The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drought in Mexico leads to water rationing, theft

Residents collect water from a tanker truck in Mexico's Garcia municipality, northwest of Monterrey, Nuevo León. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)

Jesús Hidrogo Tristán starts his days looking for water.

He goes from paid dispenser to paid dispenser, seeking one that hasn’t run dry.

The 43-year-old systems engineer lives with his brother and mother in Colinas de Valle Verde, a neighborhood in Monterrey, the capital city of northern Mexico’s Nuevo Leon, where purified-water vending machines are common.

For months, the family’s taps, like many others across much of the country, have produced little water — a result of an intensifying heat wave and drought, affecting more than half the country. Most days, temperatures have peaked at 100 degrees.

With little relief in sight, a crisis has emerged: The struggle to access a fundamental resource has driven people to frustration and even acts of desperation. Some people have had to line up for hours to receive water rations from delivery trucks. In some cities, residents have begun illegally tapping pipes, according to media reports. Protesters have taken to disrupting traffic.

Previous years have brought temporary shortages, but this time is worse, Hidrogo Tristán said, adding that he still pays nearly $5 a month in water bills, even though the water doesn’t reach his house.

In northern Mexico, reservoirs that typically supply water to the region’s 5 million people are low or dry. Experts say a confluence of factors are to blame, including population growth, increasing demand for water, poor infrastructure and soaring temperatures. Over the long term, climate change as a result of human activity will probably drive up the frequency and severity of such changes in weather, including heat waves and droughts.

Since the start of the year, Mexican authorities have periodically halted water supply to households, to manage the drought-driven shortage. In Monterrey, the government has scheduled water stoppages by zone, telling residents that they would be given advance notice. But according to Hidrogo Tristán, the government has not delivered on its promises.

“When we have water, we let people know via a WhatsApp group: Come for a bucket, two buckets, take it,” he said.

According to Roberto Ponce-Lopez, an urban studies professor at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, communication on the part of the government is just a small part of a larger and persistent problem. He said that bad water management existed long before the current crisis, under multiple administrations, and although there have been efforts to relieve water shortages by constructing more dams, these plans have fallen through the cracks. He added that proposals to dig new water holes only materialized two months ago.

“The current infrastructure can’t meet the demands of urban growth,” he said. “It’s made the perfect crisis.”

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, water shortages in Mexico and Central America are likely to persist in the years to come as northern Mexican cities such as Monterrey continue to use a lot of water for industrial purposes. Rising temperatures and sporadic rainfall aggravated by the changing climate also are key drivers of more frequent droughts.

Last month, Mexico’s national water authority declared a state of emergency in four northern states. Several weeks later, officials announced that the water shortage in Nuevo Leon was a matter of “national security.”

Home to more than 40 percent of the world’s largest manufacturers in fields including aerospace, electronics and beverages, Monterrey has the highest per capita income in the country and is known as Mexico’s industrial center. Since 1990, Monterrey’s urban population has doubled, largely because of an uptick in residential development that has taken over the cityscape, which experts say has placed further strain on water supplies.

Reports that beverage factories for companies such as Coca-Cola and Heineken have continued to operate amid the water crisis sparked outrage in the city. According to the Guardian, brewers and soft drink companies use nearly 24 billion gallons of water a year for production purposes. More than half of that is water from public reservoirs.

Water “consumption for operations and production is from water rights which are paid for and used under monitoring and strict guidelines from the government authorities,” read a joint statement to The Washington Post from Coca-Cola Mexico and its bottler, Arca Continental. However, under new guidelines from the government to prioritize available water to the public, Coca-Cola has temporarily ceded water rights and its use of wells. “We are aware of the long-term actions and investments that are necessary to continue operating in a sustainable way,” the statement read.

Monterrey’s growth, paired with a dire drought, has hit poorer communities harder than others. For low-income residents, purchasing purified water for $15 to $20 a jug is not an option. Getting tap water for household purposes is not easy, either. Some people have resorted to stealing.

Water rationing has sparked sporadic protests across communities, with many residents taking to the streets and blocking roads, claiming they have gone days, sometimes weeks, without running water.

“I know you’ve made a great effort,” Samuel García, Nuevo León’s governor, said in a public statement on Instagram, where he asked for the industry’s support. “I ask you to give the last push.”

“This is not taking your rights from you, this is not taking water from you; it is a provisional measure just for this summer to come out from this crisis.” A day later, in a different video published on his Instagram account, García announced that the government would build an aqueduct.

“The challenge is enormous,” said Jesús González Ramírez, a local official in Monterrey whose department helps resolve neighborhood conflicts. To manage the unrest, González Ramírez’s team began attending the protests, to learn what attendees say they need.

“Sometimes there are emergencies involving senior citizens or children,” he said. “Or broken water pumps in the areas high up the hills.”

The crisis looks different in wealthy areas. Those who can afford it drive to social clubs or gyms to shower. Many middle- and upper-class families have water tanks and cisterns at their homes. Hidrogo Tristán, who has a water tank, says the water that collects there is used for household purposes such as flushing toilets and cleaning kitchen utensils.

“In 20 years, I had never lived through something like this,” said Valdés Salinas, Monterrey’s secretary of public services. “We have so much work every day.”

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