Drought Emergency in Mexico Rekindles Demand for Water Law Reform

Norma Ortiz, 41, of Mexico’s Nuevo León State, has to make tough decisions about water. Does she use the little clean water her family has for bathing or laundry? Is it better to buy increasingly expensive food or overpriced bottled water to cook it?

These are some of the many dilemmas she now faces everyday because of a deepening drought that forced local governments to partially or totally cut off the water supply to residents of Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Sonora and Baja California states in northern Mexico. The predicament is further complicated by the murkiness of the little water some of them have access to, she said.

“Sometimes we are even afraid to use it,” Ortiz said of the green, foul-smelling fluid filled with tiny particles that make it impossible to see to the bottom of the pot. “It’s good for washing dishes, but those solid residues, we don’t know what they are.”

Ortiz lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter and her eighty-six-year-old mother in Guadalupe, a municipality on the east side of Monterrey. It is the second-largest municipality in the state and 15 percent of the population lives in moderate poverty conditions. 

In 2012, Mexico wrote the human right to water into its constitution, but 10 years later, the number of people without access to clean water has spiked. In recent weeks, parched protesters have filled the streets demanding the precious liquid, and, on July 12, the government declared the water shortage a national emergency.

Since the beginning of the year, northern Mexico has been experiencing a severe drought that has left millions of citizens without water. By July, when people in Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Baja California, Sonora, Coahuila and Mexico City states began taking the streets, 70 percent of the national territory was experiencing some level of drought and 25 percent was in severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Samuel García, the mayor of Monterrey, one of the most parched cities, even asked people to light candles and pray for rain.

Global warming is increasing drought and aridity in the region, and climate cycles like La Niña have historically dried out Mexico. But critics say neither of those are the main cause of this crisis. Instead, they point to the failure of the country to write laws that support its constitutional right to water. Some Mexicans, enraged by their government’s mismanagement of the resource, which they say is being turned into a commodity for sale rather than something they have a right to, are demanding that their water supply be restored.

“It Is Predatory”

Convenience stores near Ortiz’s home began limiting sales of water to two 1.5-gallon jugs per family, she said, but the shops often run out anyway. When they restock at three in the morning, everyone is waiting to go inside and get them. “It is predatory,” she said. “It’s throwing yourself against everyone to see who gets the jugs.”

Meanwhile, people living on the outskirts of Monterrey, in Nuevo León, blocked the highway to prevent the extraction of water from one of the rivers to take into the city. In Coahuila, people complained about their soaring water bills, which have almost tripled for many citizens, Ortiz said, and run as high as $30 a month for what used to cost $7 for some.

Residents wait in line for not potable water delivered by a tanker truck in Colonia Mirador de Garcia, Mexico, in July 2022. A truck carrying more than 4,000 gallons of not potable is distributed to residents. García is a municipality located to the northwest of the Monterrey metropolitan area. Credit: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

With some citizens getting sick—among them Ortiz’s niece and one of her neighbor’s daughters from contaminated water, and others watching their livestock and crops die, people like her are considering moving their families to other states to protect their lives and livelihoods. But “that is an advantage that many people do not have,” she said. 

The Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources declaration of a national state of emergency, allowing the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) to take extraordinary measures to guarantee the supply of water to the affected states, did little to increase Mexicans’ confidence that their thirst would be quenched in any lasting way. The government has instituted the same state of emergency once or more a year since at least 2015.

Leaky Water Policy Vulnerable to Corruption and Mismanagement

“Drought is not scarcity,” said the water consultant Jessica Hernández. 

Climate is just one complication of a much bigger problem: the country’s lack of preparation to face its water crisis, she said. Dry weather alone wouldn’t leave people without water if there were reliable storage systems, she said. On top of the lack of infrastructure to store water for dry times, she said, the large number of actors involved in the management of the resource can lead to water pollution and overexploitation.

But the lack of preparation to endure drought points to deeper problems that prevent the water from flowing to people like Ortiz. Everything goes back to Mexico’s current water policies. For years now, experts like Hernández and Ramón Aguirre, a civil engineer who specializes in water issues, have warned that uncontrolled population growth, excessive contamination of freshwater sources and general abuse of the resource was increasing inequities in the access to water.

“There are people hogging the water,” Ortiz said of international companies that produce soda and beer, local business owners and people in wealthy neighborhoods who overdraw the resource. 

The last national census in 2020 showed that since 2010, the proportion of households nationwide without access to drinking water grew from 11.8 percent to 22.4 percent. In 2019, Mexico ranked 24th in the World Resources Institute’s list of countries facing water stress. 

Even before the crisis reached the dire state documented in those numbers, the Mexican congress attempted to solve it in 2012 by including the human right to water in Article 4 of the nation’s constitution. “Every person has the right to access, provision and sanitation of water for personal and domestic consumption in a sufficient, healthy, acceptable and affordable way,” the document states. But the country still doesn’t have a general water law explaining how to achieve this, or who should oversee the process.

The national water law that does exist prioritizes water first for public consumption, then for agriculture and finally for industry, explained Aguirre. “But it doesn’t mention what are the responsibilities of the federal government, of the state governments, of the municipal governments, of the state as a whole, of society itself, in order to make the human right to water a priority.”

So, 10 years after the right to water was included in the constitution, the country is still dividing the plans and processes for maintaining the supply and distribution of clean water between local governments, federal institutions and private parties all at once. The result is a cacophony of conflicting interests in which the biggest challenge is just reaching agreements, Hernández said. Water distribution is “a nobody wins it all issue,” she said, and no one wants to lose.

A Lack of Investment and Little Transparency

CONAGUA determines how much usable water there is in the country, then decides how to distribute it for domestic use, agriculture, industries or public services through a system of concessions. However, it is one thing to distribute it on paper and another to make sure it reaches people. This responsibility falls to local governments, and each manages the resource, storage systems and pipeline infrastructure of their municipalities differently.

But the distribution programs have holes, Hernández said. “Sometimes there is no institutional capacity to manage that availability, or there are no operation policies for the storage systems,” she said. “There is where a lot of capacity to deliver water is lost.” 

In the meantime, demand is growing.

To keep the country’s water infrastructure operating optimally and support the oversight required to stanch bad management practices and corruption would require an investment of about half a percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Aguirre, the water engineer, said. “The problem is that currently [the country] is just investing 0.2 [percent],” he said.

An investigation by the advocacy group Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity) found that there’s no accurate data to know how much water is used by private parties holding concessions granted them by the government. The national water law states that all holders of a concession must have a meter, but the group found that only about 11 percent of users holding a concession have them. On top of that, CONAGUA only has 115 inspectors for the entire country, giving each of them, on average, just over 4,300 concessions to monitor. 

The lack of vigilance and lax law enforcement leads to the overexploitation of water basins, wells and dams, said Hernández. 

For example, in May, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, the former governor of Nuevo León—one of the most drought-stricken states—was accused of diverting 18,000 million pesos ($900 million U.S.) from the Monterrey Water and Drainage Services, of permitting development of unregulated lands without having the needed water infrastructure in place and of removing three times the water allowable from the La Boca and Cerro Prieto dams that supply the state.

Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción also found that there are large agricultural companies overdrawing water supplies for their farm fields, leaving nearby communities dry or with polluted water. Water for farming is free and the companies’ concessions can last up to 30 years, giving them little incentive to conserve. In other cases, users forge documents to obtain water concessions, dig illegal wells or build infrastructure to divert streamflows to irrigate crops.

The leaks in the country’s water policy compound on one another so that, when climate events strike, they can drain the limited supply, leaving household users in a frenzy to find enough to survive. 

Experts anticipate an intensification of extreme climate events in Mexico, with some places getting more rain and others getting less. “It becomes a matter of preparing ourselves for the different scenarios,” Hernández said, but that won’t be possible if the gaps in the nation’s day-to-day water policy allow its reserves of clean water to continue to decline and a few users to monopolize it. 

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Things could change in the near future. In May, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation resolved to issue a general water law this year.

Along with that, Hernández thinks that the country should pivot from the disaster-response mindset that has led to the annual emergency declarations to instead focus on long-term solutions and disaster prevention plans for drought and water shortages. That will require constant investment and a lot of political will, along with public awareness of the need and acceptance of the redirection of a percentage of government resources to those plans. 

“Infrastructure issues are not temporary,” she said. “To prepare for climate change I’m not going to get ready a year in advance for what is to come. They’re planning horizons of 20, 30 or 50 years.”

Meanwhile, people at the lowest socioeconomic levels are often left behind in the race to get enough water to survive. While wealthy neighborhoods have water to fill swimming pools and leave their sprinklers on for hours, Ortiz said, in low-income neighborhoods like hers, there are people getting sick because the only water that reaches them is dirty. Others have died from heat stroke. The average temperature for the last month has ranged from 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There are too many elderly, and there are people who are invalid,” she said. “They don’t get a chance to run and reach for the water truck.” 

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