The Sink-Or-Swim Politics of Mexico City’s Water Crisis

Two presidential candidates square off over how to get the taps back on in the country’s capital

The Sink-Or-Swim Politics of Mexico City’s Water Crisis
Distributing water to residents in Mexico City. (Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There are three steps to steal water from Mexico City’s mains. First, open up the asphalt outside a house. That might be difficult, but thieves often come with construction equipment. Second, find a pipe and unscrew one of its joins. If water comes out, a bigger if than ever, the third step is to collect it. “They’ll take it with pipes, pickup trucks, even cans,” says Ricardo Retena, a social worker in Milpa Alta, a southern borough of the city where videos of daylight water theft now litter local Facebook groups.

These are not smash-and-grab affairs. North of the city some farms have permanent illegal connections. In Milpa Alta, thieves, often wearing uniforms matching the city’s utility workers, sell the water illegally, like an evolution of the city’s petrol-pinching gangs, called “huachicoleros.” “It’s less suspicious at the end of the day,” Retena says, “if someone in a government vest does it.” How, then, can you tell these are illegal connections? “Well, they aren’t exactly putting in a water meter.”

Retena’s borough was one of the first to feel the water crisis, which has spread across the capital and grown in places to fever pitch. At midnight one Friday in November, authorities began the strictest water cuts in the city’s history, citing drought, aging infrastructure and water theft. Then in April they closed the city’s largest reservoir altogether. The same week locals in Benito Juarez, a borough at the opposite end of the city to Milpa Alta, took to the streets asking why their tap water started to smell bad, infecting cuts on their hands.

It’s a crisis a decade in the making and, without dramatic fixes, experts say the city could be approaching “Day Zero” — when a city simply runs out of water — around June. That would leave up to 20 million people in and around the capital facing a summer without running water. June also happens to be the month when Mexico will choose its next president.

The outgoing president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is known, among other things, for his charisma and long press conferences. His final year in office has also been marked by a plague of environmental catastrophes. In October, a Category 5 hurricane killed more than 50 people on the Pacific coast. Flooding in the east created an entire town of climate refugees, and at the time of writing, three-quarters of the country is in a drought. At one point this spring, almost half of those drought-stricken states were also on fire.

Yet when a recent election poll asked Mexicans to rank the country’s biggest problems, the environment came 13th. That’s not unusual. In a record-breaking year both of elections and rising temperatures, climate change has rarely been a winning talking point for politicians. In Mexico, the top four issues polled are unfortunate mainstays of the political ecosystem: corruption, security, violence and narcos. But the fifth is unusual: lack of water.

Rodolfo Tamayo was a veteran environmental official in the Mexican government before becoming a special climate envoy to the United Nations. If Day Zero arrives before the election he is in no doubt: “There would be a civil rebellion,” he tells New Lines from the capital. He might well say that, because he is running environmental policy for the opposition candidate, Xochitl Galvez. Her opponent, Claudia Sheinbaum, is not only consistently polling double digits ahead, but also promised to fix the city’s water system when she was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2018.

Tamayo admits he is puzzled that climate doesn’t weigh more heavily on voters but says that water shortages could be the sharp edge of climate change to scythe through public ennui.

“They are denying the problem,” says Tamayo. “But people know about the problem because they don’t have water.”

The question now is whether Day Zero arrives before election day, and if it does, whether residents of Mexico’s capital will remember what the front-running candidate once promised them.

Mexico City’s water system draws from a complex combination of reservoirs and wells, with different boroughs relying on a different combination of the two. Milpa Alta, one of the poorest and most rural boroughs in the capital, relies entirely on wells, but it still feels the pinch when reservoirs are low because the city redirects the borough’s well water north to make up the deficit.

Different boroughs also feel the crisis differently. Where Tamayo lives, many residents can afford to buy bottled water or even arrange for private trucks to deliver it. But in Milpa Alta and other poorer boroughs, many are forced to look elsewhere: asking family and friends in other parts of the city, buying from thieves on the black market, or trudging to the outskirts of the city to fill up jerrycans at some free public wells that still flow.

It is unlikely officials would let the system run to failure before implementing severe rationing, but that alone would mean longer and more frequent outages, with knock-on effects. When Cape Town began rationing water to narrowly avoid its own Day Zero in 2017, the restrictions ripped through the city’s agricultural and tourism sectors — irrigation was cut in the fields, sending food prices sky high; even high-end hotels couldn’t reliably offer a hot shower each morning to their guests. It’s now estimated the city’s brush with Day Zero cost 300,000 jobs and pushed 50,000 people into poverty, as food prices rose.

Every year Mexico City’s reserves dip with the dry season and gradually refill in the wet. A week after the record-breaking cuts began in November, officials slipped a graph into the department’s weekly PowerPoint presentation modeling that ebb and flow. Along the bottom was a dotted, horizontal line representing Day Zero: Dip below that and the whole system stops working.

The first striking thing about the graph is how sickly this year’s rainy season looks, even compared to 2022. Around the world climate change is polarizing weather patterns — making the dry drier and the wet wetter. But in 2023, Mexico’s seasons were thrown another degree out of sorts by a potent El Nino. It was the driest year on record since 1941, and at the time the strictest cuts began, over 90% of the Valley of Mexico was already in drought.

The second striking part of the graph is a multicolored cluster of predictions for the dry season, falling toward the Day Zero line like a damp firework. Without any more cuts, officials predicted the system would fail at the start of April 2024. Start restricting and that date pushes back month by month until, if you cut back the whole system by a quarter, it skims just over the failure line in June.

For experts, the most frustrating part of the city’s water crisis is how completely predictable it was. Tamayo says it was obvious when he was in government 10 years ago. Manuel Perlo, an urban planning professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, tells New Lines, “The lack of water due to lack of rain is not new, and we can trace the problem back to 2009” when the city had its worst drought since the 1940s.

That same year, the Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis predicted the capital “may one day die of thirst.” This year reserves are already one-fifth lower than they were during the historic 2009 drought.

Perlo promises to explain if I meet him at the Carcamo in the city’s central Chapultepec Park. Built around a Diego Rivera mural — two cupped hands overflowing with streaks of water, themselves heavy with symbols of all kinds of organismic life — the Carcamo commemorates the completion of the first part of the city’s reservoir system in 1951. It’s essential viewing, Perlo says, “if you want to understand the amount of effort put into supplying Mexico City with water.”

Ironically, Mexico City was originally founded on a huge high-altitude lake, which conquistadors gradually drained to control flooding. As the modern city spread through the valley like concrete moss, less water could filter back into the ground. “We have built in the last 300 years a system that expels water from the Valley of Mexico basin,” Perlo says.

To him, for all its beauty the Carcamo symbolizes the city’s commitment to a hugely complex network for bringing water into the city, while wasting what little it already has. “We don’t recharge. We don’t circulate the water in the valley.”

That waste takes many forms. Perlo and a team of academics calculated that roughly 40% of the city’s reservoir water goes missing: stolen or leaking out of old pipes. What rain there is washes off the city’s concrete shoulders and is collected along with wastewater to channel out of the city. There is no more violent example of this surplus than in 2021 when drainage from Mexico City forced the Tula River to burst its banks. The ensuing flood killed 15 people.

Two years before the disaster, then-Mayor Sheinbaum had vowed to fix the water system’s leaks and begin a city-wide rollout of rainwater capture systems. But the funding for those projects has not materialized, according to Perlo. In that vacuum, trying to future-proof the city’s water has fallen to charities like Isla Urbana, which has installed thousands of rainwater capture systems, mostly in poorer boroughs across the south of the city.

Sheinbaum is often touted as a “woman of science,” both for a doctorate degree in energy engineering and for sharing a Nobel Peace Prize for co-authoring energy chapters of the U.N.’s 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But Tamayo, who served in the national environmental department while Sheinbaum was mayor, says she consistently chose polluting infrastructure (like new highways) over funding projects that might have mitigated the Tula flood (like wastewater treatment plants).

For much of our conversation Tamayo speaks with the measure of a U.N. envoy. But on Sheinbaum and the Tula flood I sense the diplomatic gloves come off. “You can say that you received environmental courses at the university where you studied your Ph.D.,” he says. “But if you don’t apply those principles in your daily decisions as a government executive? Well you’re not really committed to the environmental cause. You trade your environmental principles for political convenience.”

Sheinbaum’s campaign team did not respond to a request for comment, nor did officials from the national and Mexico City water departments.

Tamayo and Retena disagree on whether the crisis will make any political difference in the end. The U.N. diplomat insists Galvez is catching up to Sheinbaum; as we talk he texts me a poll that shows there are five points between the two, with 17% of voters undecided. Retena says it’s too late, with all the establishment weight of the outgoing president behind Sheinbaum. “The corruption is too strong,” he tells me.

Nor is there much more agreement over how to solve the problem, and there are no easy fixes. Mexico’s Green Party (a small part of Sheinbaum’s coalition) indicated to me in an email that they would instate a government program of free rain capture systems for homes without water. Tamayo says, if elected, Galvez’s administration would build wastewater treatment plants to reuse more of the city’s water.

Perlo insists the problem is leaks and thefts. Even if officials pumped desalinated water from the Gulf of Mexico at great expense and environmental detriment, he says, it wouldn’t be enough if 40% continues to go missing. And it is true that the water which would have been saved by Sheinbaum’s promise to find and fix the city’s leaks would soothe the current crisis. Whether that would ever have been possible is another question, but it would not future-proof a system that is gradually drying.

The most reliable solution does not make for a palatable political slogan: a combination of minimizing leaks and thefts from stored water while moving toward a more circular system that catches rain and reuses as much waste as possible.

For his part, Retena says thefts in Milpa Alta were never the cause of the city’s problem in the first place — just a symptom of the crisis. “We used to have water 24 hours a day — you could turn on a faucet at any time of day and water would come out,” Retena says. “Now there are times when homes don’t have water for a month. Not because there isn’t any, but because they send it to the city.”

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