La Semana: Sunday, June 26
The week in water scarcity and marking a milestone
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
The Water Crisis in Monterrey: “Canary in the Coal Mine”
There will be an additional entry published this week.
Before getting to today’s topic, I’d like to pause to acknowledge a milestone: six months of writing this newsletter. The first iteration of The Mexpatriate hit the web in 2013 as a blog and taught me that writing short is harder than writing long, that Mexican complexity will always humble those who try to capture it, and that Wordpress plugins are demonic site-crashing pixies.
When I decided to come back to writing about Mexico’s political and cultural landscape in January of this year, I felt that the newsletter format was a natural fit. My blogging experience often felt like giving a speech to an empty room—maybe with a few people wandering into it by accident—but the newsletter feels personal, with the satisfaction of a missive opened and read. You may be few in number right now, but I want to sincerely thank each of you for reading, for reaching out to me directly and for sharing my work.
In an effort to engage in dialogue with you, I am asking for your feedback on upcoming content for The Mexpatriate. Please take a moment to respond and help me take this newsletter to new and exciting places.
The Water Crisis in Monterrey: “Canary in the Coal Mine”
In Monterrey, Nuevo León—a metropolis of 5 million, second only to Mexico City in population and economic output—a state of emergency was declared in February of this year because of water scarcity. Public schools cut back hours and citizens have had to adjust to having their water cut off for up to 18 hours each day, or in some areas, for days at a time. Protestors blocked a major roadway demanding access to water: their neighborhood hadn’t had any municipal supply for 10 days and no water delivery trucks had arrived either. Daytime temperatures reach close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year.
This critical moment reached in Monterrey has been foreseen, but the response woefully under-planned. The 34 year-old governor of the state, Samuel García Sepúlveda of the Movimiento Ciudadano party, has done what most politicians do when a hot potato lands in their laps: throw it back to the previous person in office, in this case, the notorious Jaime Rodríguez Calderón “El Bronco”, who was recently arrested for misuse of public funds. “It hasn't rained in four years, and ‘El Bronco’ drained the reservoirs.”
García’s government has implemented rationing and simultaneous attempts to increase supply by digging more wells, with future plans for the construction of another reservoir. The urban area is currently supplied with potable water from three large reservoirs, two of which contain 20% or less of their capacity. “In the case of Monterrey, it was industrial development that created a need for more water and businesses who took control of managing it until 1977,” explains a report on urban drought in Gatopardo. First came La Boca reservoir built in the 1950s, then Cerro Prieto in the 1980s and El Cuchillo in 1994.
“The rations have been criticized since they are only imposed on domestic usage, without considering the exploitation by industrial and agricultural activities,” notes a Nexos article on the crisis. On June 16, the governor decreed the closure of the municipal slaughterhouse which had been illegally using up to 6,000 liters of potable water a day. “There are situations where, whether by their actions or failure to act, the authorities and businesses cause clean water to be wasted in large volumes,” according to Dr. María González of the Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC) in Guadalajara. Meanwhile, García was at pains to emphasize at a press conference that “there is water for industrial use, just not human consumption.”
According to the WHO, 50-100 liters per day is required to meet a human’s essential needs including drinking and sanitation. In Mexico, the average usage per capita is 300 liters per day and in the United States, it is up to an average of 662 liters per day. Of course, this is not equally distributed across the population: in Monterrey, residents of the posh area of San Pedro use 301% more per capita than the municipal average. Residential usage, even when excessive, is still superseded by agriculture and industry, which drive the city’s economy as home to major manufacturing plants, producing steel, cement, beer, soft drinks (Topo Chico, anyone?), and to cattle ranches. Manufacturers have improved the efficiency of their water usage in some cases. Industrial breweries used to use up to 10 liters of water to make 1 liter of beer, but today they claim to use only 2.8 liters of water per liter. Lack of regulation of groundwater exploitation allows for disproportionate use, and “exempts these companies from making the sacrifices asked of everyone else...there is a problem of both economic and political inequality here.”
The crisis in Monterrey is a “canary in the coal mine”, a glimpse of a dystopian future scenario. According to the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), 30.4% of Mexico is experiencing “moderate to severe” drought, with eight states in the “extreme” category. While climate change accelerates these cyclical weather patterns, the short-sighted extraction and administration of water as a vital resource has led to a failure to meet the population’s needs. In some areas, the conflict between commercial interests and residents has reached a boiling point. In 2020, farmers in Chihuahua took control of a reservoir (La Boquilla) where CONAGUA had authorized withdrawals to be sent north to the United States as part of a 1944 treaty; in Puebla, there is an ongoing battle between indigenous communities denouncing the exploitation of their watershed by Bonafont, a bottled water company owned by giant multinational Danone. And in Mexico City, residents of thirsty and poor areas like Iztapalapa have violently fought over water delivery “pipas”.
The National Water Commission (CONAGUA) was created in 1989 as a decentralized administrative agency to “propose hydraulic policy...establish guidelines...to administrate and regulate national waters and hydraulic infrastructure.” But CONAGUA does not have regulatory powers, which means water extraction and distribution mostly falls to state and municipal governments. U.S. water administration is similarly decentralized, with more than 152,000 independent systems across the country, and 14,700 treatment plants. One salient difference is that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does have the capacity to enforce requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and Safe Water Drinking Act. “Mexico has 3,960 water treatment plants, of which 2,500 are not functioning correctly or are no longer operating due to lack of municipal resources,” says congressman Rubén Gregorio Muñoz Álvarez (MORENA). “This means that sewage ends up in bodies of water (rivers and lakes) and this is why 73% of Mexico's hydrological systems suffer from pollution.”
Living in San Miguel de Allende, located in an arid region surrounded by both small-scale and industrial agriculture, the “water crisis” has been a part of the local conversation for decades. The repercussions of excessive groundwater exploitation and lax oversight are painfully visible. According to Caminos de Agua, a local NGO advocating for clean drinking water access, roughly 85% of water pumped from the region’s underground aquifer is for agricultural use, and the number of drilled wells in the state rose from 100 in the 1940s to more than 20,000 wells today. One of the consequences is contamination from naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride as wells have to be dug ever deeper (up to 500 meters below ground), which has caused a public health disaster in some rural communities.
“Light your candles, there could be good rains coming,” suggested a hopeful Samuel García as rain appeared in the forecasts for Monterrey. Add a prayer for good governance while you’re at it.