Water Management in Mexico City: Ethics and Solutions to a Worsening Water Crisis

Water is found all over the world—in our oceans, glaciers, rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs. It has helped grow civilizations, who in turn have harnessed it for better and for worse. The supply of water, whether it is collected through rainfall, snow, or floods, is taken for granted. The syncretism of populations and cultures have brought people in closer proximity to each other. Urbanization, particularly in developed countries in the Global North, is smaller compared to developing countries in the Global South, yet cities continue to grow uncontrollably, an issue urban geographers call unmanaged growth. While extracting expertise, opportunities and populations from surrounding rural areas, unchecked urban growth and sprawl has put a certain value and price on water—that is, a monetary value and human price. Consequently, a combination of mismanagement of urban infrastructure, political inaction, and climate change has strained water supply, while receiving populations of various socioeconomic backgrounds. This has become a sobering reality for Mexico City (Ciudad de México, or CDMX), where water is projected to run out by June for its population of 22 million people. 

Origins of the water crisis

The largest city in Mexico and the third-largest in the world, CDMX has a metropolitan area that constitutes 18.6% of the country’s total population. The day when water runs out in CDMX is Day Zero, a term designated by the Water Basin Organization of the Valley of Mexico. The crisis around water has been a problem centuries in the making. Firstly, the Aztec Empire established its capital at Tenochtitlan, an island in Lake Texcoco. Through a system of canals, navigation channels, chinampas (floating gardens) and dikes, the Aztecs were able to separate fresh water from the lake’s brackish water—a system of water supply that persisted for 220 years until their defeat and genocide by the Spanish in 1521. 

Almost immediately following the establishment of CDMX, Aztec infrastructure was destroyed and Lake Texcoco was drained over the following centuries through the extensive Desaguë project. Today, remnants of Lake Texcoco and ancient water management systems persist in the canals of Xochimilco. Whereas the Aztecs sought to store and use water from rainfall and floods, the Spanish and independent Mexican populations sought to get the water out as quickly as possible. This has directly influenced the creation of extensive mile-long systems of pipes and canals, which pump groundwater and transfer it unevenly across the CDMX urban geography. This colonization project by the Spanish and, later, the settler colonial state-building by the Mexican government, is best represented by the Great Drainage Canal of the Valley of Mexico, a 300-year project completed in 1900. It stretches for 29 miles from CDMX to the Tula River valley, yet transports a combination of sewer and rainwater, which does not resolve the need for drinking water, and leads to regular flooding during May to October. CDMX has been without a strategy to collect water efficiently for more than 150 years. Since its establishment, it is starkly evident there has been little attention given to how rainwater can be separated from sewage.

A system of reservoirs and aquifers supply CDMX, however, 2.15 times more water is extracted from groundwater wells than is recharged. Deeper wells encroach upon more networks of aquifers underground, where 70% of CDMX’s supply comes from. As a result of aquifers being overexploited, CDMX subsides, or sinks, 15-20 inches each year, which causes sinkholes, buckling streets, and widespread building damage. Natural disasters such as earthquakes are common, as CDMX lies along the subduction zone between the North American continental plate and Cocos oceanic plate. 

These physical environmental factors put an already-crumbling infrastructure at more risk. The Lerma-Cutzamala system consists of dams, storage tanks, pipes, and pumping stations that have been damaged by earthquakes and not updated frequently. CDMX is supplied by ⅓ of the Cutzamala system’s water supply. However it is only operating at 40% capacity due to drought. Its current operations have strained the system more than it was originally designed to.The primacy of CDMX in Mexico is due to federal policies which pushed rural, agricultural communities toward the industrialized capital in the 20th century, by concentrating the majority of economic activity in the State of Mexico. This set of policies and pressures has led to the ‘runaway growth’ of the city, a term coined by urban geographers to describe these rapidly escalating population pressures. The crumbling infrastructure, at risk due to propensity for seismic activity and overburdened groundwater supply, cannot sustain the runaway growth of the third largest city in the world.

Compared to recent years, drought conditions caused by El Niño have depleted water supply systems. Combined with prolonged drought conditions in Central and South America, water availability will decrease by 40%, according to professor and researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University, Fabiola S. Sosa-Rodriguez. A lack of rain and impacts of 2023’s El Nino has brought water supply to historic lows for the metropolitan area of CDMX and for other Mexican cities. Recent years have illustrated 75% of Mexico is impacted by drought conditions. The current forest fires in more than half of the states of Mexico illustrate the weight of this issue and just how widespread these impacts are felt. The water shortage is exacerbated by multiple factors, including less rainfall, rising temperatures, drought and desertification, over-extraction of groundwater, runaway population growth, political inaction and indifference, and crumbling infrastructure built upon a colonial view of water management as infinite extraction. 

Responding to the water crisis

CDMX neighborhoods are being forced to ration water. These rations impact the entire income spectrum, from high-income to impoverished areas. Municipal authorities have responded by supplying water tank trailers to fill plastic tanks around their neighborhoods, a short-term solution which has not been enough supply to meet demand. Those in working-class, southern neighborhoods have been without water for weeks. Water tankers are used extensively to temporarily quench the thirst of CDMX’s 22 million people, and people use things like plastic buckets, pails, pots to collect water. Intermittent water service lasts for one hour, or less, of running water—each week.In one part of CDMX in Tlalpan, people saw the first tanker in two months. Precincts in the district of Iztapalapa, home to 2 million people, don’t see as much water as water tankers quickly run out of their 2,600 gallon water supply. The water tanker drivers follow a signup sheet and serve those according to their position in the list. Many of those drivers are from neighborhoods experiencing the water shortages and doing these jobs to make a living for their families. 

There is also public distrust of the water tankers, which highlights the underlying problem of lack of trust in government institutions to deliver potable water, or solve these widespread public issues. The water crisis impacts everyone, however its impacts are unevenly distributed. The wealthy can still buy water from private companies, and many middle class families now rely on expensive bottled water to wash, recycle, and even flush toilets. Lower income families have to get up before dawn to sign their names on sheets for water tanker trucks, and have much more strain on access. 

The water crisis is increasingly becoming a part of politics, as public protests block main thoroughfares, and concerns about water consumption and the uneven nature of water distribution are coming to the fore. The concerns voiced by the people towards the current Obrador administration, as well as one of the candidates for this year’s election, Claudia Sheinbaum, are being disregarded as “alarmist propaganda” by left-wing allies. President Obrador even states that the problem will “go away” by fixing leaks, extending pipelines to transport water even further distances, and drilling new wells. Sheinbaum even stated herself that she improved CDMX’s water department during her mayorship from 2018 to 2023. Left-wing allies of Obrador perceive concerns of the water crisis as fabrications from the conservative opposition parties, and believe that there is a short, medium, and long-term guarantee of drinkable water service. High-level political maneuvering has distracted from the tangible concerns of Mexico City’s population. 

Solutions – What Should Be Done?

Urgency has been expressed by the group Agua Capital and the National Autonomous University of Mexico for private companies and residents to take on strategies to help mitigate the water crisis, since water is a privatized and commodified resource in the city. They state that water should be derived from wastewater treatment plants, rather than freshwater sources, for use for agriculture and in factories. This means stronger corporate regulation and the implementation of laws by governments on multiple levels. They also call for more investment in maintenance of the Cutzamala system. Calls for ecological restoration and repair municipal and federal governments are also rising, including reforestation and the rebuilding of wetlands that grow with rain. Establishing rainwater collection systems and rainwater harvesting systems in homes so people can get faster and safer access to water is also of paramount importance to these advocacy groups, to take advantage of the seasonal flooding in a changing climate which ultimately is leading to further desertification and drought. 

Ultimately, multi-scalar investment is required, as institutional mechanisms are currently functioning to extract without limits, and accepting the risk of disproportionate negative impacts on low income communities. Politicians and academics are proposing huge and expensive systems to preserve water while implementing more green spaces, conservation, and managing growth. However, some such as Autonomous Metropolitan University economics professor David Barkin state an urban redesign of this scale will need huge investments and mass reorientation, and possibly further displacement, of people.  

Artificial Intelligence: Yay or Nay?

Despite disseminating information quickly, artificial intelligence imposes harsh physical impacts. However, it needs energy to operate. Across Latin America, drought conditions are worsened by the enormous amounts of water needed for artificial intelligence to operate. AI computer chips require 15 times more energy than regular computer chips. Moreover, both its computing demands and cooling operations require much more amounts of water. Currently, 10 operational data centers are located in Querétaro, a city northwest of Mexico City. Unfortunately, its drought conditions can be potentially worsened, as It is planned there will be 18 more data centers built. Alongside urban communities, rural communities, such as the Indigenous community of Maconí, have faced crop failures due to the water shortages and drought conditions. 

AI is still a new technology, with unforeseen benefits and costs. Yet with rising costs of living, political inaction, and the depletion of essential ecological services such as clean water and air, it is imperative for people and governments to be given accurate information to interact with the environment more consciously. Facing the imminent danger of drought and water scarcity, Mexico City, an urban center of 22 million people, must invest enormously to reinvent its water management system to use water efficiently—and AI infrastructure could further divide an already collapsing water geography.

Sources:

Origins of the water crisis:

Mexico City is running out of water, forcing many to ration 

What will Mexico City do when its water taps run dry? – Los Angeles Times

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/mexico-city-is-running-out-of-water-heres-why-and-how-millions-of-residents-are-affected

Responding to the water crisis & Solutions: What Should Be Done?

Water management in Greater Mexico City – Wikipedia

The water crisis in Mexico: challenges and solutions 

Where does Mexico City get its water? 

A Sinking, Thirsty City: The Water Crisis in Mexico City – Latin America Reports (map source) 

Artificial Intelligence: Yay or Nay?

Drought and AI Expansion Threaten Mexico’s Water