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Drought + Integrity Failures - The Making of a Water Crisis in Mexico City

Water crisis is not just a result of lack of water

water tap outside with bright red handle and a spider web hanging from faucet
Photo - VictorHugoGaribay - IStock Photos

A long-read by Kelly Acuña and Rebecca Sands, Water Integrity Network - Programme Leads.

Greater Mexico City, home to nearly 23 million people, is in the throes of a severe water crisis. 84% of the country’s territory is currently grappling with some degree of drought, with 100% of Mexico City experiencing severe drought as of May 15, 2024. The prolonged drought and unprecedented temperatures are prompting fears of an impending "Day Zero" scenario.

The impact of climate change on water and sanitation service delivery is tremendous and cannot be underestimated. However, a lack of water is not solely to blame for the water crisis in Mexico City. With claims of severe mismanagement and warnings by residents and officials alike that have gone neglected for the better part of a decade, we must examine the degree to which weak integrity is contributing to the dire situation for many.


Mismanagement and weak controls: exacerbating the strain on already limited resources

Mexico City's historical abundance of rainfall once provided ample water for its residents, but urbanization has transformed its landscape into concrete and steel. Unmanageable growth and the depletion of green areas, needed for replenishing aquifers, is aggravating water scarcity. One important reason for this is the expansion of “carteles inmobiliarios”, or real estate cartels, many of whom obtain construction permits from the city government indiscriminately or illegally, leaving behind social and environmental damage.

Water provision in Mexico City has necessitated complex and costly engineering solutions. The city now relies heavily on aquifers hundreds of meters underground or water sourced from over 100 kilometers away via the Cutzamala reservoir system.

Excessive groundwater extraction is causing the city to sink and Mexico City's approach has become unsustainable, inefficient, and financially burdensome. The issues are compounded by unregulated extraction practices. Even where entities have the permits to drill new wells, there is little to no abstraction control, which often results in water users exceeding the extraction limits.

Moreover, mismanagement of water resources and the inadequate maintenance of water infrastructure has led to very high water losses (40%), attributable in part to both deteriorating pipes and illegal connections. Corruption has an intricate relationship with non-revenue water, as it hampers oversight, weakens institutional capacity to address the issue, contributes to poor quality infrastructure, and diverts funds needed for essential maintenance, upgrades and monitoring.


Inequality of access, water theft and misappropriation

When so many residents of the city already face significant restrictions and water poverty, a 40% loss of water is maddening. The impacts of water stress in Mexico City are highly unequal and particularly severe in low-income, peri-urban neighbourhoods.

While wealthier areas of the city seem largely unaffected, water cuts have grown more extreme for the city’s underserved or areas with high level of social marginalization. In some communities, it is not uncommon for residents to go without running water for months –a regular occurrence even before the current crisis began.

On top of this, due to poor access or no piped infrastructure at all, residents living in low-income areas must often resort to different means to secure just enough water to get by: a community faucet, a well, the purchasing of bottled water, or water truck delivery. Water quality is often suboptimal, the daily search -often assigned to women or female heads-of households- is time consuming and exhausting, and the costs are high. Water truck delivery is up to 14 times more expensive than regular water service from the public network.

“Poor water management in the city has increased burdens on women who are heads of households, thus reducing their financial and time resources to access equal job, educational, and social opportunities. Additionally, the unreliability of water services has disproportionately affected historically marginalized communities, turning the water crisis into a social issue.”

-Tamara Luengo, Aqueducto

Water theft is also a major issue There are thieves that tap pipelines and illegally sell back water to vulnerable water users for an inflated cost. Stealing water to sell illegally, or ‘huachicoleo’, is increasingly profitable as the city’s delivery system becomes more unreliable.

The current concession system appears to give preferential treatment to private companies who use billions of litres of water per year -often exceeding what is allowed with impunity. There is often inaccurate data on water use and payment and continued commercialization of water sourced from non-complying water permits.

And it is not just Mexico City’s residents who are suffering. Communities outside of the city who once had plentiful lakes to fish in and source their daily water have seen these disappear. Today, on the shores of their dry lakebeds, wells are being installed to extract groundwater and pump it all the way to the capital.


Lack of transparency

Another major issue highlighted by residents and experts alike is the lack of transparency about the real situation of the Cutzamala system.

In early 2024, the National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data (INAI) requested the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) to report on the hydraulic infrastructure that currently connects the country's dams with towns, cities, municipalities, states or any other destination. CONAGUA allegedly did not forward the request for information to all of its competent administrative units and there is uncertainty whether CONAGUA provided all the information available.

INAI determined that CONAGUA did not comply with the search procedure established by the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information and called into question CONAGUA’s ability to monitor the exploitation of water resources across the country. Given that CONAGUA itself has often referred to the complexities and deficiencies of water resources across the country, INAI has reaffirmed that access to this information is all the more important in order to understand possible lines of action in the event of shortages.

The information that is generated around the issue of water is of utmost relevance to decision-making and also to the generation of public policies to guarantee the human right that every person has to access information related to the provision and sanitation of water for personal and domestic consumption, which must be sufficient, healthy, acceptable and affordable,” warned the INAI through commissioner Josefina Román Vergara (translated from Spanish).

There is also lack of transparency on water quality throughout the city, as exemplified by the recent case of water contamination in the district of Benito Juárez. In early April, more than 400 people complained about the quality of their water. After testing water samples, the Mexico City water supplier (SACMEX) initially determined that the water was of good quality. However, they subsequently advised residents of the area not to drink or bathe with it. No information was provided on the source of possible contamination nor potential health risks.

Further, on April 29, SACMEX made the decision to keep the laboratory results confidential for the next three years so that they are not “erroneously interpreted”. This appears to be a clear violation of the human right to access information, recognised in the constitution itself.


Politicization in the face of low accountability

The city's water crisis has arrived alongside a crucial moment: the Mexican general election is slated for June 2, 2024. For voters, the crisis cannot be ignored. In February, for the first time, water scarcity surpassed security as the main concern of Mexico City's residents, with the percentage of voters flagging the issue more than tripling from last May, according to the research firm Aragon.

A group protests Mexico's water legislation outside the National Water Commission offices in Mexico City on World Water Day, March 23, 2023. A woman holds up a sign, which reads (in Spanish): "It's not drought, it's plunder. No to the privatization of water."
An activist protests Mexico's water legislation outside the National Water Commission offices in Mexico City on World Water Day, March 23, 2023. Her sign reads: "It's not drought, it's plunder. No to the privatization of water." Cody Copeland for Courthouse News

For Raúl Rodríguez Márquez, president of the Water Advisory Council (a CSO dedicated to convening different stakeholders around water challenges in Mexico), the most serious issue is that the problem is not being adequately recognized. “They say that to solve a problem the first thing you have to do is recognize it, and we believe that the authorities still do not see this as a serious problem,” he explained to reporters at CNN.

The lack of recognition of the problem and concerns of residents, by relevant authorities and decision-makers, is weakening accountability. In this setting, the crisis is being politicized by incumbents and challengers alike.

Despite CONAGUA appearing unable to provide documentation on the country’s water infrastructure and dam connections to inform possible plans of action, it assured BBC Mundo that a potential “Day Zero” date of June 26 is a misinterpretation of different scenarios. In recent months, CONAGUA has since declined multiple interview requests and will not answer specific questions on the prospect of such a scenario.

Current officeholders are also downplaying the issue. In a press conference on February 14, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that work was underway to address the water problems. The specifics of such work were not clarified. Meanwhile, Mexico City’s mayor, Martí Batres Guadarrama, said in a recent press conference that reports of day zero were “fake news”, spread by political opponents.

Conversely, the opposition is seizing on the crisis to stoke voters’ fears about water security. In early 2024, opposition presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez stated in multiple interviews that even in April there could be limited availability to pump water to the city. This prediction has not materialized. Further muddying the waters, José Luis Luege, the former head of CONAGUA, is a part of Gálvez’s campaign team.

Lastly, ostracization of the media is obstructing transparency and public scrutiny. On April 11, President López Obrador confronted Telemundo journalist Vanessa Hauc over water shortages in Mexico. Hauc stated that data from CONAGUA warns that 3 out of every 10 Mexican households do not have access to water, and cited specific information about the state of Chiapas, where vulnerable populations do not have access to water. As a response, President López Obrador accused the media of not being objective or professional.

In the face of a potentially grave situation, the absence of accountability for the historic and continued dysfunction of the system, as well as a lack of critical information on the country’s water resources and infrastructure, have allowed politicians to manipulate the narrative. As the election approaches, the politicization of the water crisis continues, leaving residents to grapple with an uncertain future.


One-sided solutions?

The solutions to the crisis currently being proposed are centred on building mega infrastructure to bring water from areas outside Mexico City. Some of these areas such as Tabasco or Chiapas (suggested by president Obrador), are almost 1,000 miles away. On top of taking water from these communities, such a solution is costly, energy-intensive, and does nothing to solve the problem of the water being wasted once it arrives in the city, nor the issues related to decision-making around allocation.

On its website, CONAGUA has announced a three-year project aimed at enhancing water infrastructure to better manage the stress related to reductions from the Cutzamala system. The project includes the installation of new wells and the commissioning of water treatment plants. Physical improvements to the system are certainly necessary. However, approaches that rely almost exclusively on technological solutions continue to ignore the ways in which poor governance and corruption are contributing to the problem and hampering the development of adequate and effective infrastructure in the first place.

Moreover, experts indicate that even if the city had the necessary funds –which it does not– the extensive construction needed for a swift infrastructure overhaul is unfeasible in a city with such a large population and so many daily commuters.

In the Mexican press and in the run-up to June’s election, there are debates on whether to involve the private sector more strongly in finding solutions. Opposition figure Santiago Taboada, for example, has proposed public-private models, citing the lack of enough public money to fix the crisis. Such a solution also needs to be examined in light of the specific and underlying integrity risks that can jeopardise its effectiveness and affect service to those most in need.

Integirty risks related to PPPs in water and sanitation can include conflicts of interest, flexibility built into long-term contracts that may create space for low accountability, a higher probability of bribery and collusion due to the often very high value of contracts, and challenges for monitoring and regulation brought on by limited transparency in complex financial structures. PPPs are also not immune to questionable electoral campaign dynamics, where companies may work to finance their supporters’ campaigns in exchange for favourable policies.


So, what can be done for integrity?

Increase transparency

Regardless of the upcoming election results, those in power must prioritize transparency, ensuring that everyone has unobstructed access to information about water use (including that of private companies), availability, dam levels, groundwater resources, service levels in underserved areas, water quality, utility budgets, financial capacities, and efforts to reduce non-revenue water.

Transparency also goes hand in hand with accountability, which can be supported by civil society organizations and oversight institutions like INAI and InfoCDMX. These organisations currently face threats of reduction or elimination by the government. Their preservation and strengthening must be prioritized. Additionally, the media must be protected and supported so they can play their role in disseminating information and holding politicians accountable.

Focus on equity in allocation

Leaders need to engage more effectively with communities and civil society to address equity of access and local solutions for water issues. Many low-income communities have long experienced day-zero conditions and continue to feel excluded from decision-making. Strengthening the Consejos de Cuenca, a mechanism that incorporates citizen participation in water resource decisions, and publishing information on their activities and outcomes, is essential.

Additionally, reinforcing the human right to water in legal frameworks is crucial, such as through the establishment of water as a national common, where decisions about its use must come from all of Mexico’s people.

Amend concessions and implement anti-corruption mechanisms in their enforcement

The current system of water concessions results:

  • in a profound lack of information about how much water private companies extract and for what purposes,

  • in the government's inability to collect payments or monitor how water resources are exploited, and

  • in the inequity of distribution.

The effective monitoring of concessions needs to be greatly improved. The system itself probably also needs to be overhauled, likely through a new General Water Law. This law should prioritize the human rights to water and sanitation and the people over profit by restricting water concessions in areas facing shortages or drought and prioritizing personal and domestic water use. Central to a new law should also be robust anti-corruption instruments that mitigate issues such as falsified documents in the obtaining of concessions.

Address risk in early-stage decision and planning processes

Infrastructure upgrades and technical solutions are likely to remain a priority. It is therefore crucial to strengthen early-stage decision-making, budgeting, and planning processes so that the right infrastructure is built, where it is most needed, and with high standards. These steps are vital for mitigating various integrity risks such as conflict of interest or misuse of public funds. Organizations like WIN and CoST – the Infrastructure Transparency Initiative have developed tools to assist with these processes.

Change the norms, make integrity the expectation and priority

Promoting and valuing integrity to change social norms and organisational culture can go a long way. Accepting or expecting corruption as the default should no longer be an option. For example, as highlighted in the upcoming Water Integrity Global Outlook on Finance, when presented with information showing that most other people were opposed to corruption, participants in Mexico felt an increase in trust in other people’s views. This information also made them more likely to reject the idea that corruption was an inherent part of Mexican culture and decreased the likelihood of paying a bribe. These findings are hugely important, implying that the correct messaging can significantly affect participation in corrupt activities.

Strong, ethical leadership is also crucial, to make sure there is no easy reason and rationalisation for corruption. The upcoming Mexican election presents a timely opportunity for the city and country’s leadership to rise to the occasion.


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