The water crisis in Mexico City is worsening

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As one of the largest cities in the world, Mexico City faces constant challenges in securing water. Poor planning, urban expansion, and a hot, arid climate strain the water supply. A critical reservoir may soon be unable to provide water. A combination of factors, including climate change, urban growth, and inadequate infrastructure, has pushed the Mexican capital to the brink of a severe water crisis.

Mexico City, once a water-rich valley that was drained to make way for a sprawling urban area, now has a metropolitan population of 23 million people, making it one of the world’s top 10 most populous cities. However, it is also one of several major cities grappling with serious water scarcity, exacerbated by years of mismanagement and exacerbated by rainfall shortages.

The groundwater is rapidly depleting, and a crucial reservoir has reached such low levels that it can no longer supply water. Last year was Mexico’s hottest and driest in at least 70 years. Additionally, one of the city’s main water systems faces a potential “day zero” situation this summer, where water levels drop so low that it cannot provide any supply.

“We are suffering because the city is growing disproportionately, and we can’t stop it,” said 64-year-old Gabriel Martínez, who lives in an apartment complex struggling to receive water for its approximately 600 residents. “There aren’t enough resources.”

While Mexico City’s water problems are worsening, they are not new. Some neighborhoods have lacked clean water for years, but now even communities that had never experienced scarcity are suddenly dealing with it.

Experts warned nearly two decades ago about declining water supplies, but their efforts yielded few results. If the capital’s water network was already precarious back then, now “some parts of the system are falling apart,” said Manuel Perló Cohen, an urban planning researcher studying Mexico City’s water system.

Roberto Constantino Toto, a member of the steering committee of the Water Network at the Metropolitan Autonomous University, pointed out that Mexico is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water—an indication of the “failure of our water policy.”

The exceptionally dry conditions are the immediate cause of the city’s water woes. While Mexico has long been vulnerable to droughts, nearly 68% of the country now experiences moderate to extreme drought, according to the National Water Commission.

The Cutzamala water system—one of the world’s largest networks of dams, canals, and pipelines—supplies 27% of Mexico City’s water. However, it currently operates at a historic low of 30% of its normal capacity, as shown by official figures. Last year, it was at 38%, and in 2022, it remained at 45%.

Authorities have projected June 26 as a possible “day zero,” when the Cutzamala system could drop to its baseline of 20%, rendering it unable to supply water to Mexico City.

In one reservoir, water levels reached such lows that authorities canceled its use in April.

“The Miguel Alemán dam in Valle de Bravo, which is at historically low levels and stopped supplying water to Mexico City in April, is a sad sight,” said Juan Carlos Morán Costilla, a 52-year-old fisherman who lives next to the reserve, standing on the heat-cracked ground that used to be underwater.

Groundwater, which supplies most of the city’s water, is being extracted twice as fast as it can be replenished, experts say.

The city’s water supply, part of which comes from afar, flows through old pipes along a network more than 13,000 kilometers long that is vulnerable to earthquakes and subsidence, and where leaks have caused an estimated 35 percent water loss, more than what the Cutzamala system provides.

The water problem in the city has become a major issue in the elections to be held next month.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose delegates have assured that “day zero” will not happen, has insisted that his government is already addressing Mexico City’s water problems. He claimed that new wells are being dug, and that officials are working to end corruption related to water consumed by large industries. He has also proposed bringing more water from outside the city.

Claudia Sheinbaum, López Obrador’s protégée who resigned as head of government of Mexico City last year to become the presidential candidate leading the polls, has defended her government’s management of the water crisis.

She recently claimed that scientists could not have predicted the prolonged drought, and that, if elected president, she would present an ambitious plan to solve the problems.

Some parts of Mexico City have long been without enough drinking water, such as Iztapalapa, a working-class community and the most populous borough of the capital with 1.8 million inhabitants. Residents depend on tanker trucks, or “pipas,” from the borough to fill cisterns or water tanks in homes or buildings. If that is not enough, people pay for private trucks or, in extreme cases, illegally connect to drinking water pipes.

But as water has become scarcer, other parts of the city are facing increasing rationing, such as reduced flow or receiving water only for a few hours a day or certain days of the week. Water has been rationed in 284 localities this year, even in some wealthier places, compared to 147 in 2007.

“Boroughs that have never had that problem in their life are going to know what it really means to take care of water,” said Adriana Gutiérrez, 50, who manages and lives in a 154-unit apartment complex in Iztapalapa that depends on water tanker trucks. Residents treat every drop as precious and use shower water to clean their homes.

For 20 years, Dan Ortega Hernández, 50, never had problems with water in his barbershop in the Tlalpan borough of Mexico City. But in November, he said he turned on the tap and nothing came out. Now, when he gets water from the rationing plan, he fills a 1,100-liter tank and prays it will last until the next scheduled day for running water.

This is a more regular supply than at his home, located in another area of Tlalpan. He said that municipal tanker trucks used to arrive about every four days, but now they take longer, sometimes up to a month. Instead of using water at home, he washes the family’s clothes at a laundry near his shop.

“It is scary that we are running out of resources,” he said.

There is no evidence that the drought in Mexico is directly caused by climate change. However, the effects are exacerbated by rising temperatures.

The average temperature in Mexico City has increased by approximately 3 degrees Celsius over the last century, more than twice the global average. A 2020 study revealed that exceptionally hot days (above 30 degrees Celsius) have doubled in some parts of the city. This temperature rise can be attributed partly to climate change and partly to the exponential growth of the city, where concrete and asphalt have replaced trees and wetlands.

The most recent Water Stress Atlas, published by the World Resources Institute, categorizes Mexico City as facing “extremely high” water stress. As the country prepares for elections and the selection of a new president, water issues have been overshadowed by other topics like security and the economy. However, water scarcity remains a central concern in local elections, with candidates promising solutions.

Candidates pledge that water will reach all parts of the city, regardless of residents’ locations. They also vow to address water leaks that the current government has been unable to repair and propose a master plan to uncover buried rivers running through the capital.

Despite some progress, experts argue that the measures taken so far have not been aggressive enough and that others have been misdirected. While attention has focused on distant watersheds to meet Mexico City’s water needs, many of the city’s treatment plants operate below capacity. Additionally, untreated wastewater is often discharged into rivers and lakes, contaminating potential alternative water sources.

The estimated cost to tackle the water crisis could reach $13.5 billion, according to Mexico City’s Water System. Although the rainy season typically replenishes water systems from June to November, last year saw historically low rainfall levels in the capital.

The “day zero” warning issued by experts has become a contentious topic in Mexico City, used to criticize the ruling party, including President López Obrador and Mayor Sheinbaum. However, it has also raised public awareness of this increasingly deepening problem.

Fabiola Sosa Rodríguez, a water management and climate policy researcher, describes the situation as creating feelings of fear, anxiety, and concern. Lizbeth Martínez García, a resident in Iztapalapa, where weekly municipal water deliveries fill tanks for four families, expressed her fear about an even more water-scarce future.

Source: NY Times