Water Futures: Solar Electricity, Transnational Collaboration, and Infrastructural Possibilities in Rural Michoacán

Gina Hakim, University of California, Irvine

Email: ghakim@uci.edu

In the rancho of Urequío in the highlands of northern Michoacán, municipal investment in public works has drastically increased in recent years, replacing the reliance on remittances sent by migrants from the U.S.A. to build and repair infrastructure projects.[1] In recent months, the municipal government installed solar panels in Urequío to replace a potable water pump connected to electrical grid, promising financial savings to residents and a more reliable energy source. The response to solar electricity by residents and migrants alike, and the consensus of its perceived failure, draws attention to transnational attachments to water, and the forms of environmental stewardship that the clean energy transition makes possible and potentially forecloses.

                        Figure 1 The structure housing the solar panels and water pump. Photo by Gina Hakim.

Prior to 1994, Urequío’s residents relied on various springs and watering holes, where women and girls collected water in clay pitchers to bring back home. In 1994, piped water infrastructure was constructed following a period of contestation with local landowners and state government officials which one resident described as a “time of revolution.” The construction coincided with a period of vast outmigration to the U.S.A, in part as a result of the amnesty provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Wilmington, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, had been a destination for migrants from Urequío since the 1960s due to a thriving tuna canning industry. By 1994, Wilmington hosted approximately half of Urequío’s population, who sent remittances to fund the water project. In subsequent years, a declining water table necessitated the construction on an additional well which required a pump to bring water to the surface. Connected to the electrical grid, over time the costs of its operation became increasingly exorbitant.

In response, in December 2022, the replacement of this pump with municipal-funded solar panels was celebrated in an inauguration ceremony. At the time, residents were promised that they would see their electrical costs cut by 90%. However, by August 2023, costs had once again soared. A private solar panels salesperson was contracted to diagnose the cause and found issues with the cabling and recommended installing additional panels and the purchase of batteries to function as a reserve. The cost for the alterations would be absorbed by residents of Urequío, potentially forcing residents to raise tens of thousands of pesos in a region where daily wages can be as low as 200 pesos.

Whereas residents had initially expressed relative ambivalence to the promise of solar energy (Appel, Anand & Gupta 2018), discussing it primarily as an economic endeavor and one with uncertain results, its malfunction has squashed interest in the possibility of scaling up the project and installing panels at other pumps. For migrants, returning to Urequío in growing numbers to retire, potable water access continues to signify their contributions to their community of origin. These sentiments – ambivalence and disappointment, investment and care – have come to mediate practices of environmental stewardship in the aftermath of the perceived failure of solar electricity. In particular, this has coalesced around the restoration of traditionally used watering holes that have been neglected since the construction of the potable water system. El llano, one such well, had for decades gone unused and filled with debris, until a resident whose home it borders attempted to permanently seal it. This resulted in an immediate response by neighbors, who collaborated with the U.S.A-based owners of the homes on the street to raise funds to clean the well and revive it as a public space. Videos of the restoration circulated widely on social media. I played these videos for a migrant living in Wilmington, who had expressed a deep sense of environmental grief (Albrecht et al. 2007; Cunsolo & Landman 2017; Rodríguez Aguilera 2022) at the changes he saw in Urequío’s environment on his trips back, including the shortening of the wet season. For him, the “saving” of el llano marked an act of conservation.

Figure 3. The restored well (el llano). Photo by Gina Hakim.

Conversations have been animated by the possibility of restoring other watering holes, though the costs would be significant due to the level of debris present and are not anticipated to be shared by the municipal government. If successful, these restoration projects would mark a continuation of the types of collaborations between residents and migrants that led to the construction of the potable water project of 1994, and their joint efforts to understand and address interconnected ecological, environmental, and technological challenges.

Increasing investments by governments in clean energy sources have the potential not only of shifting communities away from fossil fuel sources when successfully implemented, but in supporting communities’ visions and efforts towards environmental stewardship in its myriad forms. While the hopes for Urequío’s water future are not necessarily oppositional to an expansion of solar electricity, they illuminate other aspirations towards an infrastructural connectivity (Ojani 2023) rooted in past experiences of water management and procurement. Attending to these exchanges and to the alternative ways that communities steward their environments has the potential of expanding the understanding of the imaginaries and frictions of climate change mitigation and the energy transition. 

Acknowledgements: This research was made possible by a Wenner-Gren Foundation Fieldwork Grant.


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[1] This is due in part to constitutional reforms aimed at decentralizing public services and charging their responsibility to municipalities. In the period between 1990 and 2014, the revenue of the municipality of Panindícuaro – to which Urequío belongs – increased by 1425.1% (Morán Figueroa & Ayvar Campos 2020).

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