Water crisis is so bad in Mexico City that it is one of 11 cities predicted to reach Day Zero – the day the water runs dry

Mexico City’s water is quite literally disappearing. I have no doubt that in 2022 there will be a crisis, the reservoirs are completely depleted.

What is happening in Mexico City?

The ancient Aztecs originally engineered the origins of Mexico City on top of Lake Texcoco and left the surrounding natural freshwater lakes intact for use. However, as the city grew the lakes were drained to make way for infrastructure, homes, and a growing population.

With expansion came an increasingly dire water security dilemma. Much of the city’s water supply comes from an underground aquifer that is being drained at an irreplaceable rate. As the aquifer is drained, Mexico City is sinking downwards rapidly at twenty inches per year.

Despite heavy flooding and rainfall, the city is facing a water shortage. In fact, more than 20 million residents don’t have enough water to drink for nearly half the year.

One in five people have access to only a few hours of running water from their taps a week and 20% have running water for part of the day. Counting on clean water is far from reliable for many.

Current projections estimate that global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40% in 2030. Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, has a population of nearly 22 million and is growing steadily with population growth expected to hit 30 million by 2030.

Mexico City is one of 11 cities predicted to reach what is called Day Zero, or the day when the water runs dry. This is nothing short of a crisis. “Each drop of water that passes through the Mexican capital tells a heroic, tragic, unfinished story of urban growth and human development.

Why is Mexico City in a water crisis?

There are a few reasons why a city on top of an aquifer and with a very heavy rainy season struggles to provide potable water for its residents. Specifically, the challenges to water security are widespread and difficult for urban designers, environmentalists, and politicians alike.

A lack of sanitary wastewater treatment across the city hinders water collection and poses a huge challenge to keeping existing water clean for use.

Additionally, Mexico City’s pipes are old and leaking. According to the University of Pittsburgh, Mexico City loses 1,000 liters of water per second because of an outdated water system that is being crushed by the falling city and punctuated by thousands of small leaks.

Finally, rainwater collection exists, but no city-wide system is in place. When it rains, water often mixes with sewage and cannot be used.

Why is the city sinking?

Mexico City ended all groundwater drilling in the city central in the 1950s yet water is pumped up from below in the surrounding areas and GPS data has found the city is continuing to drop.

As water extraction has chased groundwater deeper and deeper underground, the clay lake bed is now completely dry and the tightly packed mineral soil is causing irreversible compaction. This phenomenon, called subsistence, does not have a quick fix.

Additionally, water from rain storms cannot permeate the concrete-covered city and refill the aquifer. A 2021 study made the claim that there is no hope for significant elevation and storage capacity recovery. Much of the water must be pumped to the city using hydro engineering from reservoirs thousands of kilometers away.

Mexico City is sinking, why is Mexico City sinking
Why is Mexico City sinking? Image: Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

Drought is a threat multiplier

Mexico continues to experience one of the most widespread droughts in decades. Unusually low rainfall has already reduced access to water in the capital. The reservoirs in Cutzamala outside the city provide a quarter of the city’s water but in 2020 the reservoirs were nearly 18 percentage points below normal levels. As precious reservoir levels plummet, the city authorities have reduced the flow from the reservoirs, which has been affecting tap water access. Some residents are relying on water delivery trucks and even donkeys.

This occurrence is predicted to repeat. Researchers have estimated the availability of natural water for the city could decrease by up to 17% by 2050 as temperatures rise.

More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city’s collapse,” writes Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times.

What is Mexico doing to stop its water crisis?

Mexico recognizes the pressing issue of water facing their biggest city. Mexico City initiated the Green Plan project, which will run until 2022 with goals such as reducing groundwater losses and repairing water infrastructure among others.

Former president Enrique Peña Nieto signed a series of presidential decrees in 2018 to create water reserves in nearly 300 river basins throughout the country. And $7.4 billion has been dedicated to mitigating the water crisis by Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo in 2019.

It’s a paradox. It’s a catastrophe. Right now Mexico City is sinking and its infrastructure is literally breaking. And on the other hand there is no way for the water to filter into the aquifer naturally. And you can imagine how expensive it is to change the entire piping system.

There is no easy solution to Mexico City’s water crisis, but perhaps it lies in communal, accessible spaces above ground instead of below. [Latin America Reports]