Mexico City is struggling with water, sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not

Water crisis in Mexico City / Photo EPA-EFE/Miguel Sierra

Mexico City, a metropolis of nearly 22 million people and one of the largest cities in the world, faces a serious water shortage crisis due to a mix of problems – geography, chaotic urban development and leaky infrastructure – compounded by the impacts of climate change.

Years of abnormally low rainfall, prolonged dry spells and high temperatures have further strained a water system already under pressure from rising demand. The authorities were forced to introduce significant restrictions on water from the reservoir.

"Several neighborhoods have been suffering from a lack of water for weeks, and there will be no rain for another four months," said Cristian Dominguez Sarmiento, a scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Politicians reject any notion of a crisis, but some experts say the situation has now reached such critical levels that Mexico City could reach "day zero" within months - when the taps run dry in many parts of the city.

Densely populated Mexico City stretches at high altitude. It was built on soil rich in clay, which is prone to earthquakes and is very vulnerable to climate change. It is perhaps one of the worst places one would choose to build a megacity today.

The Aztecs chose this place to build their city of Tenochtitlan in 1325, when there were many lakes there. They built on the island, expanding the city outwards, building a network of canals and bridges to regulate the water.

However, when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, they demolished much of the city, drained the lake bed, leveled the canals and uprooted the forests. "They saw water as an enemy that had to be defeated for the city to thrive," says Jose Alfredo Ramirez, architect and co-director of Groundlab.

Their decision paved the way for many of Mexico City's modern problems. Swamps and rivers have been replaced by concrete and asphalt. Flooding occurs constantly in the rainy season, and in the dry season, the water disappears.

Protest against improper use of water in Mexico City / Photo EPA-EFE/Sashenka Gutierrez

About 60% of Mexico City's water comes from its underground reservoir, but the exploitation is so intense that the city is sinking at an alarming rate – about half a meter per year, according to the latest research. And the tank doesn't refill fast enough. Rainwater runs off the hard, impervious surfaces of the city, rather than sinking into the ground.

The rest of the city's water is pumped from distant sources outside the city, in an incredibly inefficient process, with about 40% of the water lost through runoff.

The Quetzalcoatl Water System, a network of reservoirs, pumping stations, canals and tunnels, provides about 25% of the water used by the Valley of Mexico, which includes Mexico City. But the great drought took its toll. It is currently operating at about 39% capacity, which is a historically low level.

"It's only half of the water we need to get," said Fabiola Sosa-Rodríguez, head of the Department of Economic Growth and Environment at Mexico City's Metropolitan University.

In October, Conagua, the national water commission, announced it would limit water from Kutsamala by 8% to ensure the population's supply of drinking water, given the severe drought.

Just weeks later, officials tightened restrictions significantly, reducing the amount of water the system delivers by nearly 25%, blaming extreme weather.

"Measures will have to be taken to be able to distribute the water provided by Kutsamala over a long period of time and to ensure that it does not disappear," German Arturo Martinez Santoyo, Conagu's general manager, said at the time.

About 60% of Mexico faces moderate to extreme drought, according to a February report. Almost 90% of Mexico City is in severe drought – and the situation will worsen with the start of the rainy season in a few months.

"We are in the middle of the dry season, with a steady rise in temperature until April or May," said June Garcia-Becerra, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Natural climate variability strongly affects this part of Mexico. Three years of La Niña brought drought to the region, then the arrival of El Niño last year contributed to a painfully short rainy season that failed to fill reservoirs.

Water crisis in Mexico City / Photo EPA-EFE/Miguel Sierra

But the long-term trend of human-caused global warming is felt in the background, prompting longer droughts and more intense heat waves, as well as heavier rains when they do arrive.

"Climate change has made droughts more severe due to lack of water," said UNAM's Sarmiento: "In addition, high temperatures have caused water to evaporate from the Kutsamala system."

Last summer, brutal heat waves swept across large parts of the country, claiming at least 200 lives. These heat waves would not have happened without climate change, scientists' analysis shows.

Climate impacts collided with the growing problems of a rapidly expanding city. As the population grows, experts say the centralized water supply system is not being maintained.

This does not mean a complete collapse of the water management system, Sarmiento said, because the city does not depend on just one source. It won't be the same as when Cape Town, South Africa came perilously close to total collapse in 2018 after a severe multi-year drought. "Some groups will still have water, but most people won't," Sarmiento said.

Raúl Rodríguez Márquez, president of the non-profit Water Advisory Council, doesn't believe the city will reach "day zero" this year – but it will soon if changes are not made: "We are in a critical situation and we could reach an extreme situation in the next few months."

Protest against improper use of water in Mexico City / Photo EPA-EFE/Sashenka Gutierrez

Meanwhile, tensions are rising as some residents are forced to cope with shortages, while others – often in wealthier enclaves – remain largely spared.

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