Drought in Mexico leads to water rationing and theft


Jesús Hidrogo Tristán begins his days fetching water.

He goes from paying distributor to paying distributor, looking for one that hasn’t dried up.

The 43-year-old systems engineer lives with his brother and mother in Colinas de Valle Verde, a neighborhood in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon, in northern Mexico, 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 – due to an escalating heat wave and drought affecting more than half the country. Most days the temperatures 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 had to queue for hours to receive water rations from delivery trucks. In some towns, residents have started plugging pipes illegally, according to media reports. The demonstrators have become accustomed to disrupting traffic.

Previous years have brought temporary shortages, but this time it’s 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, the reservoirs that typically supply water to the region’s 5 million people are low or dry. Experts say a confluence of factors is to blame, including population growth, rising water demand, poor infrastructure and soaring temperatures. In the long term, climate change resulting from human activity will likely increase the frequency and severity of these weather changes, including heat waves and droughts.

Since the beginning of the year, the Mexican authorities have periodically interrupted the water supply to households, to manage the shortage due to the drought. In Monterrey, the government scheduled water shutdowns by zone, telling residents they would be notified in advance. But according to Hidrogo Tristán, the government has not kept its promises.

“When we have water, we let it be known via a WhatsApp group: come get a bucket, two buckets, take it,” he said.

According to Roberto Ponce-Lopez, a professor of urban studies at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, government communication is only a small part of a larger and persistent problem. He said poor water management existed long before the current crisis, under multiple administrations, and while there have been efforts to alleviate water shortages by building more dams, those plans have fallen between the cracks. He added that proposals to dig new water points only materialized two months ago.

“Current infrastructure cannot meet the demands of urban growth,” he said. “It made the perfect fit.”

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, water shortages in Mexico and Central America are expected to persist for 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 climate change are also 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% of the world’s largest manufacturers in fields such as aerospace, electronics and beverages, Monterrey has the highest per capita income in the country and is known as the industrial heartland of Mexico. Since 1990, Monterrey’s urban population has doubled, largely due to an increase in residential development that has taken over the urban landscape, which experts say has put additional pressure on the water supply.

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

“Water consumption for operations and production comes from water rights that are paid for and used under strict government oversight and guidelines,” reads a joint statement to The Washington Post from Coca-Cola Mexico. and its bottler, Arca Continental. However, under new government guidelines to prioritize publicly available water, Coca-Cola 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 manner,” the statement said.

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

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

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

“It doesn’t take your rights away, it doesn’t take your water away; it is an interim measure just so that this summer comes out of this crisis. A day later, in another video posted on his Instagram account, García announced that the government would build an aqueduct.

“The challenge is huge,” said Jesús González Ramírez, a local Monterrey official whose department helps resolve neighborhood disputes. To manage the unrest, González Ramírez’s team has started attending protests, to find out what participants say they need.

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

The crisis presents itself differently in rich areas. Those who can afford it go to social clubs or gyms to shower. Many middle and upper class families have water tanks and cisterns in their homes. Hidrogo Tristán, who has a water tank, explains that the water that accumulates there is used for domestic purposes such as flushing toilets and cleaning kitchen utensils.

“In 20 years, I had never experienced anything like this,” said Valdés Salinas, secretary of public services for Monterrey. “We have so much work every day.”

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