the power of interaction of 10 municipalities, the capacity to manage and attain respect, as well as their union to face a common problem in the Ayuquila River in Jalisco.

According to González Franco (2013), the inter-municipal environmental boards are an inter-institutional platform in which municipal governments deliberate with representatives from federal and state agencies; therefore, the municipality plays an important role in the implementation of public policies for the conservation and sustainable use within the natural capital of the country (Graf et al., 2009), through a decentralization policy of public management that grants them new functions (León et al., 2007).

Among the strengths of the current water governance in the sub-basins of study, the following can be mentioned: the existence of a normative framework, the increase of integrated information that sustains decision making, and the promotion of inter-sectorial and inter-institutional coordination initiatives, which agrees with what was found in Chile by Retamal et al. (2013). However, a normative framework is also observed to prevent the environmental deterioration of this basin, as in the study of Integrated Water Exploitation and Flooding Control of the Sabinal River Basin, the Ecological Planning Program of the Sub-basin, and the Management and Integrated Management Plan of the Sabinal River Sub-basin; and there is a Sumidero Canyon Basin Commission and a Sabinal River Basin Council that must have an integral vision of water resources management, spaces that have not had sufficient presence and have not achieved the results expected.

According to González Franco (2013), many public policies and management instruments for government function have failed. A conspicuous case is territorial ecological planning (ordenamiento ecológico territorial, OET), which has failed as an exercise of construction of agreements between the actors of a territory regarding the uses that should be given to land and access to resources, and the services that ecosystems provide in the territory, mainly from having been reduced to a technical exercise of cartography. In this sense, a characteristic of other shared governance schemes is observed: an articulation is achieved in the planning phase of strategies for action that the approach of integrated management of basins collects, as well as the definition of joint actions, but the barrier of joint implementation is not outdone.

Some of the obstacles for the implementation of strategies gathered in joint planning documents have to do with the technical and managerial capacities that they address; in addition, axes of transversal action that strengthen and ensure an integrated and shared management of water, such as: promotion of environmental education programs, water culture, protection of supplies, erosion and flooding control, as well as promotion of the assessment of ecosystemic services that these sub-basins provide, among them the provision of water and climate regulation.

Likewise, although there are spaces where key actors gather to solve certain problems, the participation has been conditioned to project financing and, although regulation documents with interesting proposals have been achieved, such as the Strategy for the Hydrological-Environmental Restoration of the Sabinal River Sub-basin 2011-2021 (ERSABI) (Gordillo et al., 2012), again these new innovative planning instruments do not surpass the planning phase. The main problem for the implementation of these proposals lies in the fact that putting them into practice implies the cession of power spaces, as well as overcoming institutional inertias of strong rooting. According to González Franco (2013), because of the sectorial character of the government exercise, many of the government programs “land” in the territory in an unorganized way (from lack of complementarity, coordination and synergy), they atomize the resources that are given and, even, in certain cases, stimulate practices opposing the objectives of other policies or programs, instead of decreasing in an integrated manner and investing in effective processes of development for the communities.

The cases approached evidence that the existence of a normative and institutional structure that is apt for developing integrated water management plans, such as those present in the Sabinal River and Sumidero Canyon sub-basins, constitute barely the first step in the construction of water governance processes that are integrating and inclusive.

These governance strategies bring to light something that is already known: the lack of coordination between the different levels of government, the absence of integration between institutions, and the lack of real and effective citizen participation, especially of local rural actors, which derives into the absence of an integrated management of the basin with an ecosystemic vision that has an effect on the sustainable and at the same time equitable use of water. This implies relinquishing political and economic power from the government sphere to the interaction arenas between actors defined in the law, with the purposes of coordination and participation. The water policy should emerge from the recognition of the ecosystemic and interdependent functioning with the other natural elements, and it should be inclusive of all the actors because it affects society directly (Domínguez, 2011).

The key actor that could tip the scales toward a more integrated vision in water management is the National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua, CONAGUA), governing entity in decision making regarding water management. However, its actions are based on an approach that privileges the construction of hydraulic structures of high cost and strong impact on the functional dynamics of water cycles. It is not proposed that this vision be combined with the ecosystemic approach; on the contrary, the channeling and waterproofing of riverbanks as flood control in the Sabinal River and others in the state of Chiapas (Ruiz de Oña, 2014), as well as the provision of water from engineering works of important dimensions, such as the construction of the “Brazo Norte” diversion, are the preferred options.

Despite the persistent rhetoric around the need of an integrated management of the basin, that is sustainable and participative, there doesn’t seem to be understanding of what it means or how to do it. There also doesn’t seem to be encouragement of the value of ecosystem functionality, so that the base of the water resource is maintained, as well as its regeneration and supply in the future.

If this perception of the quandary in the actors involved is not solved, it will not be possible to achieve the conservation of basins and the ecosystemic services that these provide. Likewise, if there is no work done in favor of the construction of processes of citizen participation, the advances that can happen in terms of a more efficient and integrated management will also be questionable.


The cases addressed in this study exemplify the difficulties that water governance processes face in environments that already have an institutional structure established for that purpose. Despite the existence of spaces typically associated to a deliberative and inclusive governance regime, the practices of interaction between actors linked to an administrative hierarchical regime predominate, where some execute and others define what should be done. These spaces end up being refunctionalized in platforms where decision making is restricted to the discussion about resource distribution and political positioning, and where technical solutions predominate over those related with the inclusion of other knowledge, especially empirical understanding derived from the daily and historical practice of water management at the local level, which could inform and be the basis of public policies of a more inclusive and diversified nature.

The study reveals that water governance as a concrete exercise of the articulation of public and private actors goes far beyond the institutional fabric and the punctual confluence of a set of actors in a space, under a specific regulation: in the articulation process of actors, practices of policy making and power imbalances invariably emerge which, from the governance discourse, tend to be overshadowed. From this that the main objective of a practice of governance needs to point to the formation of interaction processes of various actors that move toward a democratic restructuring of political culture. On the contrary, under the prevalent discourse of participation and inclusion of actors other than government, in the end that which prevails is a simulation of political practice and the prevalence of historical imbalances in decision making.

Finally, we will add that, as heuristic mechanism, the conceptual framework of governance, as is applied in this study, does not allow approaching in depth the wealth and complexity of local experiences of water management, whose structure and historical trajectory exceeds the analytical margins of governance. It would be necessary to complete these analytical frameworks with a specific conceptualization for local experiences, of anthropological and ethnographic basis.


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Received: September 2016; Accepted: August 2017

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