Understanding mexico’s worsening water crisis

Marcela Gonzalez • Feb. 29, 2024

(Stockholm Photography/Flickr)


Mexico has the highest bottled water consumption per capita worldwide, according to global non-profit Water.org72 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

But how can this be understood in Canada, where only 19 per cent of the population has bottled water as their main source of drinking water?

Over the last month, people in Mexico City have seen their water access restricted in an effort to preserve dangerously low levels at some of their main water sources.

Mexico City gets its water from the Lerma and Cutzamala basins, as well as the aquifer of the Valley of Mexico.

An aquifer is made of layers of sand and rock saturated with groundwater, which enters through the soil and is expelled to the surface through springs and wells. 

Mexico City was built on this aquifer, on top of a lake bed which was regularly drained in the seventeenth century by the Spanish colonizers to prevent flooding. This forced the groundwater deeper, leaving the now dry lake bed to shrink and compact on itself and resulting in the “sinking” of Mexico City.

The city makes an annual descent of five to 40 centimetres, according to data collected by Advancing Earth and Space Science

Heavy groundwater pumping has also made it impossible for the aquifer to recharge itself, since the urban demand for water is larger than what’s naturally available.

Although 60 to 70 per cent of the city’s water comes from this source, today’s main problem lies in the Cutzamala System.

This is a complex system of tunnels, pipelines, reservoirs, storage tanks and a major treatment plant that transports water from the Cutzamala river to reduce the strain on the aquifer of the Valley of Mexico.

Mexico’s National Water Commission, Conagua, reported at the beginning of February that the current water storage of the system was at almost 40 per cent of its total capacity, worryingly below the historical average of nearly 75 per cent at this time of the year.

This same organism calculated that, if the drought and lack of rain continue, the ‘Day Zero’ for the Cutzamala System is to be expected on Jun. 26.

(Alexandre Lecocq/UNSPLASH)

Day Zero is a term that was coined in the midst of the Cape Town water crisis back in 2018, and is used to refer to the day a place is no longer able to provide water to its population.

Last November, the Conagua and the government agreed on reducing the water supply to its population to optimize storage, but they were forced to cut the supply even more to push back the day that Cutzamala won’t be able to pump any more water.

This has resulted in a major shortage that now has the 284 neighbourhoods in the city receiving water by tandeo, meaning that water is administered at a certain time for each neighbourhood and is then cut off for the rest of the day.

However, to get potable, drinking water, people are relying on water wagons, trucks that deliver water directly to their homes called pipas, and garrafones, which can be described as large jugs of water you can find in the supermarket. 

As normal as it is in many parts of the world to drink tap water, in Mexico, unless people are sure that their water comes from a source which guarantees its purity, it’s not recommended to do so for fear of catching diseases like salmonella or bacterial infections like E. coli.

Water from pipes, in particular, pose a risk from the lack of maintenance in the infrastructure.

So far, there has not been an end-date announced for the shortages in Mexico City, but the government hopes that with these measures they are able to keep what is left in the Cutzamala System until the rain season starts in June.

Listen to this article as heard on CHUO’s weekly show The Mosaic: