Mexico City's Growing Water Crisis
By Dominique Lear
April 6, 2019
THERE ARE TWO seasons in Mexico City every year: the rainy and the dry season. Between April and September, rain falls on the metropolis every afternoon. Usually, the rains are torrential; when a storm is at its worst, hail plummets from the sky, followed by several inches of relentless downpour. By dinner time, the rains decrease to a gentle spatter, and our colossal capital, woefully and surprisingly unfit to handle this volume of water, is left to navigate the resulting floods.
After October, the city typically sees no rain for about six months. Though recent years have seen an odd rain storm in the off-season, the capital’s typically lush vegetation begins to wither over the winter, losing its characteristic green shine. And, along with the dry weather, the seasonal panicked statements about the city’s ability to continue to provide water to its more than 25 million inhabitants begin.
But unlike other cities like Cape Town and Los Angeles that face a water-related “day zero” and can count the days until the region’s water supplies will wither, Mexico City faces running out of water not because of drought, but because of the severe mismanagement of an otherwise bountiful resource.
On October 31st of 2018, the national water management group cut off the city’s water supply, with the stated intention of fixing the capital’s leaky water system over the course of two days. Baptized the megacorte or “megacut” by meme-friendly chilangos, the 2018 water outage was the biggest ever seen in the city. The outage lasted 150 hours, which was over 100 hours longer than was initially announced, and out of the sixteen delegations in the city, thirteen were affected; four saw their water supply completely shut off, while the remaining nine experienced partial outages. Water service did not return to a normal operating capacity across the city until November 11th.
The megacorte of 2018 was a necessary part of maintenance operations across the Cutzamala water system, which provides 26% of the city’s water; CONAGUA, Mexico’s national commission for water, needed to repair leakages across the system. But leakages were merely an excuse to initiate the outage—the water commission had the primary goal of installing a secondary line, attached to the first with a K-shaped pipe, which would allow CONAGUA to provide maintenance to the system in the future without cutting off the city’s water supply.
The Cutzamala system is one of the biggest water management systems in the world. Responsible for extracting water from the neighboring Estado de Mexico, Cutzamala is a high-pressure water system that has run essentially unimpeded since it was inaugurated 36 years ago. The system collects and stores water across seven dams located outside of Mexico City. It purifies the water and pumps it 1,100 meters above sea level through one of the six pumps in the capital’s outskirts, to then distribute it across the vast sprawl of the metropolis. The entire system runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and consumes more than 2,280 million kilowatts of electricity—more than the city of Puebla consumes per hour.
Historically, the distribution of water across Mexico City has been a challenge. In its origins as the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which was built over a lake, spring water was transported across the city from the Southernmost regions using an elaborate system of aqueducts that relied on the region’s natural gradation to transport water. After their conquest over the Aztecs, the Spanish worked to recreate and expand the aqueducts. The city continued to rely on spring water until the nineteenth century, when subterranean artesian wells were discovered.
Through first half of the twentieth century, the city took advantage of the natural pressure of aquifers in the region and began draining these, as well as working to drain other aquifers artificially. The subsequent change in pressure across Mexico’s foundation has resulted in the city’s “sinking,” which has in turn caused extensive damage across the capital’s infrastructure. The damage is particularly concerning in the city’s historic center—the main cathedral in the Zócalo descends unevenly into its marsh-like foundation between five and seven centimeters each year.
By the 1950s, when it became clear that the exploitation of the valley’s aquifers was responsible for the city’s slow sinking, the government closed off many aquifers that affected central parts of Mexico City, and instead focused on pumping water out from Xochimilco and Texcoco, which are now similarly suffering from the drastic sinking effects of overexploitation.
Unable to find ways to utilize the bountiful rainwater that falls on the city during the summer, today, we source water not only from the city’s aquifers—we also turn to neighboring states to meet the ever-growing urban water needs. The Cutzamala System has grown in the last thirty years to accommodate this shift in the city’s water source.
As more people flock to the Mexican capital in search of economic opportunities and a thirsty population of twenty-four million continues to grow, inertia has plagued Mexico City’s ability to find more creative ways to meet a growing demand. And so, each year, the city teeters on the edge of a water-shortage emergency, and, more worryingly, every day, water rarely makes it to the people who need it most.
One of the primary forms of mismanagement plaguing water distribution in Mexico City—and thus one of the main reasons behind the improvements to the Cutzamala system—is a gargantuan amount of wastage. According to data from 2010, the city’s water system has an efficiency rate of 56.8%, meaning that a shocking 43.2% of water is lost across leakages or stolen. In the same report, the government estimated that about 85% of water inefficiencies arose from leakages. It was exactly these leakages that the November megacorte sought to address. And CONAGUA has a plan in place to continue to make improvements to the Cutzamala system over the next five to ten years, with the hopes that transportation efficiencies can be substantially improved.
CONAGUA is taking active measures toward improving water distribution in the capital, thanks to series of recent legislative changes. Though the budget for the National Commission of Water was severely restricted for many years, limiting the amount of reparations and updates to the system that it can make, CONAGUA’s budget was doubled in 2019, promising further improvements. But Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s policies toward water continue to be ambiguous; it is still unclear whether some of the positive changes Enrique Peña Nieto made to the government’s water management, such as creating a new administrative body to manage water and passing the “Ley de Aguas,” will continue to hold.
It is important to remember that the solution to the city’s water-related challenges does not depend on whether or not CONAGUA can continue to improve the Cutzamala system; Mexico City needs to find alternative ways to sustainably source water for its population. Climate change will most likely bring stronger, more powerful rains to Mexico’s valley. Without technology in place to effectively collect rainwater, most of this water will go to waste, and will only further clog the city-wide system.
Ultimately, however, it is in the day-to-day scenes of city life where the most crucial battle for water conservation will play out. Residents of the metropolis are as much to blame as the government. The average Mexican uses 307 litres of water a day, which is more than 200% over the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 96 liters per person per day.
While the government and CONAGUA discuss paperwork, legislation, and necessary technological solutions to system-wide leaks, chilangos also need to think more critically about the way we have taken water for granted. It is, ultimately, in the plastic bottles of water we rely on for drinking, the running hoses zealously used each morning to wash cars and patios, the faulty sink pipes that haven’t been tended to in years, hour-long showers and baths, and the country’s affinity for eating meat, where we can, and should, find collective and immediate strategies to protect our most important resource. ❖