Take Part in Protecting Border Agencies to Save Water, Money

The post-modern water reclamation agencies of the U.S.-Mexico border did themselves proud in the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City this past month of March, highlighting reasons they should not be wiped out, as some Treasury Department officials on both sides of the international boundary apparently would like.

Chief among the reasons for keeping the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) and its twin sister North American Development Bank (NADB) is that they have created a successful model motivating cross boundary public participation and professionalism in water cleanup to actually improve health and environment while saving taxpayers money.

The BECC and NADB were set up in order to get U.S. constituents” and legislators” approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994. The novel agencies” purpose of helping resolve the water and sanitation problems free trade aggravates on the U.S.-Mexico border helped entice southwestern lawmakers to vote for NAFTA.

The NADB is a pioneer lending institution that finances and otherwise supports environmental infrastructure for the border region”s 14 million people. The United States and Mexico each pitch in half of the bank”s capital.

The BECC”s directive is to work with communities to build transparency, accountability, consensus, and skills broad enough to merit certification of infrastructure projects as sustainable and eligible for NADB or other backing. The commission has certified 105 projects.

The institutions originally were mandated to help develop water projects within 100 kilometers on either side of the border. Following a business process review by Treasury, in 2001 lawmakers extended their operational area to 300 kilometers on the Mexican side and allowed the NADB to issue below-market-rate loans as well as grants to increase the number of projects in its portfolio.

Working with BECC, NADB has doled out US$704 million in loans and grants for 90 projects with an overall value of US$2.4 billion on both sides of the border. Sewage systems, landfills, and roads are the kind of things they have to show for it.

But rather than providing efficient or enthusiastic support, both the U.S. and Mexican Treasury departments have dragged their figurative little feet. They held back money, and then casino they threatened to close the bank, which would in turn mean certain death for the commission.

Perhaps if not for a handful of courageous U.S. Congress people, who demanded a meeting with their treasury officials in March, the whole structure might have dissolved right in the middle of the World Water Forum.

The U.S. Treasury Department was complaining that NADB”s administrative expenses have mounted to US$60 million while it has only made loans to the tune of US$24 million during its 12 years of existence.

But eight southwestern members of the U.S. Congress in effect said, "Whoa Pardner." In a March 3 letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, they insisted, "There remains too much work to be done along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the focus of the organization and your department should be on how to further improve the NADB and not how to dissolve it." Four U.S. Senators sent a similar letter to Snow on March 9.

In fact, the NADB is on the verge of some major efforts: It is currently processing US$100 million worth of new loans for 10 approved projects in Mexico. It has another 59 projects under development. Plus, the bank anticipates demands for up to US$20 billion for new border environmental infrastructure.

But what Treasury Department authorities in the nations” capitals really need to understand is that BECC and NADB aren”t simply in the business of loans, rather in consulting to enable low income communities” water managers to enter the ring with the public”s consensus, the staff capability, and the freedom from political alliances to run operations attractive to rate payers, private loan financing, and other sources of support.

What the Treasury Departments need to know is that here, at the ever more urbanized and industrialized hemispheric interface of the so-called "First" and "Third World," some 7 million residents still are without municipal sewage service, 2.9 million don”t even have wastewater drainage systems at their homes, and 400,000 lack potable water connections.

It looks like this time around, lawmakers have forestalled the demise of one of the few institutions that encourage civil society participation in cross border policymaking to meet these challenges. But it is imperative to keep on top of the situation. As they say on the border, "If you get rid of the NADB and BECC you just get rid of the solution: You still have the problem."



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