April 16, 2016
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – Using the bathroom at school has become a challenge for 7-year old Carlos Isaac Fuentes Hinojosa.
He has to resist the urge to use the facilities almost daily because the bathrooms are usually dirty and there isn’t enough water to flush waste, he says. Carlos knows this because he has flushed the toilet as many as four times without success.
Carlos isn’t the only young student who’s had that experience.
“That happens to me when I go to wash my paint brushes, or I go to wash my hands, or I go to the bathroom and there is no water,” says his 10-year old cousin Juan David Fuentes Aguilar.
Carlos and Juan are students at Francisco I. Madero public primary school in the Tlalpan delegation, located in southern Mexico City. It’s common to not have water in their school’s bathrooms, they say.
INSIDE THE STORY: GPJ Mexico Reporter Mayela Sánchez set out to write a story about solutions to water access problems, but initially didn’t see the larger issue revealed in the data she found.
Government officials say they’re installing water fountains as part of a program to encourage children to drink water instead of sugary beverages, but parents say the more urgent need is water supply in bathrooms. A separate government program is in place to address that need, but it’s not clear when the school toilets that are currently often dry will be flushable.
Carlos and Juan are among the luckier students because they have access to a toilet at all.
About 11 percent of schools in Mexico don’t even have bathrooms, says Héctor Gutiérrez de la Garza, the general director of the Instituto Nacional de la Infraestructura Física Educativa (INIFED), the national institute that manages educational infrastructure.
Many schools were constructed without facilities or inefficient infrastructure for water supply, says Luis Fernando Domínguez Martín del Campo, who coordinates the director’s office at INIFED. State governments, local education institutes and INIFED all share responsibility for that.
But schools are only part of the problem. The lack of sustainable water supplies is one of the most serious problems facing Mexico City, according to the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Distrito Federal the human rights commission for the capital, in reports published in its July 2015 magazine. Over 150,000 people do not have access to a piped water system.
Although 2010 government data shows that over 95 percent of people live in homes with piped water, the commission reports it doesn’t take into account that the supply is inconsistent.
And children in schools are no less affected. More than 120 preschool, primary and secondary public schools in Mexico City have to provide water through sources besides the public water network, such as by purchasing water from tanker trucks, according to a 2013 census by the government’s statistics institute.
And the people in Carlos and Juan’s area form the largest group that lives without regular water service, according to 2013 government data.
The deficiency is mirrored nationally. About 11 percent of Mexicans experience a lack of water services in their homes and get their supply through alternative sources, according to 2010 data from the statistics institute.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced in September 2015 an initiative to improve infrastructure in more than 33,000 school buildings that demonstrated the greatest need by 2018. Census data from 2013 shows that there are about 171,000 school buildings in total in Mexico, but about 26 percent of public school buildings were not constructed with educational needs in mind.
According to the initiative’s website, sanitation is the second-highest priority, after structural safety and general operating conditions. The initiative’s third priority is providing furniture and equipment, and a system for drinking water is the fourth priority.
Work has already begun in some schools, according to government data.
This nearly 50 billion Mexican pesos ($2.8 billion) initiative aims to improve the infrastructure at 16,419 school buildings by 2016.
In May 2014, the government approved an initiative to bring drinking water, via water fountains, to all public schools.
So far, 2,675 water fountains have been installed, he says. The government anticipates installing as many as 11,000 fountains by July 2016, the end of this school year, and about 40,000 by 2018, Gutiérrez de la Garza says.
The water fountains provide drinking water to schools that might not otherwise have it. But the legislation that enacted the program was not intended to provide water supply to schools, but instead to provide drinking water with the goal to get kids to avoid sugary drinks, he says.
The legislation doesn’t address sanitation issues, but Gutiérrez de la Garza notes that it is a start to solving water problems in schools.
“If we search for the perfect, this program still wouldn’t start,” he says. “We come to make the good things happen. But for that, we first require to start an initial exercise, which are those [schools] where a connection to the water network exists.”
Parents disagree. The urgency for water transcends just water fountains, says Belem Librado Velázquez. Children need to be able to use the facilities, she says.
Librado Velázquez and her two sons, Kevin Quintero Librado, 13, and Daniel Quintero Librado, 7, live and study in the Iztapalapa delegation.
Daniel’s school doesn’t have consistent water, which makes it difficult for students to use the toilets, Librado Velázquez says. She makes sure her children use the bathroom each morning before they go to school.
On a few occasions, teachers at Kevin’s school recommended that students stay home because the bathrooms were unusable, Librado Velázquez says.
Both of her sons’ schools often have water delivered by truck, she says.
This is nothing new. Librado Velázquez, 36, moved to the delegation when she was 9 years old, and there have been water supply problems for some time.
Water is pumped into homes in her neighborhood through the public hydraulics network, but it isn’t consistent, Librado Velázquez says. She only receives water through her home’s pipes about one day a week. In order to deal with the shortages, she and her family now rely on water trucks. She spends 150 pesos ($8.55) on water once a week.
Children who attend schools that don’t have adequate water supplies risk their health, says Ronald Sawyer, executive director of Sarar Transformación, an organization that campaigns for greater water access and implements water and sanitation systems in Mexico. Plus, he says, they lose out on an opportunity to develop good sanitation habits.
“[It’s] very important that they have conditions that protect their health and physical integrity,” Sawyer says. “But also that they create certain standard levels that can be brought to their homes.”
For children who deal with dry water spouts and toilets that don’t flush, the issue comes down to fairness. Water is a necessity, says Carlos, the 7-year-old student.
“I think it’s unfair that there is no water in the schools and in the bathrooms, because water is needed,” he says.
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.