It may only be months before one of the world’s largest cities runs out of water

By | February 25, 2024

Alejandro Gomez has been without good running water for more than three months. Sometimes it lasts an hour or two, but only a trickle, barely enough to fill a few buckets. Then nothing for a few days.

Gomez, who lives in Mexico City’s Tlalpan neighborhood, doesn’t have a large storage tank so she can’t get water trucks. There is simply no place to store it. Instead, he and his family figure out what to buy and store.

When they wash themselves, they collect the drain water to flush the toilet. It’s difficult, he told CNN. “We need water, it is essential for everything.”

Water shortages are not unusual in this neighborhood, but this time it feels different, Gomez said. “Right now we are dealing with this warm weather. It’s even worse, things are more complicated.”

Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of nearly 22 million people and one of the largest cities in the world, is facing a serious water crisis as a tangle of problems – including geography, chaotic urban development and leaky infrastructure – are exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

Years of abnormally low rainfall, longer dry spells and high temperatures have put even more pressure on the water system to meet increased demand. Authorities have been forced to introduce significant restrictions on water pumped from reservoirs.

“Several neighborhoods have been struggling with a lack of water for weeks, and it will take another four months before the rains start,” said Christian Domínguez Sarmiento, an atmospheric scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Politicians are playing down any sense of crisis, but some experts say the situation has now reached such critical levels that Mexico City could move towards ‘day zero’ within months – where the taps for large parts of the city go dry.

Historic lows

Densely populated Mexico City sprawls over a high lakebed, approximately 2,000 meters above sea level. It was built on clay-rich soil – into which it is now sinking – and is prone to earthquakes and very vulnerable to climate change. It may be one of the last places anyone would want to build a megacity today.

The Aztecs chose this site to build their city of Tenochtitlan in 1325, when it was still a series of lakes. They built on an island, expanded the city outward, and built networks of canals and bridges to work with the water.

But when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, they demolished much of the city, drained the lake bottom, filled canals and tore out forests. They saw “water as an enemy that had to be overcome so that the city could flourish,” says Jose Alfredo Ramirez, architect and co-director of Groundlab, a design and policy research organization.

An aerial view of Mexico City, one of the largest megacities in the world.  -Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesAn aerial view of Mexico City, one of the largest megacities in the world.  -Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

An aerial view of Mexico City, one of the largest megacities in the world. -Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Their decision paved the way for many of Mexico City’s modern problems. Wetlands and rivers have been replaced by concrete and asphalt. It floods in the rainy season. In the dry season it is dried out.

About 60% of Mexico City’s water comes from the underground aquifer, but it has been so over-extracted that the city is sinking at a frightening rate: about 50 centimeters per year, recent research shows. And the aquifer is not being replenished nearly fast enough. Rainwater rolls off the city’s hard, impermeable surfaces, instead of sinking into the ground.

The rest of the city’s water is pumped long distances uphill from sources outside the city, in an incredibly inefficient process, with about 40% of the water lost to leaks.

The Cutzamala water system, a network of reservoirs, pumping stations, canals and tunnels, supplies about 25% of the water used by the Valley of Mexico, which includes Mexico City. But the severe drought has taken its toll. Currently, capacity is at an all-time low of approximately 39% of capacity.

“It’s almost half the amount of water we should have,” said Fabiola Sosa-Rodríguez, head of economic growth and environment at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City.

In October, Conagua, the country’s national water commission, announced it would restrict water from Cutzamala by 8% “to guarantee drinking water supplies to the population, given the severe drought.”

Just a few weeks later, officials significantly tightened restrictions, reducing the amount of water delivered by the system by almost 25%, blaming extreme weather conditions.

“Measures will have to be taken to be able to distribute the water that Cutzamala has over time, to ensure that it does not run out,” Germán Arturo Martínez Santoyo, Conagua’s director general, said in a statement at the time .

The exposed banks of the Villa Victoria Dam, part of the Cutzamala system, in Villa Victoria, Mexico on January 26, 2024. - Raquel Cunha/ReutersThe exposed banks of the Villa Victoria Dam, part of the Cutzamala system, in Villa Victoria, Mexico on January 26, 2024. - Raquel Cunha/Reuters

The exposed banks of the Villa Victoria Dam, part of the Cutzamala system, in Villa Victoria, Mexico on January 26, 2024. – Raquel Cunha/Reuters

According to a February report, about 60% of Mexico is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought. Nearly 90% of Mexico City is in severe drought – and it’s set to get worse with the start of the rainy season still months away.

“We are in the middle of the dry season and continued temperature increases are expected until April or May,” said June Garcia-Becerra, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Natural climate variability has major consequences for this part of Mexico. Three years of La Niña brought drought to the region, and the arrival of El Niño last year brought a painfully short rainy season that failed to replenish reservoirs.

But the long-term trend of man-made global warming rumbles in the background, causing longer droughts and fiercer heat waves, as well as heavier rains when they occur.

“Climate change has made droughts increasingly severe due to the lack of water,” said Sarmiento of UNAM. In addition, high temperatures “have caused the water available in the Cutzamala system to evaporate,” she said.

Last summer, brutal heat waves ravaged large parts of the country, killing at least 200 people. These heat waves would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change, according to an analysis by scientists.

Climate impacts have collided with the growing pains of a rapidly expanding city. As the population grows, experts say the centralized water system has not kept pace.

“Day Zero?”

The crisis has sparked a fierce debate over whether the city will reach “day zero,” with the Cutzamala system sinking to such low levels that it will no longer be able to serve the city’s residents to provide water.

Local media widely reported in early February that an official from a Conagua branch said that without significant rain, “day zero” could arrive as early as June 26.

But authorities have since tried to reassure residents that there will be no day zero. In a press conference on February 14, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said efforts were underway to address the water problems. The mayor of Mexico City, Martí Batres Guadarrama, said this recently press conference that the reports about day zero were ‘fake news’ spread by political opponents.

Conagua declined CNN’s interview requests and did not answer specific questions about the prospect of day zero.

But many experts warn of a spiraling crisis. Mexico City could run out of water before the rainy season arrives if the country continues to use it the same way, Sosa-Rodríguez says. “It is likely that we are heading towards day zero,” she added.

A woman washes dishes in her home after receiving free water in the Iztapalapa neighborhood on January 31, 2024.  - Henry Romero/ReutersA woman washes dishes in her home after receiving free water in the Iztapalapa neighborhood on January 31, 2024.  - Henry Romero/Reuters

A woman washes dishes in her home after receiving free water in the Iztapalapa neighborhood on January 31, 2024. – Henry Romero/Reuters

This doesn’t mean a complete collapse of the water system, she said, because the city doesn’t rely on just one source. It won’t be the same as when Cape Town, South Africa, came dangerously close to complete drying out in 2018 after a severe, multi-year drought. “Some groups will still have water,” she said, “but most people will not.”

Raúl Rodríguez Márquez, president of the nonprofit Water Advisory Council, said he doesn’t believe the city will reach day zero this year — but he warned it will happen if changes aren’t made.

“We are in a critical situation and we could reach an extreme situation in the coming months,” he told CNN.

‘I don’t think anyone is prepared’

Sosa-Rodríguez says he has been warning officials about the danger of a day zero for Mexico City for almost a decade.

She said the solutions are clear: better wastewater treatment would both increase water availability and reduce pollution, while rainwater harvesting systems could collect and treat rain, and allow residents to reduce their dependence on the water network or reduce water trucks by 30%.

Fixing leaks would make the system much more efficient and reduce the amount of water that needs to be withdrawn from the aquifer. And nature-based solutions, such as river and wetland restoration, would help supply and purify water, she said, with the added benefit of making the city greener and cooler.

In a statement on its website, Conagua said it is carrying out a three-year project to install, develop and improve water infrastructure to help the city cope with the decline of the Cutzamala system, including adding new wells and commissioning water treatment plants.

But in the meantime, tensions are rising as some residents are forced to cope with shortages, while others – often in wealthier enclaves – remain largely unaffected.

“There is a clear unequal access to water in the city and this is related to people’s income,” Sosa-Rodríguez said. While day zero may not yet be here for all of Mexico City, some neighborhoods have been struggling with it for years, she added.

Amanda Martínez, another resident of the city’s Tlalpan district, said water shortages are nothing new for people here. She and her family often have to pay more than $100 for a tank of water from one of the city’s water trucks. But it’s getting worse. Sometimes more than two weeks can pass without water and she fears what’s to come, she told CNN.

“I don’t think anyone is prepared.”

CNN’s Laura Paddison and Jack Guy reported from London, and Fidel Gutiérrez reported from Mexico City.

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