Infrastructure and Over-Exploitation: Draining Mexico City Dry

Clara Browne-Amorim
Aerial view of Mexico City. Photographer: Pablo López Luz

Mexico City currently lies as one of the top 10 cities most likely to run out of water in the next decade. This tragic phenomenon seems unusual, considering the city receives more rainfall than famously soggy London, and the fact it was built on top of a 2000 square feet lake.

There are multiple factors causing the city’s water shortages, the first of which being that for the past 400 years, infrastructure development and urban planning has focused on making sure that the short and tempestuous rainfall it receives does not flood the city, and cause severe destruction to homes, roads and citizens. Meanwhile, 50% of the city’s water supply is pumped out of aquifers, draining groundwater and the remains of the lake, but these water sources have taken millennia to fill and will take millennia to replenish.

With rainwater being forced out of the city as quickly as possible, this replenishing will take even longer. 20% of Mexico’s 162 million citizens, amounting to around 27 million, live in the capital causing a larger strain on the water resources available with its current infrastructure. On top of the limited water, studies in 2016 have shown that at least 32 aquifers have been identified with saltwater intrusion, making them unsuitable for human consumption. According to recent statistics, around 40% of water is being lost.

“Mexico’s rainy season is intense and demonstrates that water is naturally meant to be a part of the landscape. Mexico City, the country’s capital, currently has one of the largest populations in the world, and its citizens are desperate for water.”

Lauren Collins, “Mexico: Where Government and Water Do Not Mix” 2016

Historically, Mexico City looked a lot like Venice, utilising canals and water systems that left arriving Spanish colonisers in awe. It was these conquistadors that began the process away from indigenous water techniques, instead investing in tunnels and trenches to drain water out of the Basin of Mexico, and facilitating practices such as the construction of dams, destruction of woodlands, and diversion of water from lakes and canals that have contributed to the crisis Mexico finds itself in today.

Source: Worldometer

Despite the scarcity of water, consumption remains at a high level for farmers, with 76.8% of water being used for agriculture, and the public using less than a quarter of the supply (13.9%). This is partly due to low tariffs on water, which officials have attempted to address in a 2003 modification of the National Water Law, creating a National Water Financial System, but this legislation is yet to be implemented, and further talks regarding the issue in 2015 achieved little progress. The average tariff per m3 is US $0.32 whereas according to a 2012 survey by the GWI, across 310 cities, the average charge was US $1.98 per m3.

Water shortages are a global issue and by 2040, most of the world will not be able to meet year-round water demands. Furthermore, agricultural over-usage of water supply is not a problem confined to Mexico: 74 litres of water are used in the production of every beer, 130 litres in every coffee, but usage rises to an extreme 2500 litres for every t-shirt and the really exorbitant amounts lie in the meat industry: 5909 litres of water are required per burger. The reason these products are so cheap compared to their water usage is the low water tariffs. The fashion and meat industry are two major exploiters of water across the globe and the development of globalised trading practices has enhanced the issue of industries treating water as an infinite resource. Water is finite – despite Earth’s enormous oceans and gallons of groundwater, 97% of its supply is saline, and 2% lies far below the surface, leaving only 1% appropriate for human, plant and animal consumption. The surface stocks of water replenish, but practices of over-exploitation and ‘freshwater salinization’ (human activity such as agriculture, construction, and resource extraction that lead to freshwater sources becoming saline) are reducing this generation’s access to these safe waters.

Infrastructure and Over-Exploitation: Draining Mexico City Dry
A 1524 European woodcut map of Tenochtitlán, island capital of the Aztec Empire, and what would one day be Mexico City
Source: Berkley University

We are honoured to have had the opportunity to have had a discussion with Andrea Lefranc, a graduate in Biology in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) born and bred in Mexico City.

What do you see as being the main issues contributing to the water crisis?

I think it’s mostly an infrastructure issue, or rather lack thereof. It is estimated that about 40% of the water we get from either the aquifers or the Cutzamala System is being lost due to leakage form the city’s faulty pipeline, which gets more damaged as Mexico City continues to sink. Moreover, the local government’s interest in investing in long term solutions seems to be relegated to seeking the voters’ approval by making campaign promises that they have failed to keep so far.

How does the crisis affect you, your family, and your friends?

Water scarcity is fortunately not something with which I’ve had to deal since I moved to the house in which I currently live because it has a pretty hefty cistern. Also, the extent to which one is affected by water shortages depends greatly on the part of the city in which you live. The most economically vulnerable areas are the most affected by them and, ironically, by flooding. I would say that for me personally the constant floods are way more of an issue. They will sometimes make it completely impossible to move around in the city, regardless of the means of transportation you choose.

How do you believe this crisis could be resolved, what steps could be taken?

The problem of over-exploitation definitely has to be addressed, but I don’t think that can be solved in less than a decade. Realistically, rainwater harvesting systems are probably our best shot. The volume of rainwater we get yearly is more than twice what we get from the Cutzamala system, which is more than enough to give the aquifers some space to recover. There is currently one project that stands out called Isla Urbana (Urban Island) that has installed over 20,000 systems, which can provide access to water for up to 9 months of the year, if not more. If the government were to seriously invest in these systems (as well as in water infiltration surfaces) we would be simultaneously mitigating water scarcity and periodical flooding.

Questions:

  • What are the most achievable ways of reducing or reforming our usage of water – is it reducing meat consumption, is it addressing the globalisation of the ‘fast fashion’ industry? And, do you believe populations and consumers will be willing to make these changes without being led by world powers?
  • If the answer is charging the real price of water in production, i.e. raising water tariffs, how will this affect the world?
  • How will the countries facing increasing water shortages cope as the crisis continues, and what will be the world’s response when their water supplies run out?

Further Reading:

Photographic exploration of Mexico’s water crisis – BBC

Further exploration into Mexico City’s poor infrastructure – Vision

A historical look at the Lake Tenochtitlán – Vision

Scientific analysis into salt in freshwater sources – PMC

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