How journalists from Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico fight opacity and disinformation to cover the water crisis

When journalists Jennifer González and Alejandro Melgoza, from N+ Focus, the investigative journalism unit of the Mexican network Televisa, made the multimedia special ““Ciudad sin agua, un pueblo contra el gigante de concreto” (City without water, a town against the concrete giant) they realized the extent to which water concessions in Mexico City benefit private companies despite that fact that national laws say the resource is a public good.

The special, published in May 2023 and winner this year of the Ortega y Gasset Award in the category of Best Multimedia Coverage, tells the struggle of the inhabitants of Xoco, a pre-colonial enclave within Mexico City that in recent years has been cornered by a real estate complex of skyscrapers and shopping centers that has monopolized the water and other natural resources of the area.

The water concession system in Mexico is designed so that only those with the most economic resources can extract and manage water, González told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). This has caused the concessions to be monopolized by industries such as real estate, food and beverage, among others.

“The legislation is made so that water is managed like this,” González said. “These reserves of power are being generated through the management of water, when it is supposed to be an asset of the nation and uses should be prioritized so that we have food, for human and domestic use.”

Screenshot of N+ Focus' multimedia report "City without water, a town against the concrete giant".

The N+ Focus multimedia report was published in May 2023 and won the Ortega y Gasset Award in the category of Best Multimedia Coverage. (Photo: Screenshot from the N+ Focus website)



For journalists, these conditions imply multiple obstacles to accessing information, the reporter said. To carry out its investigation, the N+ Focus team requested data from various public agencies regarding water consumption through the Mexican Transparency and Access to Information Law.

In several cases, the institutions responded that they could not provide certain information because it was protected by tax secrecy, because it involved private entities. And the real estate complex investigated in the report is owned by a trust managed by banking institutions.

“The fact that water, resources and territory are managed as private goods is closing us off from access to information that should be public,” González said. “I think it is an obstacle that will increasingly arise in investigations like this.”

Just like González and Melgoza, other journalists who have carried out investigations related to the water crisis in Latin America have faced obstacles accessing information, either due to the opacity of authorities or deficient transparency systems. Likewise, they have had to deal with increasingly prevalent disinformation on issues related to climate change.

Environmental journalist Iván Paredes, from Bolivia, also constantly faces barriers accessing information in his investigations into the water crisis and other natural resources. Paredes said that the transparency mechanisms in his country are very limited and inefficient. The authorities, he said, normally respond after they see the journalistic work published, and normally it is to ask for the right of reply.

“One can appeal [to the environmental authorities] verbally, by call, or look for the authority to have information, send an official request by letter, email... and generally they do not respond,” Paredes told LJR. “You publish the article and say that an attempt was made to get a response from such an authority and they did not answer. That authority looks for the media asking for the right of reply because the issue affected them. They have just given you data that perhaps could have enriched or put that balance in the article, but there is now a void.”

But Paredes, who in March of this year published the reporting piece “Estrategias para la vida: comunidades indígenas en la Amazonía boliviana luchan contra las sequías e inundaciones” (Strategies for life: Indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon fight against droughts and floods) in the digital media outlet Mongabay Latam, has found a strategy that makes access to public information a little easier: holding working breakfasts with authorities from the Ministry of the Environment.

In these meetings, he said, he can present to officials the topics he’s going to work on to see if they can provide information on them.

“We do not make any agreement, but at least we give them a work plan so that these Ministry authorities can provide access to public information,” he said. “That access to public information should be part of our job and part of their job.”

Debunking disinformation about water

Disinformation and misinformation about climate change are already widespread problems around the world and have become major obstacles in the fight against the climate crisis, according to the global coalition Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD).

In Latin America, some politicians and their supporters have been identified in recent years as being responsible for spreading misinformation about the climate emergency, according to the study “Misinforming Latin America: narrative analysis of extreme weather in Brazil, Chile and Peru,” prepared in 2023 by CAAD and other organizations.

“They try to disinform, blaming, in this case here in Bolivia, capitalism, the United States, European countries, that they are to blame for this crisis and that because of them we are in trouble,” Paredes said. “We [journalists] try to show that this is not the case. With our work we are showing that climate change is a factor to which all of us have contributed, a lot or a little.”

The journalist said that in his reporting he seeks to show that there are factors driven by governments, such as industrialization and some public policies, that also contribute to aggravating the effects of climate change on water.

“We must go to the place and show and confirm that we are in a climate change that is advancing by leaps and bounds, show stories of how people do not have water, stories of how people are consuming river water and how those people are getting sick from cholera, show that these people suffer from the drought,” Paredes said. “This is not only the fault of climate change, there must be prevention policies before any phenomenon occurs.”

Insufficient information can also contribute to the emergence of disinformation on the topic of water.

Journalist Edwin Caicedo, from the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, noted that there was very little coverage of the páramos, high mountain ecosystems that in that country are located mainly in the Andean mountains. This is the case despite the fact that recently there have been controversies about the threat suffered by these ecosystems due to the expansion of industries such as mining and livestock.

For this reason, Caicedo proposed a special to his newsroom on the páramos and the importance they have for the water consumed by millions of Colombians. This is how the multimedia report ““Páramos: altas temperaturas y depredación aceleran su muerte” (Parámos: high temperatures and pillaging accelerate their death) emerged and was published in 2023.

“More and more people know that [páramos] are important, but many people don't know about them, there are many myths around them,” Caicedo told LJR. “We are all overshadowed by what is happening in the Amazon […] but we are not just jungle, we are also páramos, and caring for the Andes is key and this is something that is not being paid enough attention in the country today.”

According to Caicedo, the article managed to debunk some myths about the páramos and the impact that the increase in the planet's temperatures could have on their ability to provide water for Colombians.

Advantages of long-term and long-form reporting

The journalists consulted agreed that long-term and long-form reporting is necessary in coverage of the water crisis and other environmental issues. This is not only because it allows environmental issues to be explored in greater depth, but also because coverage of these issues requires consulting documents that normally take a long time to access.

“This type of work in some way forces you to do long-term reporting, given the times that the authority imposes on you when you want to get, via appeals, documents through [the laws of] transparency,” Melgoza told LJR. The journalist added that, more than a year after the publication of his article, some agencies are just now responding to his requests for access to information.

For her part, González said that the long-form format offers the opportunity to explain the water crisis on a large scale, and not just as isolated cases.

“In order to understand the systemic part and the complex part, I think it has to be done with work of this type, medium- and long-term,” she said. “I think there has to be daily coverage. Without that coverage, work like this would not exist either, but I think it can be done at both speeds, it is very necessary for the analytical part and even public policy.”

But long-term reporting also has disadvantages. One is the high costs that they sometimes represent, both economic and in terms of human resources, even for large media outlets like El Tiempo, Caicedo said. This is, in part, because the water issue requires journalists to travel to different regions to report, the journalist added.

“The journalism that we do specifically has a lot to do with going to places, knowing what is happening there to be able to report it,” Caicedo said. “They were quite extensive discussions on issues of resources and availability of journalists, because an editor allows a journalist to go away for a week to explore a páramo. But in the team we were five or six people, and we went several times to various páramos.”

However, Caicedo said that it is worth investing time and resources in long-term work on environmental issues due to the impact that the format can have. The El Tiempo article was recognized with the Ángela Restrepo Moreno Climate Change Journalism Award, from the government of Antioquia; and with the 2023 Lazos Sustainability Awards, from Cámara de Comercio Colombo Británica.

“The special showed how environmental and scientific coverage can generate strong impacts regarding the issues of biodiversity protection,” he said. “The impacts that this specific special had were very great and that shows the relevance that [long-term reporting] can have compared to other products.”

5 tips to better cover the water crisis

Journalists consulted for this article shared some strategies that others can put into practice to improve their reporting on water.

  1. Hyperspecialization is essential

Less than 2 percent of monthly news stories from media in Latin America and the Caribbean address climate change, according to a 2023 study. For this reason, Paredes believes that journalists who cover the environment should specialize as much as possible on the subject.

“[Environmental journalists] have to learn a lot about what has to be done. The environmental issue is very complex because it has several themes,” Paredes said. “There are very few journalists in Bolivia who do environmental coverage. That is why you have to read a lot about what is done abroad, how data management is done on environmental issues.”

  1. Scientists are allies

On environmental issues such as the water crisis, the support of scientists or academics who are experts on the subject is essential for good reporting, the journalists agreed. According to Paredes, scientists help guide the journalist on the subject, serve as an expert voice in the reports, and even open the way to new topics to explore.

“What I do is contact university professors specializing in water and hydrological resources,” he said. “They feed your work with their positions and the data they handle. They give prestige to your reporting because you have a more expert voice so that the population can fully understand what you are writing.”

Caicedo said that for his special on the Colombian páramos, they consulted about 30 experts on the national and international ecosystems. That, he said, managed to give greater credibility to the work and made it more solid.

“Including their presence in the articles is key for us because without them we cannot talk about science issues. Science is done by scientists, period,” Caicedo said. “It is a rule of thumb that if we are going to talk about a scientific topic, there must be two or three scientific sources that support or address what we are saying.”

  1. Authorities can be of help

Working with authorities related to the environment can facilitate access to protected areas to do field work and manage support on security issues, according to Paredes.

Caicedo agreed and said that for the field work for his article, his team had support from the National Natural Parks System of Colombia.

  1. Put a face to the crisis

Coverage of the water crisis must portray how it affects the lives of communities, according to the journalists consulted.

“The objective as journalists is to go to the communities and show how [the affected populations] live, experience it with them, be with those people who suffer from access to water,” Paredes said.

In their field work, González and Melgoza collected multiple testimonies from families who shared how the construction of the real estate complex was affecting their lives, their health and their finances.

“Those who can best show you how and who this water availability crisis impacts are the communities and people who are suffering from it,” González said. “It doesn't mean that you only take what they tell you or that you believe them without verifying, but I think that one of the first steps is always to listen to them and go to the field to see with your own eyes how that affects them.”

  1. The legal context is important

In matters of exploitation of natural resources, it is very helpful to know the laws in this regard to understand the legal basis of the problem, Melgoza said.

“There is no way to work on these types of investigations without understanding the legal framework very well, because the legal framework allows us to understand a system,” he said. “It is important to have a complete context of the legal frameworks, to have initiative to understand the law around the subject, to study it to the extent possible.”

It was because the N+ Focus team understood the legal framework around water concessions in Mexico City that they knew they had to take their investigation to administrative justice courts, and not just criminal justice courts.

“Go and report on the administrative justice courts, not everything is criminal. Fines for large companies, big businessmen are decided in administrative courts. Major cases of corruption due to granting water permits to favor a company are decided in administrative courts,” Melgoza said. “Even if it seems boring, you have to do it. I would say that it is mandatory for the complexity of systemic issues.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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