This is the second part in a two-part piece on the quality of Mexico City’s water. Read part one here.
In spring 2017, a delegation from the Pacific Council made a very special visit to Mexico City. We met with cabinet secretaries, diplomats, journalists, and business executives. The trip was enjoyable and highly informative, but I came away with a nagging question: why can’t a city and nation of bright, enterprising people get something like the capital’s water quality right?
To my California mind, whatever investment was required to make the water drinkable for visitors would be more than made up by the revenue from increased tourism and business travel. On the other hand, if I was going to be critical, I felt I had a responsibility to try to learn at least a little of what I was talking about. So I committed myself to investigating the question more deeply.
What I found was perplexing, frustrating—and utterly fascinating. I share what I discovered here. Some names have been changed.
Sources of Water
There are three principal sources of water for Mexico City: wells, reservoirs, and rain. Numerous wells, over a thousand, dug to depths of between 200 to over 600 feet, dot the city and provide a supply of groundwater. Most of the wells are found in four well fields around the city, variously known as South, East, Metropolitan, or North.
Two intricate systems of dams and reservoirs, the Lerma system and the Cutzamala system, supply the largest amount of water to the city. The Lerma system, situated west of the Federal District, was originally built in the 1940s. It supplies about 4.8 cubic meters per second, roughly 6 percent of the city’s total, pumped up from wells near the Lerma River and then sent coursing through pipes to the city’s western neighborhoods.
The much larger Cutzamala system, located south and west of the city, was built in three main stages starting in the 1970s with subsequent phases in the 1980s and 1990s. The system delivers about 15 cubic meters per second of drinking water to Mexico City, almost 20 percent of its total water usage. The expensive ($1.3 billion) project is an impressive achievement of hydro-electric engineering. The water it transports has to rise over 3,000 feet during its passage, requiring enormous amounts of energy to make the system work. And the 30-year-old system constantly requires maintenance.
Lack of access to water from this system, especially in the eastern side of the city, as well as distrust of its quality, have driven many residents to rely on expensive bottled water for their daily needs.
Earthquakes, common in the area, can bend or break the pipes or can totally put the system out of commission, which is what occurred with the giant quake of 1985. Altogether the system is comprised of seven reservoirs and carries the water through an 80-mile-long aqueduct, delivering to the city the most expensive municipal water in the world.
An abundant amount of rainwater also falls on the city, although most of the rains are concentrated within a period of a few months. This rainfall has considerable water supply potential, but most of the rain simply runs off into the sewers at present.
Water is delivered to the city’s homes and offices by over 7,000 miles of water lines linked by nearly 250 storage tanks. The tanks are not always as clean as they should be or in the best of repair, and the water in them, pausing in its journey, can become contaminated. Lack of access to water from this system, especially in the eastern side of the city, as well as distrust of its quality, have driven many residents to rely on expensive bottled water for their daily needs.
It is reported that some families pay as much as 25 percent of their income on water. In 2009, Mexico was third among nations in consumption of bottled water.
Waste and Sewage
The principal route for wastewater and sewage leaving Mexico City is the “Grand Canal.” Originally totally dependent on the effects of simple gravity for its operation, the waste system now relies on numerous pumping stations linked into a complex array of pipes, dams, and flow-control tanks.
Particularly heavy flooding in the early 1950s provoked a crisis for the Grand Canal, which could no longer adequately protect the urban center from overflow. A system of deep drainage (drenaje profundo) was proposed. After years of study, the city began construction on the drenaje profundo project in 1967. The extensive system, featuring a deep tunnel called the Emisor Central, was finally completed in 1975, and it remains the critical piece in the city’s drainage complex.
The serious public health consequences of an insufficient supply of clean, quality, drinkable water and of overflowing drains and sewers are obvious.
Unfortunately, over time, with the increase in population and other strains on the city’s infrastructure, the total discharge capacity of the interlinked system has continuously decreased. The Nochistongo Channel remains the only element in the array which has not lost discharge capability over time.
More concentrated and effective wastewater treatment would be a boon for sanitation as well as for the city’s water supply, even if it only added water suitable for irrigation and other non-drinking uses, but little headway has been made in treatment efforts. The serious public health consequences of an insufficient supply of clean, quality, drinkable water and of overflowing drains and sewers are obvious. Metaphorically, the giant metropolitan center that is Mexico City suffers from a massive case of urban constipation.
Engineers say that as much as 70 percent of the city receives running water for less than 12 hours each day. In the most stretched areas, nearly a fifth of the population can wait days just to get one or two hours of water despite the more than $140 million the city spends yearly to deliver tap water to its residents.
Even appreciating the unique history and geography and the vast complexities of Mexico City’s water system, still—why is it that the experiences of Julia and Miguel are so notably different? A big part of the reason, the engineers say, is that the hardest hit section of the city, Iztapalapa, was never intended to be settled.
Some 2 million people moved in from other parts of the country and started living in an area which naturally had no ready infrastructure. Of course, therefore, the ramshackle homes on those dusty streets have no taps for running water and the residents have to travel to distribution points to await the tanker trucks. The situation is a mess, but it is a mess which nobody designed and nobody ever wanted. The disturbing conditions are simply an unfortunate consequence of the way the city developed.
In periods when the water shortages become more acute, rationing is said to start first in the poorest communities and imposed on the affluent areas last.
This characterization is not unfair, but lamenting the section’s evolution is also not particularly helpful. Given the realities with which they live, it is not surprising that the residents, poor, less educated, scraping by, have trouble, as Miguel would put it, getting “their act together,” to solve their water scarcity and quality problems. The government, playing favorites, can inflame the situation.
In periods when the water shortages become more acute, rationing is said to start first in the poorest communities and imposed on the affluent areas last. Iztapalapa is over-crowded and crime infested, and tempers flare. Drivers of the pipa tankers have been hijacked because the residents, frustrated, sometimes end up taking out their anger on the hapless person who appears to be the source for water.
Since the early 1990s, the entire water system of Mexico City has been controlled by a public-private partnership. Several foreign entities are involved, including the French corporations Vivendi and Suez along with the English corporations Severn Trent and United Utilities.
Some observers see discrimination against indigenous peoples, an ancient vein of societal unfairness which has plagued Mexico since the colonial era, as a factor in the way Mexico City distributes its water.
In the 1990s, Mexico established a Law of National Waters to nurture private interest involvement in the usage and distribution of city water. Apparently the newly established arrangement initiated a significant shift in the thinking of the city leadership that, as one critic puts it, “water could no longer be regarded as a public right…but as an economic asset, subject to private appropriation.”
Some observers see discrimination against indigenous peoples, an ancient vein of societal unfairness which has plagued Mexico since the colonial era, as a factor in the way Mexico City distributes its water and even more so in its management of the oceans of wastewater which the city generates. The sewage pumped out of the city is dumped, at the end of its journey, untreated, on the communal lands of the indigenous Hñähñü. Rivers in these areas have been contaminated, wildlife and fish wiped out. A noxious stench pervades the communities.
So Is Mexico City Running Out of Water?
A human being can live for at most 100 hours or so without drinking, less in warm weather or when active. As we know, water scarcity and thirst have often been the precursors to civil unrest and armed conflict. The present ruinous multi-sided war in Syria, for example, grew out of the effects of a searing drought in that region. Although Cape Town escaped at the 11th hour, predictions of what could have happened had its severe drought reached “Day Zero” presented a very real object lesson in water scarcity’s potential for civil disruption.
A few years ago, Mexico City itself promoted a messaging campaign with the theme, “The City May Run Out of Water.” Were that dire situation to occur, it is not hard to imagine the consequences for the already overwrought border control and immigration tensions within the United States and between the United States and Mexico.
Mexico City did demonstrate the foresight to set aside parts of its surface area as conservation land, but this land has since been developed, covered over with asphalt and cement, adding a further barrier to prevent rainwater from replenishing the city’s aquifers.
Mexico is an innovating, modernizing country full of resourceful people. It boasts a booming tech sector and there are parts of the city reminiscent of Silicon Valley, with bright young people hanging out in organic eateries, drinking lattes, typing on laptops, and exchanging ideas. The city has creative proposals to tackle its water issues. Some suggest establishing a fund to which companies which are heavy water users would contribute. The money in the fund would be used to improve water services in the struggling areas of the city.
Various schemes involve increased privatizing of the control of the city’s water. (An experiment in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, with a partnership between government and social activists managing the water supply has had at least partial success.) There is an intriguing proposal for new green space for public use which would also serve as a reservoir for collecting rainwater. A long-term project imagines the current international airport as a vast, green, mixed-use space of housing, shops, and offices.
Unfortunately, there is another toxic element running through the governance, commerce, and civic life in Mexico which with the country has long struggled—deeply rooted corruption. The best ideas and best intentions can wind up wrecked on the shoals of a social system in which corruption has traditionally been endemic.
So is Mexico City running out of water? The answer, clearly, is that it doesn’t have to.
A wide variety of measures can be undertaken to solve the water issues as complicated and vexing as they seem. In response to the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City, the residents came together and helped each other. The damage from the quake was far less than it had been in 1985 because of all the planning and improvements instituted in the intervening decades. There was a feeling of pride in the way the city collectively rose to the occasion.
How, then, does this story end? Will Mexico City run out of water? Or be washed away in a flood? The answer to these questions can only be known with time.
The resilient people of Mexico City can meet the challenges they face in managing their water with the same spirit of enterprise, hard work, and coming together for the common good.
How, then, does this story end? Will Mexico City run out of water? Or be washed away in a flood?
The answer to these questions can only be known with time.
Seth Freeman is a Pacific Council member, a writer/producer for television, a journalist, and a playwright, and he has a Master’s degree in Public Health from UCLA’s Fielding School.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.