The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations (UN) member states in 2015 set out a framework for the next 15 years for the elimination of poverty, a reduction in climate change, and the creation of an inclusive and sustainable society for all [1
]. In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to water [2
]. SDG 6 is the dedicated water goal proposed within the SDG guiding policies, relating to access to clean water for all around the world. However, there are concerns about vulnerable populations who are at a higher risk than others of “being ‘left behind’ in terms of water” [3
] (p. 31), including Indigenous populations in Latin America. Estimates indicate that there are approximately 370 million Indigenous Peoples across 70 countries worldwide and that they account for around 5% of the global population [4
]. According to the UN, in terms of most indicators of wellbeing, including access to water supply and sanitation services, ICs are usually at a disadvantage as compared with non-Indigenous populations [3
]. In Latin America and the Caribbean, only 65% of the population has access to safely managed water supplies [5
], compared with 99% basic water coverage in Northern America [6
]. The situation is exacerbated in rural areas where eight out of ten people live without access to a basic service [6
]. In Mexico, access to piped water on premises differs between 97.2% in urban areas and 85% in rural areas [7
], and those most affected are Indigenous rural communities where 59.7% of the population lacks access to these basic services [8
Thus, in Latin America, the provision of universal access to water and sanitation under SDG 6 is proving challenging. Generally, water scarcity is driven by several environmental and socioeconomic factors [9
], as well as governance and water management policies that may lead to fragmentation of the water supply and distribution services [3
]. One way to narrow the gap in water access is through the development of low-cost technologies. However, technological innovation does not guarantee a solution to complex real-life challenges. There is abundant literature that has discussed the factors impacting the limited success of these innovations. Evidence suggests that the failure of effective systems and infrastructure installed to provide safe, quality water to households in rural communities in Latin America is attributed to a persistent use of unsafe water sources by the beneficiaries of such systems [10
]. Additionally, Brown and Pena [12
] found that the lack of success of technological innovations is impacted by a limited understanding of the motivations for their adoption or a lack of knowledge about the impact of these interventions in rural communities. In the same vein, Thurber et al. [13
] reported on how the sole assumption of health impact is not a sufficient motivation for the use and adoption of these technologies. The authors argue that redesigning the technologies according to an understanding of what users value beyond health would make them more likely to succeed [13
Transdisciplinary research (TDR) has emerged as one approach to understanding and addressing such ‘real-world’ challenges. This approach encourages the coproduction of knowledge and engages scientific and societal partners in a collaboration that challenges assumptions and privileges the demonstration of actual impact [14
]. TDR is increasingly being adopted in sustainable development research and, in particular, water-related challenges [16
]. Furthermore, in recent decades, changes in the development of business and marketing theories have placed value cocreation as an alternative to creating sustainability in the water sector [19
]. The dominant logic in marketing has evolved from the exchange of tangible goods to a service-dominant logic engaging with the cocreation of value [20
]. In this study, we would argue that typologies of value cocreation practices could be a useful way to better understand ICs in the context of addressing water-related challenges. In Mexico, for example, where 85% of rural areas have access to piped water, diarrhoeal disease is still the highest risk of death for children under five years of age [21
]. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 60% of all deaths caused by diarrhoea in low- and middle-income countries are attributable to unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene [22
]. Despite these facts, there has been scant research on both the water-related challenges faced by rural communities such as those presented in this study and what solutions best serve their needs.
In this paper, we describe the perceived water-related problems in three ICs in Chiapas, Mexico and how to address those issues. In these contexts, different funding bodies and organisations offer development interventions or low-cost technologies as viable solutions to the problem of access to safe water. These initiatives are usually implemented through local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with an established presence in the communities. However, while anecdotal evidence suggests positive outcomes, these organisations and sponsors also perceive a lack of changes in diarrhoeal disease, particularly in children. To understand the implications of low-cost technologies for safe water, we present the case study of three communities in Los Altos, Chiapas. Data were collected through focus groups with representatives from the three communities as well as other stakeholders, including government agencies, local authorities and NGOs engaged with these communities. To understand how the needs of the communities can be translated into practice, we relate the issues that emerged from the focus groups to existing frameworks of value cocreation practice in order to present a model of water as a service for ICs in Chiapas. The paper is structured as follows: after the Introduction, we describe the conceptual approach used and briefly relate this to water-related challenges impacting Indigenous Peoples. Then, we describe the case study setting and explain the methodology. This is followed by the findings in which the key issues impacting safe water access are presented, with potential solutions based on a customer value cocreation practice styles framework outlined in the discussion. Conclusions are presented in the final section.
3. Research Setting and Methods
Mexico is a federation of 32 states with a population of approximately 129 million people concentrated in urban areas [4
]. Despite the enormous economic growth and prosperity experienced in the country in recent decades, large portions of the population still live in poverty (46.2%), with the southern and southeastern areas being particularly affected by poverty and deprivation [35
]. The Mexican government has strived to resolve the precariousness caused by issues of water and sanitation and to provide universal coverage of those services. In 2012, the recognition of the citizens’ human rights to water and sanitation was incorporated into law through constitutional reform [36
]. The National Water Commission, known as CONAGUA by its initials in Spanish, is the decentralised agency of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources tasked with the mission of achieving sustainable use of the water resource and ensuring that Mexico as a nation has sufficient water in terms of both quantity and quality [37
]. In rural areas, water supply is the responsibility of water boards known as Juntas
. Through different mechanisms enabled by government legislation, the water boards share the responsibilities of water supply management with water committees. These are management divisions charged with managing sustainable development and community organisation initiatives [38
]. Government programmes such as Prossapys
(by its initials in Spanish) (Prossapys: Programa para la Sostenibilidad de los Servicios de Agua Potable y Saneamiento en Comunidades Rurales/Programme for the Construction and Rehabilitation of Drinking Water and Sanitation Systems in Rural Areas), with the aim of increasing water coverage in rural areas through the building of infrastructure, are overseen by CONAGUA [39
]. The State of Chiapas, in the southern region (Figure 2
), with over five million inhabitants, is the poorest state of Mexico and depends on exports of a few agricultural products, with no economic diversification [40
]. Chiapas is one of the Mexican states with the largest water resources, contributing 40% of the country’s total, [43
]; however, approximately 70% of its population do not have access to drinking water and sanitation, and only 26% of households are provided with piped water [44
]. The region has one of the highest Indigenous populations in the country, and it is the most affected in terms of provision of basic household services, including potable water [45
]. Furthermore, water sources are polluted as most of the wastewater remains untreated, and 30.6% of the population are at risk of gastrointestinal disease [44
In Chiapas, 27.94% of Indigenous people over 3 years old speak an Indigenous language. The most representative Indigenous groups in this region are of Maya ancestry and include the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch’ol, Zoque and Tojol’ab’al [40
]. The three Los Altos communities that are part of this study belong to the Tzeltal and Tzotzil groups, and they have been identified by the Chiapas Ministry of Health as being among the 30 poorest municipalities in the region, with high rates of the population falling into the lowest national wealth quintile [46
]. The main water sources in the area are streams accessed by communities through water committees or patronatos del agua
as part of the community-based management and supply system. Generally, the patronatos
are controlled by males, although recently some of them are starting to accept women among their ranks [47
]. Women are mainly responsible for the collection and management of water for domestic use [43
3.1. Data Collection
Original data for this study were collected in 2018 during a one-week training workshop held in Mexico as a key activity of a broader TDR programme between Ulster University (UU) in the UK, the University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil, the University of Medellín (UdeM) in Colombia, and two NGOs: Fundación Cántaro Azul (FCA) in Mexico and the Centre for Science and Technology of Antioquia/Centro de Ciencia y Tecnología de Antioquia (CTA) in Colombia. One of the priorities of this TDR programme is to enhance the social impact of water research through a meaningful involvement of stakeholders and end-users throughout the project lifespan. UU, together with the research partners, has designed a research strategy including local organisations, underserved end-users, and public and private agencies who are not only potential recipients of the knowledge generated by the programme but also participate actively in the coordination of project activities and the dissemination of findings. Since 2017, academics and researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, non-academic partners, stakeholders and local communities have worked on projects aimed at the development of low-cost technologies for safe drinking water, capacity building, the development of new networks and strengthening of existing ones, and the facilitation of cocreation processes, alongside local actors, who are adapted to the local realities.
Working in partnership with FCA (based in Chiapas, Mexico), the TDR programme has engaged rural communities in the development of low-cost water technologies. FCA has a track record in the implementation of water-related projects in harmony with international development practices. Using a wide range of participatory approaches, FCA involves community members in the management of local water treatment and water supply systems through tailor-made solutions consisting of water kiosks and low-cost household systems (e.g., La Mesita Azul/The Little Blue Table).
The three communities that participated in this study are located in the region of Los Altos where FCA operates (Figure 3
). Most of the Indigenous population in Chiapas is concentrated in the Los Altos, Norte and Selva regions [48
The case study method adopted in this research was influenced by two factors. First, this method allows for an in-depth exploration of real-life situations [49
], and second, it is suitable to answer questions related to the ‘how’ or ‘why’ that aim to identify key variables and associations. Consistent with this method, we have applied an established theoretical framework [50
] drawing on S-D logic theory [29
] to demonstrate how suitable value cocreation models can contribute to solutions to water-related challenges and sustainability. A series of qualitative methods were used to collect data, including focus groups, note taking during workshop activities, unobtrusive sources (e.g., websites, documents and presentations) and observations by the lead author of this paper.
The Logical Framework Approach (LFA), a valid methodology for the evaluation of complex projects [51
], was used to gather data in focus groups with ICs and key stakeholders. Specifically, the method of the ‘problem tree’ suggested by the LFA was favoured because it offers participants the freedom of using written or pictorial language. This method, applied in the focus groups with representatives from the ICs, as well as the use of interpreters was thought to be adequate in order to minimise the language barrier—participants spoke Indigenous languages (Tzotzil or Tzeltal) and the researchers Spanish and/or English. The focus groups held with ICs and other stakeholders were not recorded; researchers took comprehensive notes during these activities. Contents of all data from focus groups (with ICs and key stakeholders) were thoroughly read and grouped into evolving thematic categories that informed further work. A triangulation method of analysis was used to compare the information gathered from the different data sources [52
In keeping with Indigenous methodologies, issues of consent were managed, as recommended by Ellis and Early [53
] following the particular culture and traditions of the participants from the ICs. This study was considered not to meet the definition of ‘research’ according to the national Research Ethics Committees (REC) algorithm; therefore, it was exempted from a submission for ethical approval (the SAFEWATER project has been granted ethical approval by the Research Ethics Committee (REC) in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom (case number REC/18/0064), as well as site-specific ethics committees at Fundación Cántaro Azul (FCA) in Mexico and at the University of Medellín in Colombia). During the focus groups with ICs, written consent was evidently not a high priority for the participants; however, they opted for anonymity given that they were representing a collective (their own communities) and not their individual voices. Before commencing the activity, nonetheless, informed consent was obtained verbally by entering into a reciprocal partnership [53
] in which reciprocity was based on the understanding that both researchers and participants were engaging in a collaborative learning experience that could be of benefit for both. After the researchers reminded participants of the overall aim of the larger project and of the objectives of the focus group, everyone agreed to participate. Before commencing the activity, all present had an opportunity to briefly introduce themselves while sharing some snacks and refreshments brought by the researchers as a counterpart to the lunch offered to them by the participants once the interview was completed. This gesture was valued by the participants and served not only as an ice breaker, but also created an atmosphere of trust and respect within the group, also important in the conduct of research with Indigenous people [54
3.2. Focus Groups
3.2.1. Indigenous Communities (ICs)
FCA selected a purposive sample of three ICs from Los Altos, Chiapas to participate in a focus group discussion that lasted approximately four hours. This sampling method not only helped in the selection of participants with the specific characteristics that could provide useful information [55
], but also helped researchers in reducing the cultural and language barriers because the participants welcomed the intervention of FCA staff as interpreters. Also, the participants were put at ease when they met the researchers and found out that they were also natives of Latin America (Venezuela and Colombia). The 10 participants in the focus group consisted of a diverse group of representatives in terms of age, gender, roles and knowledge about the communities. All the participants were health promoters who had qualified through their participation in training programmes offered by FCA through its various water-related initiatives. One 52-year-old male participant was a member of the water board (patronato de agua
) in his community, and the female representative held a key role in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme in hers. The sample is described by age and gender in Table 1
The focus group took place in the training room of the health centre in one of the Indigenous communities; a venue that was familiar to all the participants. Using the problem tree method [51
], participants answered the general questions of ‘How do you perceive the water challenges in your area?’ and ‘Who is/are affected by these challenges? what are the effects?’.
3.2.2. Key Stakeholders
Participants purposively selected through contacts maintained by FCA were interviewed in a focus group. The participants were experts in their area that had a history of working alongside NGOs with the Indigenous communities in the implementation of social policy programmes and other initiatives, including water supply and sanitation. The focus group of approximately 90 min comprised 10 representatives from different agencies, including the public health authority (n =2), health and hygiene division (n = 1), water services (n = 3), water infrastructure (n = 2) and NGOs (n = 2). Other data were obtained through formal and informal conversations and unobtrusive methods.
3.3. Lead Author’s Observations
A native speaker of Spanish born and raised in Venezuela, the lead author has also lived for 26 years in a European country. Her appearance and ethnicity made it easier for her to blend into the research setting. Her mixed cultural background and an education in social research methods allowed her to approach the research with an open-ended view. From the onset of the training workshop, the lead author realised that an accurate representation of the culture and research setting was key in the context of the study; thus, the method of participant observation as suggested by DeWalt and DeWalt [56
] (p. 99) was used to gain a “holistic understanding of the phenomena under study.”
This study set out with the aim of exploring issues related to lack of access to safe drinking water in ICs in southern Mexico. Having acquired a holistic view of the problem, we suggest testing the applicability of McColl Kennedy et al.’s [29
] customer value cocreation practice styles (CVCPS) framework to the water service area (recall Figure 1
). The CVCPS framework offers mechanisms through which ICs (or other local communities or vulnerable groups), academics and researchers with diverse disciplinary backgrounds, as well as other key stakeholders (e.g., local authorities, government agencies, policy makers, NGOs, funders etc.) can cocreate value in practice, through activities and interactions amongst themselves and other collaborators. The advantage of this framework is that end-users or beneficiaries (i.e., customers) play a key role in these exchanges as they actively participate in the process and decision making.
In the applicability of the framework, not all the practice styles are transferable to the water setting and, given the different contexts (e.g., social, economic, political and environmental) considering the different rural communities, it is likely that other value cocreation styles may emerge. To make safe drinking water available and accessible under the assumption that the ICs display a team management CVCPS (a high level of activities and a high number of interactions with different actors or stakeholders), it is expected that they will engage in activities and interactions that can address the issues and difficulties causing the problem. Thus, to mitigate the impact of deforestation and pollution on the water sources, the development of a water quality monitoring strategy, as well as a strategy to halt deforestation, should be considered a priority. It is possible that legal regulations are already established to prevent deforestation and pollution, but they are not enforced. This implies identifying why the institutional structures are failing to reverse the presumed non-compliance. In order to do this, the ICs could be expected to engage in activities such as collating information, learning and connecting (e.g., with local authorities, policy makers and service providers), which, in turn, involves interactions with individuals from the same community and/or other communities, or with agencies from different sectors (i.e., public, private, voluntary or academic). Similarly, the communities can be expected to engage in coproduction activities such as the participation in the design, implementation and adoption processes of any clean water system that they deem to be appropriate. In order to do this, key aspects of the lifestyle and social world of the ICs, such as cultural mores, traditions and beliefs related to the value of water, should be central to the cocreating activities.
What can be done to overcome the challenges for the successful implementation of low-cost technologies in developing regions? Certainly, in terms of the provision of low-cost safe drinking water technologies in line with the SDG 6 for water and sanitation, there is more scope for the application of frameworks based on social science or social practice theory alongside the development, deployment and implementation of technological solutions. Scientists and water specialists can help with the provision of technical information, knowledge and expertise, while the social science professionals can delve into the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the issues at stake and complement and enhance the potential technical solution. However, any agencies or groups of stakeholders involved in water service provision in settings and contexts like the one described in our case study need to be cognizant that in this type of value cocreation process, the concerns, ideas, beliefs, knowledge and expertise of the vulnerable groups for whom the solutions are intended vary, and one size does not fit all.
Safe water provision in ICs constitutes an enormous challenge that has not been addressed adequately in the context of SDG 6 for water and sanitation. Based on how closely interlinked water is with sustainable development, innovative approaches to tackle this problem have become a priority. This study has addressed this issue and has used an existing framework for value cocreation practice styles that is useful in understanding how ICs can instigate innovative water service models. These value cocreation practice styles suggest that there is not a single solution for water challenges and that those interested in addressing these issues have to engage with the problem in different ways and consider the different values attached to water. The collected evidence from focus groups, observation, as well as the analysis of unobtrusive sources has demonstrated how ICs prioritise the spiritual, cultural, historical and environmental dimensions in their life. From a practical point of view, any organisation and agency delivering programmes or initiatives in these communities, as well as research funders of development initiatives, should consider carefully in the first instance, the culture, traditional knowledge and relationships built based on trust and mutual learning. Any initiative aimed at research addressing water-related challenges will be more likely to succeed when the experiences, knowledge and practices of the communities are valued and meaningfully incorporated into any solution. Having a holistic understanding of how water is viewed by these communities and its impact on their daily lives can break new ground, not only in reframing the solution to the complex problem of safe drinking water provision, but also in redefining approaches to development in ICs. Potential water service models in these contexts, focused on the provision of not just a product (that is, a technology for safe water) but a service, defined as “the application of one’s resources for the benefit of another entity” [26
] (p. 28) would generate enormous opportunities for societal and scientific partners to embark in meaningful and long-term partnerships, collaborations and programmes.
The qualitative approach adopted in this study and the methods used to collect data, particularly the ‘problem tree’ for focus groups, proved to be a very effective technique. This gave participants the opportunity to engage in discussion using written or pictorial language. Participants from the IC group valued the opportunity to engage in discussion with individuals from different communities and be able to learn about everyone’s problems and how they could be solved. Some of the participants commented on how they could take away this learning and apply the technique in discussion groups in their communities. Using a TDR approach, we have uncovered some of the real-life water-related problems that ICs can face and understood them from different perspectives. The learning of the deep rootedness of Indigenous culture with nature and the environment offers scientists the opportunity to embark on a capacity building journey enriched by other forms of wisdom and knowledge beyond that provided by scientific development and modernity, acknowledging, as Acosta has said, “the call to put technology at the service of life instead of capital accumulation” [58
] (p. 2607). Finally, the reader should bear in mind that the findings in this study are limited to a single study case; however, many other Indigenous Peoples in Mexico and across the region live in similar circumstances to these communities in Los Altos de Chiapas. Notwithstanding this limitation, the findings contribute to the literature of value cocreation with the applicability of a typology of value styles in the water service area.