Mexican Cities and States Could Run Out of Water. What’s the Solution? - Modern Farmer

Mexican Cities and States Could Run Out of Water. What’s the Solution?

More than 22 million people in Mexico City could face a complete water shortage this month, and millions more around the country deal with frequent droughts and water shortages. Is it time to rethink our relationship with water?

A "pipa" truck delivering potable water in Oaxaca's city center.
Photography by Lauren Rothman.

También hemos publicado este artículo en español. Para leerlo en español, haga clic aquí.


It was mid-February, and in Oaxaca City, Mexico, temperatures were just starting to climb into the 80s. Spring is the hot season here, and in addition to weathering the heat, my partner and I were also in the midst of a move from the home we’d rented near the city center for two years to a little house out in the countryside.

Our spacious spot in the city had served us well, but we had become increasingly worried about the one main issue we had faced there: the severe water shortage experienced by many of Oaxaca City’s approximately 300,000 inhabitants. For several months every dry season, we and our neighbors received municipal water only once every 42 days—a situation that has become the new normal over the past few years. When this water is sent through the city’s aging system of pipes and arrives in private households, Oaxaca dwellers store the water in giant rooftop water tanks called tinacos—or, even better, in large underground cisterns—in order to have continual access to water throughout the month. But even though my partner and I rented a house with a large 10,000-liter-capacity cistern—and although we took daily measures to curb our water consumption—more frequently than not, our cistern routinely ran dry before the next water delivery, leaving us without water for days at a time: Hello, washcloth “showers” using bottled water purchased from the corner store.

Lauren Rothman with her partner and dogs.

When we looked for a new house to rent outside the densely populated city center, we reviewed listings located in areas known to have more regular water delivery. We found a new space, but with just two days left to clean the large house from top to bottom in order to recoup our security deposit, we woke to bone-dry taps. We hurriedly contacted several pipa companies— water trucks that extract the liquid from private wells and deliver between 3,500 and 10,000 liters at a time; most of them, completely at capacity shuttling water around the municipality, never responded. Those who did quoted us outrageous prices and couldn’t even deliver until several days later. So, our final hours in our city home saw us toting heavy 20-liter plastic bottles of water up our hot asphalt street, in order to be able to wash the windows and mop the floors before moving out.

Day Zero is coming

Even those far from Oaxaca City have likely heard about Mexico’s headline-making droughts and Mexico City’s dire lack of municipal water. That enormous megatropolis—home to an estimated 22 million people—is possibly facing a “Day Zero”—or complete loss of water—as early as this month. A one-two punch of a combination of climate change and rapid urban growth is quickly draining the aquifer underneath North America’s largest city, according to Scientific American, and the problem is far from unique to either Mexico City or Oaxaca City, with historic water scarcity affecting 30 of 32 of the country’s states or almost 131 million people

Learn More: Mexico's new president ran on a climate promise. Learn how she says she'll improve water access.

To get a sense of the situation here in Oaxaca City—and, by extension, the entire state, home to approximately four million inhabitants—I spoke with Juan José Consejo Dueñas, director of INSO, the Instituto de la Naturaleza y la Sociedad de Oaxaca (Oaxacan Institute of Nature and Society). Established in 1991, the civil association supports communities across Oaxaca in projects focusing on environmental conservation and, since 2003, Aguaxaca has been the association’s main project. The goal is to secure consistent sources of clean water through the restoration of potable water networks, installation of absorption wells and rainwater collection systems.

Juan José Consejo Dueñas, director of INSO, photographed at his office downtown. Photography by Lauren Rothman.

“Water doesn’t really need an explanation,” says Consejo as we sit around a large table in his office scattered with informational handouts and books published by INSO. “It’s essential for life: not just biological life—we are all basically water—but also at an ecological level. There is no ecological system that doesn’t require water, and it’s essential for any social system.” 

It’s not a shortage, it’s a loss

So, how did Oaxaca’s water situation get to where it is today? First of all, Consejo is quick to correct my usage of the term “shortage.” “There is no water shortage,” he says, explaining that the local climate is characterized by a dry season of little to no rainfall (typically November through April) and a wet season of abundant rainfall (typically May through October). “We can’t speak of scarcity when what we really have is an excess— a destructive excess—of water for many months.”

Read More:Check out our feature on water access and the dairy industry in California.

During the rainy season, says Consejo, an average of 88 cubic meters of rain falls every second during a heavy rainstorm, enough to fill 88 1,000 litre tinacos. The real problem, says Consejo, is the difference, over time, in the way this rainfall is absorbed by the earth and filters down into the underground water table. In a functioning “hydrosocial” water cycle, about a quarter of each rainfall should be absorbed back into the earth. But in Oaxaca, where rapid urban development has led to a huge increase in paved roads and unchecked deforestation and where a robust mining industry has altered the physical landscape, water infiltration has been severely reduced, to about 15 percent. 

“It’s an enormously destructive process, drastically altering the soil and requiring an enormous quantity of water,” says Consejo of the open-pit mining industry in Oaxaca, particularly the mining of gold and silver. Since 2003, residents of the Oaxacan community of Capulálpam de Méndez have railed against the government-approved mining of minerals there by the corporation La Natividad, claiming that the activities have drained 13 of the area’s aquifers as their clean water has been diverted towards mining operations. Earlier this month, widespread protests by citizens shut down access to the rural town, and local participation in the national presidential election on June 2 could not proceed

A “pipa” truck delivering potable water in Oaxaca’s colonial city center. Photography by Lauren Rothman.

In an analysis of land coverage, INSO found that, in 2005, about 50 square kilometers of Oaxaca’s urban center were paved, in comparison to 1980, when about 10 square kilometers were paved, with other coverings including agriculture, forest and pastures. All that pavement causes rainwater to just run off, instead of sinking into the ground, and prevents it from settling into natural pools and man-made dams. 

“We lower absorption, we raise runoff, we lower evaporation, and then what do we do with any clean water we have left? We pollute it,” says Consejo, referring to the practice of mixing pure water with human waste, as well as all the chemical runoff present in the soil.

Searching for solutions

SOAPA, Sistema Operador de los Servicios de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (Drinking Water and Sewage Services), is the state governmental agency responsible for the distribution of municipal water to city residents. While the agency did not respond to requests for an interview, I was able to speak with Elsa Ortíz Rodríguez, secretary of the city’s department of Environment and Climate Change. She says the municipal system of underground pipes that deliver the water distributed by SOAPA is extremely old, built more than 40 years ago—and rapidly and haphazardly expanded since then. “In some spots, the pipes are fractured and leak water underground,” says Ortiz. “With old pipes, you also have to think about rust, which can also reduce the final amount of water that’s delivered.”

Secretary of Environment and Climate Change Elsa Ortíz Rodríguez, photographed at her downtown office in front of trees slated to be planted throughout Oaxaca City. Photography by Lauren Rothman.

In order to address the water scarcity issue, Ortiz’s department finances a variety of projects focusing primarily on reforestation within the city limits. However, she admits that the usual impediments have limited the impact of these projects over the 2.5-year course of her administration, which will turn over in another six months: a lack of funding and a lack of coordination among city, state and national governments.

As Juan José Consejo Dueñas explains, governments tend to propose complicated and expensive engineering projects to “solve” the water problem. In the case of Mexico City, the “solution” has been Cutzamala, a sprawling system that directs water to the metropolis from the river of the same name, located 100 kilometers away. Oaxaca’s government has proposed something similar: a grand engineering project to extract water from the Paso Ancho dam in the Mixteca region, located 100 kilometers south of the city. 

Because the Cutzamala system relies on a vast network of dams to store the water—and dams are subject to increased evaporation due to rising temperatures—it’s not the most efficient system. “We have the Mexico City model, which is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing,” says Consejo.

The bulletin board at INSO. Photography by Lauren Rothman.

Instead, Consejo says, the solution to the water problems faced by the region lies in redefining our relationship to water. One of INSO’s primary projects is a restored nature area in the community of San Andrés Huayápam, called El Pedregal. An operating permaculture center, El Pedregal features dry toilets, rainwater collection systems, humidity-preserving trenches,\ and other responsible water use projects. Generally, Oaxacan sentiment places little faith in the ability or desire of the government to suitably respond to the complex water issue, making grassroots initiatives such as El Pedregal all the more important. 

Learn More:Find out more about what local communities are proposing as solutions.

In my new home—located, incidentally, a stone’s throw from El Pedregal in the community of Huayápam—we receive municipal water at least once a week, sometimes twice. The area, at a higher elevation than the city, has been known throughout history for possessing clean water; its name, in the indigenous language Nahuatl, translates to “on the ocean,” referring to its large bodies of water. Even here, however, the water situation is by no means stable, with recent photos showing two of the area’s largest man-made dams at some of their lowest historical levels

Our move has alleviated most of the water issues we face, but moving is simply not an option for many families, nor would doing so solve the problem impacting millions around the country. This feeling of hopelessness has led to numerous protests around Oaxaca, with citizens demanding that SOAPA send more water. In mid-March, residents of the Monte Albán neighborhood close to Oaxaca’s world-famous restored pyramid site took to their streets to denounce more than 40 days without municipal water. Residents of the Figueroa neighborhood, near SOAPA’s downtown headquarters, followed suit a week later, making it clear that as long as widespread water mismanagement persists in this area, so too, will social unrest.

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12 hours ago

Why doesn’t anyone ever want to touch the bottling plants? The Niagara bottling plant is huge and from what I understand, bottling plants use a huge amount of water. They supply a lot of water to Cosco and Walmart, every bottle they fill and sell is a bottle that does not go back to the aquifers.
Time to stop this nonsense WORLDWIDE!

Bill Simms
1 day ago

I would also add that we don’t have a water shortage, we have too many people. Exploding populations have created the shortage, not too little water.