Mexico City, on the verge of a severe water crisis

Mexico City, on the verge of a severe water crisis
Mexico City, on the verge of a severe water crisis

Residents of the Benito Juárez mayor’s office in Mexico City closed a street in April to protest water quality (Credit: New York Times)

A confluence of factors such as climate change, urban expansion and poor infrastructure has brought Mexico City to the brink of a severe water crisis.

Groundwater is being depleted rapidly. One major reservoir has levels so low that it is no longer used to supply water. Last year was Mexico’s hottest and driest in at least 70 years. And one of the city’s main water systems faces a potential “day zero” situation this summer, in which levels drop so low that it cannot supply water either.

“We are suffering from the fact that the city is growing excessively and cannot be stopped,” he said. Gabriel Martinez, 64, who lives in an apartment complex that has problems receiving water for its nearly 600 residents. “There are not enough resources.”

Mexico City, which used to be a water-rich valley that was drained to make way for a huge urban area, has a metropolitan population of 23 million, placing it among the 10 most populous cities in the world, a large increase compared to 15 million inhabitants in 1990. It is one of several major cities facing severe water shortages, including Cape Town; São Paulo, Brazil; and Chennai, India. Many are the result of years of poor water management, aggravated by low rainfall.

And although Mexico City’s problems are worsening, they are not recent. Some neighborhoods have lacked drinking water for yearsbut today, communities that have never experienced shortages are suddenly dealing with this situation.

Experts warned nearly two decades ago about dwindling water supplies, but got little results. If back then the capital’s water network was already in a precarious situation, now “some parts of the system are falling apart,” he said. Manuel Perló Cohenan urban planning researcher who studies Mexico City’s water system.

“Mexico is the main economy in the world that consumes the most bottled water”he asserted Roberto Constantino Toto, member of the steering committee of the Water Network of the Metropolitan Autonomous University. He added that this is a reflection of the “failure of our water policy.”

Exceptionally dry conditions are the immediate cause of the city’s difficult water situation. Mexico has long been vulnerable to drought, but nearly 68 percent of the country suffers from moderate or extreme drought, according to the National Water Commission.

The water system Cutzamala — one of the world’s largest networks of dams, canals and pipelines that supplies 27 percent of the capital’s water — is at a record low of 30 percent of its normal capacity, official figures show. At the same time last year, it was at 38 percent, and in 2022 it remained at 45 percent.

Authorities have projected June 26 as the possible “day zero,” in which the Cutzamala system could fall to the 20 percent baseline where it could no longer be used to supply water to Mexico City.

Workers clean pipes in Mexico City. The city’s water infrastructure is considered to be in poor condition (Credit: New York Times)

In one of the reserves the water level reached such low levels that authorities canceled its use in April.

“It’s sad,” he said. Juan Carlos Morán Costillaa 52-year-old fisherman who lives next to the reserve, while 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 said.

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

The city’s water problem 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 their government is already addressing Mexico City’s water problems. He stated 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 in more water from outside the city.

Claudia Sheinbaumthe López Obrador protégé who resigned as Mexico City’s mayor last year to become the leading presidential candidate in the polls, has defended her government’s handling of the water crisis.

The Miguel Alemán Dam in Valle de Bravo, which is at historically low levels and stopped supplying water to Mexico City, in April (Credit: New York Times)

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

The National Water Commission did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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

But as water has become more scarce, other parts of the city are facing increasing rationing, such as reduced flow or receiving water only during certain hours of the day or certain days of the week. Water has been rationed in 284 locations this year, including in some better-off places, compared to 147 in 2007.

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

For 20 years, Dan Ortega Hernandez, 50, never had problems with water in his barbershop in the Tlalpan mayor’s office, in Mexico City. But in November, she said she turned on the faucet and nothing came out. Now, when she gets water from the rationing scheme, she fills a 1,100-litre tank and prays it will last until the next day she is scheduled to receive tap water.

An apartment building in Iztapalapa that relies on water pipes receives a delivery (Credit: New York Times)

This is a more regular supply than in his house, located in another area of ​​Tlalpan. He said municipal tankers 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 laundromat near his store.

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

There is no evidence that the drought in Mexico is due to climate change. But the effects are worsened by increasingly high temperatures.

Mexico City’s average temperature has risen about 3 degrees Celsius in the last century, more than double the global average. According to a 2020 study, exceptionally hot days (over 30 degrees Celsius) have doubled in some parts of the city. This could be partly due to climate change and partly due to the city’s exponential growth; concrete and asphalt have replaced trees and wetlands.

The heat worsens the water crisis: people need more water and it evaporates more.

María Blandina, 56, saves all the water she can in small containers and buckets (Credit: New York Times)

The most recent Water Stress Atlas, published by the World Resources Institute, describes Mexico City as facing “extremely high” water stress, its highest category.

As Mexico prepares to go to the polls and elect a new president, Water problems have been largely overshadowed by other issues, such as insecurity and the economy. However, water has been a central issue in the mayoral races and candidates have promised to resolve the crisis.

Water will reach the entire city, regardless of where people live, said one candidate. The water leaks that the ruling party has been unable to repair will be fixed, another proclaimed. A master plan will be launched, a third added, to unearth the buried rivers that run through the capital.

“Now everyone says: ‘Yes, I’m going to solve the water problem,’” Perló said. “But I have heard this story many times.”

Some progress has been made. A massive $2 billion tunnel was opened in 2019 to carry wastewater from Mexico City to a distant water treatment plant. A program to collect unused rainwater was launched in some poorer neighborhoods. A small section of Lake Texcoco, largely drained to build the city, was restored. More wells and aquifers are being explored.

But several experts said the measures taken so far have not been aggressive enough and that others were poorly targeted.

Children help fill barrels for their neighborhood’s weekly water truck delivery (Credit: New York Times)

Most of the attention of municipal and national governments has been focused on searching for distant watersheds that supply other Mexican states to satisfy Mexico City’s need for water. But most of the city’s treatment plants are not operating at full capacity. Many leave wastewater untreated and then dump it into rivers or lakes, contaminating what could be alternative water sources.

The estimated cost to address the water crisis could reach up to 13.5 billion dollarsaccording to the Mexico City Water System.

The rainy season, which typically occurs from June to November, would usually help replenish Mexico City’s water systems. But the capital experienced record low levels of sedimentation during last year’s rainy season.

The “day zero” warning made by some experts has been a hot topic in Mexico City, used to criticize the ruling party, which includes López Obrador and Sheinbaum. But it has also helped draw public attention to this deepening problem.

Earth cracked by the heat that used to be underwater in Valle de Bravo (Credit: New York Times)

“It creates this feeling of fear, anxiety, and worry,” said Fabiola Sosa Rodríguez, a researcher in water management and climate policies.

Lizbeth Martínez García26, who lives in a hillside community in Iztapalapa where a weekly municipal water truck fills the tanks that supply the four families in his building, said he had asked the man in charge of delivering water about the future.

Martínez García said that the man had responded that even less water was predicted in the future.

“We are afraid”he claimed.

© The New York Times 2024

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