Editor's note: This story comes from La Verdad as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a group of newsrooms -- including ABC-7, which explores issues with a bi-national perspective. Story by Martín Orquiz.
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Chihuahua -- Using dirt, boards, rocks, leaves and even trash, José hides the water meter that the Junta Municipal de Agua y Saneamiento (Municipal Water and Sanitation Board, JMAS in Spanish) installed in his home. He’s trying to keep JMAS meter readers from seeing that his water is connected illegally.
He decided to tap into the potable water line when he moved back to the home, which had been unused and had no water service for years. Yet it had accrued a debt of thousands of pesos with JMAS, he said when he agreed to speak with La Verdad on condition his full name not be used.
“I got tired of them. They wanted me to pay as if I had a pool, but here we don’t use that much water. So someone told me it would be better to tap into the line so I wouldn’t have to pay so much, so I did it,” he said.
He said he is certain he is not causing JMAS any trouble because, first of all, the Earth supplies water “for free” and anyway, how much could he be using?
However, just like José’s house, there are thousands of buildings connected illegally to the potable water lines in Ciudad Juárez.
Sergio Nevárez Rodríguez, executive director of JMAS, calculates that currently there are at least 5,000 unregistered water intakes in the city.
It is happening all over the city, he says, which affects the water supply because it causes low water pressure in some neighborhoods, there are leaks, and it increases the distribution costs for the service.
Recent reporting showed that the residents of 34 subdivisions, throughout the southeast, the northwest and southwest of Ciudad Juárez, suffer from a lack of water almost all day long. The problem is worse in Anapra, Los Ojitos, Portal del Roble and Oasis.
In terms of money, the cost of stealing water through these unregistered connections, together with the people who don’t pay and the water that is wasted, comes to 100 million pesos per month (about $5 million), which is 43.4 percent of what comes from those who do pay, according to data from JMAS.
“We bring in 230 million pesos a month ($11.4 million) of revenue from water. We calculate that, easily, we’re missing another 100 million pesos,” Nevárez said in an interview about the losses generated by the unregistered water intakes in Ciudad Juárez.
JMAS has 459,000 home accounts in the metropolitan area, 16,000 commercial sites and 1,400 industrial sites, a total of 476,400 registered users. The estimate of illegal connections is 1% of this amount.
Finding illegal water intakes
Nevárez said the Water Board, a decentralized governmental office in Chihuahua, has a work crew that focuses on finding illegal intakes.
They find at least 20 unregistered connections per month, Nevárez said. But it’s hard to find the connections because they’re underground.
“It’s complicated. We look at usage volumes, which lead us to ask, ‘why, if I’ve got such a high volume of water use in this area, I’m only charging X amount,’ so we have to go house by house. What we need is a simple technical system,” he said.
Oscar lives in the El Barreal neighborhood and has not paid for water service in his home for about three years, after getting into a confrontation with staff from JMAS because he got two exceedingly high bills in a row of over 2,000 pesos (about $100). He opted to not pay, his water was cut off and so then he connected to the city’s potable water line illegally.
“Don’t hang me from the cross,” he said, laughing, though speaking seriously during the interview. He explained that he can’t be left without water, because he lives with his family, composed of four adults and two minors.
But neither does he want to pay such excessive amounts because he feels it’s not fair.
Oscar, who is a mechanic by trade, asked that his full name not be used because he feared retribution.
“I know that what I’m doing is not right, but what they do isn’t either. They charge us too much, that really isn’t good,” he said.
Fines and complaints
This year so far, JMAS has filed four complaints with the State Attorney General (FGE in Spanish) for water theft, Nevárez Rodríguez said.
The executive director of JMAS said water theft is hard to prove and has a very low penalty. He thinks the penalty should be higher to have a greater impact on the users who steal water.
And it’s not just those who avoid paying for the service completely. Some people have a meter and pay their bills, but also connect to another illegal intake to avoid being charged more for their supply.
“If someone has a pool, if they have a big lawn, they get an unregistered intake and hire a plumber. That’s what we’re trying to change. We trying to make it a felony, because right now that’s not what it is,” he said.
JMAS prefers to fine those who tap into the decentralized water supply, or if they are able to really document the theft well, bring a criminal case to a judge who will decide who is accountable.
However, Nevárez adds, he would like the law to be clearer to make it easier to chase after those who steal water. Nevárez describes happens because the water law in the state of Chihuahua is obsolete. Water theft is considered a theft of “fluid,” which carries lower penalties than taking other movable or consumable items from the legal owner.