Use and misuse of water resources in Mexico

Despite importing as much as 40% of its water from distant sources, Mexico City has no large-scale operation for recycling wastewater

A child prepares to drink clean water from a tap - Photo: Njeri Mwangi/REUTERS
English 17/03/2018 09:46 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 16:32

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These days, prior to the water shortages generally associated with the dry summer months, Mexico City has been amid controversy due to a series of allegations between local authorities and the left National Regeneration Party (MORENA) over the deliberate closing of 50 valves from the water distribution network, an action that affected millions of people in several districts.

Water supply, for decades, has been used as a political tool in order to win votes. No longer limited to the slums on the outskirts, the corrupt practice is reaching the middle-class neighborhoods in the heart of the country’s capital, aggravating the problem of water scarcity.

With over 21 million people inhabiting Greater Mexico City, which encompasses both Mexico City and the conurbation around it, merely one out of five inhabitants get water only for a few hours from their taps a week while other 20% get running water for only part of the day.

Mexico City imports as much as 30% of its water from distant sources, mainly from the Cutzamala System, but it has no large-scale operation for recycling wastewater.

Water loss derived from failures in the water-pipe network are estimated at a staggering 40%, while 81% of residents say they do not drink from the tap because they either lack running water or they do not trust its quality.

Overall, consumer complaints increased 50% this year and it is estimated that an annual budget of MXN$5,500 million (USD $295 million) should be doubled in order to improve water infrastructure, according to Mexico City water utility Sacmex.

However, water scarcity is not limited to Mexico City alone. Last year, protests erupted in the Mexicali Valley, bordering California, following the plans to build a brewery capable of producing four million bottles a day in 2019.

Thousands of people supporting the Mexicali Resists movement gathered outside the Baja California state offices and blocked deliveries to the construction site.

The farmers of more than 100 communal properties (ejidos), established during the 1940s agrarian reform, accused the state government and Constellation Brands, the third largest brewer in the United States, of trying to exploit their water wells, a key element for agricultural production.

Mass protests

Alarmingly, legislation, beer, mining, and fracking industries are overexploiting regional aquifers.

For instance, a series of demonstrations were held back in 2016 against the Baja California State Water Law, which would have privatized water services and increased rates. However, local legislature was forced to repeal the law seven days after the massive demonstrations.

Constellation Brands, an international producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits, was extracting about 1,200 liters of water per second to make beer in arid Zaragoza municipality, Coahuila, according to the then-mayor Leoncio Martínez Sánchez in 2016. “While they draw water to make beer, they leave us with water shortages in the municipality,” he stressed to BNamericas, the business news site.

While coal miner Río Escondido had to drill over 500 meters in depth to reach the Allende Piedras Negras aquifer and extract about 4% of its water to get the coal, Martínez Sánchez added.

On March 1, Mexico’s Energy Secretary Pedro Joaquín Coldwell launched the bidding process to develop nine non-conventional (shale) hydrocarbons blocks in Tamaulipas state.

For the first time ever in the country, the extraction of natural gas and oil from the Burgos Basin will require the use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, involving the high-pressure injection of water, sand and other proppants to fracture deep-rock formations.

Environmental groups, such as the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking and Greenpeace, have criticised the move, part of the first unconventional bid round (Round 3.3) since Mexico’s Energy Reform, saying that each well would need between nine and 29 million liters of fresh water, polluting the aquifers with chemical additives.

Overall, environmentalists highlighted that fracking would contribute to global warming and create new seismic zones.

In response, Juan Carlos Zepeda Molina, Head of the National Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH) assured that operators will be tightly regulated.

For its part, Carlos Salvador de Regules Ruiz-Funes, founding Executive Director of Mexico’s National Agency for Industrial Safety and Environmental Protection of the Hydrocarbons Sector (ASEA), added that the new regulations are based on the best practices used by the American, Canadian and Argentine sectors, as well as the recommendations of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Molina Center for Energy and the Environment.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen