Mexico City’s 21 million residents are facing a severe water shortage

MEXICO CITY – North America’s most populous city is in the grip of a serious water crisis, as persistent drought and years of little rain push the already stressed system that supplies Mexico City with running water to its limits.

More than 21 million residents in the Mexico City metropolitan area have suffered water shortages for weeks, with local authorities imposing rations as water reservoirs reached record low levels.

Olga González, a 50-year-old housewife who lives near Coyoacán, says local officials are using tanker trucks to provide running water to residents in the area, but there is simply not enough.

“Sometimes it takes four to five days for the trucks to arrive,” says González.

People fill buckets with water from a water tanker in Mexico City's Azcapotzalco neighborhood on January 26, 2024. (Henry Romero / Reuters)

People fill buckets with water from a water tanker in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco neighborhood on January 26, 2024. (Henry Romero / Reuters)

Due to the shortage, González has to make do as much as possible with the little water that is available.

“I recycle the water. I take a shower and collect the water to use in the toilet,” she said. “And the same goes for the washing machine. I recycle the water from the washing program for use in the toilet.”

She added that she also has to buy drinking water from the store because the water supplied by the city is too dirty and chlorinated for consumption.

In Mexico City’s Tlalpan neighborhood, Nancy Cabrera Cepeda, a 40-year-old office worker, said local authorities typically provide residents with water only once a week.

“We have a tank and when the water arrives it fills up, but generally we don’t have a water supply,” she said.

The shortages have unfortunately become all too familiar to residents of Mexico City, where poorly planned urban development, inadequate infrastructure, and the area’s unique history and geography are all taking a crucial toll on the region’s water system.

In recent years, droughts intensified by climate change have exacerbated these ongoing challenges.

“Last year we were without water for two months,” said Estela Hernández Villa, a 42-year-old merchant living in the Iztapalapa district. “There are areas that will be without water for even longer.”

Darío Solano-Rojas, an associate professor in the department of earth sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said it is unlikely that the entire city will run out of water – a milestone known as “day zero” – but that the The coming months are likely to prove challenging.

“If I run out of water, it’s day zero for me,” Solano-Rojas said. “These kinds of things have been happening for a while.”

The region’s complicated relationship with water is as old as the city itself. Mexico City sits atop a former high-altitude lakebed that was drained in the 16th century after the Spanish conquered the area.

As a result, the city’s main water source comes from pumping underground aquifers and channelizing a network of canals, dams and reservoirs that make up the Cutzamala system.

About 70% of Mexico City’s water is pumped from underground, while the Cutzamala system supplies the remaining 30% to the Mexico City metropolitan area and the nearby Toluca Valley, Solano-Rojas said.

But the underground aquifers are coming under pressure as the city rapidly expands, and years of overuse are causing the ground to sink, a process known as subsidence.

A 2021 study co-authored by Solano-Rojas and published in the journal JGR Solid Earth found that groundwater extraction has caused the city to sink at a rate of about 50 centimeters per year since 1950.

“The city has grown enormously,” he says. “We have other water sources, but we still draw water from underground, so subsidence continues and it is a problem that has not stopped since the construction of the great pyramids in the city’s pre-Hispanic history.”

Local infrastructure has also not kept pace with the speed at which Mexico City is growing, Solano-Rojas says. Authorities have been scrambling to repair leaks and replace aging pipes to strengthen the region’s water system.

All these issues are major challenges in themselves, but Solano-Rojas said climate change is exacerbating the water crisis as the region suffers persistent drought.

According to a recent report from Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua), the country as a whole has been warmer and drier than normal. The agency found that last month was the warmest January on record, with average temperatures 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal for the month.

Higher temperatures and lower precipitation in central Mexico mean fewer opportunities to replenish the aquifers and dams that feed the Cutzamala system.

“In Mexico City we are not ready to respond so quickly because the drought is causing problems,” Solano-Rojas said.

All these tensions together make it difficult for the city to provide enough water for human consumption, industrial activities and agriculture.

Many neighborhoods are feeling the brunt of the shortage.

“In the case of Iztapalapa, water scarcity has always been a major problem,” said Mariano Salazar, a 69-year-old community leader in the district. “We have almost 2 million inhabitants in this municipality and we need 100 million cubic meters of water per year.”

Frustrations about the situation have led to unrest. Last month, protesters in the municipality of Acambay forced open the gate of an office of Mexico’s National Water Commission and broke windows, Reuters reported.

Local authorities have urged residents to conserve water and prioritize what’s available for drinking, especially as temperatures hover around 85 degrees Fahrenheit this week.

For many, like Hernández Villa in Iztapalapa, the shortage has brought great daily sacrifices.

“We try to wash our clothes as little as possible, we don’t use the shower anymore,” she said. “We have to leave the water in containers and bathe in pots to save as much as possible. We want the little water we collect to last a little longer.”

Denise Chow reported from New York City and Albinson Linares from Mexico City.

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