Things That Matter

Mexico City Is Quickly Running Out Of Water And Residents Are Stealing Water Trucks To Get Water

One of the world’s largest cities, Mexico City is home to about 21 million people – rising to 27 million if you include the surrounding areas. About 20% of Mexico’s population lives there. And it could run out of water in as little as 30 years.

For years, there have been doomsday stories about the city’s impending water crisis. But how does a city with a six-months-long rainy season that sees abundant rainfall face such a severe crisis?

Despite flooding events and heavy rainfall, the city is facing a water shortage.

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Given Mexico City’s original geography, its lack of water may seem strange. The city was built on an island surrounded by a large natural lake basin. But when the Spanish colonised Mexico in the 1500s, they dried out the lake to build a bigger city. This means that deep underground, Mexico City has fresh water reservoirs – which the city still depends on for about 40% of its water. In theory these natural aquifers should be replenished by rainfall. It can seep through water containment holes like these pictured here in this deforested patch of land.

But the shortage of water in the city means these natural water reserves are being emptied at a rate faster than they can be filled, especially during months of prolonged drought in the dry season.

“We are exploiting our local aquifers at a very high rate,” says Kramer. “At the same time, we haven’t invested enough resources to have a robust monitoring system. So there’s a lot of uncertainty how the local aquifers work.”

His team suggests that the aquifers could be depleted in 30 to 50 years, if current exploitation trends continue.

Much of this is because of the inefficient and ageing infrastructure of Mexico City’s water networks: some 40% of the water is lost.

Credit: Karrie Khan / NPR

One of the primary forms of mismanagement plaguing water distribution in Mexico City 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 city’s aqueduct system over the next five to ten years, with the hopes that transportation efficiencies can be substantially improved.

And like most crises, the poorest and most vulnerable residents are affected the most.

Credit: Karrie Khan / NPR

Indeed, throughout Latin America and the developing world, it’s the poor who pay the highest price for water scarcity and mismanagement. Low-income, especially rural families, are the least likely to have regular access to public water systems, meaning they sometimes pay 10 to 20 times more for water in absolute terms than their rich counterparts, according to the UN.

Some are not connected to the city’s water network and must rely on buying it per litre. This is the most expensive way to access water, explains Arnoldo Matus Kramer, the city’s chief resilience officer. “Therefore, we need to revise [how people get water] and understand that access to water is a human right.”

For instance, the Xochimilco community in the city’s southernmost district gets new water twice a week from water trucks. Donkeys then carry it the rest of the way to their homes.

Even farmers no longer have adequate access to the water they need to grow and wash crops. Intense droughts have dried up the water holes and wells they once used.

Much of the city’s water supply is delivered by trucks and these are at risk of cartel intervention.

Delivering water often puts drivers and workers at the wrong end of a gun barrel. Sometimes when the taps run dry in some of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods, which are often at the heart of Mexico City’s water crisis, desperate residents — or thieves on the make — reroute tanker trucks at gunpoint to meet their needs.

Others illegally tap wells outside the city and fill unregulated tankers themselves. Stolen water of dubious quality can serve neighborhoods in need or be sold at a premium to meet demand, especially during a drought or when the city’s system is under repair.

The water that does reach poor communities is often untreated or of low quality, driving the health problems that make poverty that much more difficult to overcome.

Regionwide, waterborne illness impacts thousands of people every year. In Mexico, tainted water is the number one killer of children between ages 1 and 5.

The public tanker service that provides many residents in Iztapalapa with water to shower, wash dishes and prepare food is offered free of charge. But families that rely on it conserve and reuse much more than their share. While rich neighborhoods in Mexico City consume between 800 and 1,000 liters of water per person per day, poor neighborhoods use just 28 liters, according to a report from the city’s human rights commission.

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