(MONTERREY, Mexico)—The industrial hub of Monterrey has long been one of Mexico’s most prosperous cities, so its almost 5 million residents were shocked when they lost the most basic of services: water.
A combination of an intense drought, poor planning and high water use has left residents of Mexico’s industrial powerhouse to resort to extreme measures that call up images of isolated, poorer areas: storing water in buckets to use a scoopful at a time.
“We are panicked, because we don’t know when the water will come back on,” said 60-year-old Monterrey resident María del Carmen Lara. “We finally got them to send us a water truck, but we still don’t have running water.”
Local authorities began restricting water supplies in March, as the three dams that help supply the city dried up. They currently hold only 45%, 2% and 8% of their capacity, and city authorities say the two lowest dams had only a few days’ worth of water left. Earlier this month, they declared water would be available only between 4a.m. and 10a.m, recently extending the service until 11a.m. But authorities haven’t even been able to supply that, and in thousands of homes, not a drop has come out of faucets for weeks.
Lara and her husband haven’t had running water for three weeks and don’t have enough money for holding tanks to store any significant quantity. In a stop-gap measure, some of the city’s suburbs have set up giant plastic water tanks in public squares for residents to fill containers with water. So on a recent hot, sunny day, they were busy dragging buckets and bins to a water tank truck to fill them.
Big, expensive and sometimes corruption-laden water management plans have come and gone, but the lack of long-term planning or conservation remain. One project, that would have built an aqueduct to bring water from the Pánuco river, 310 miles (500 kilometers) away, to the city, which authorities at the time claimed would sure up the city’s water supplies for 50 years, was dropped in 2016 because of alleged corruption in the granting of contracts by the previous administration.
Experts say it was clear to see the crisis coming: for six years, Monterrey, capital of Nuevo León state, has suffered below-average rainfall or outright drought.
Set on an arid plain against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, water — except for during brief, catastrophic floods — has never been abundant in Monterrey. For decades, the state’s water planning essentially came down to waiting for a hurricane in the Gulf to swell local rivers.
Juan Ignacio Barragán, the city’s water director, said Monterrey has been hit by a double whammy of drought and higher temperatures, which has dried up the city’s reserves. This May, the state reported its hottest ever average temperature, hitting highs of 104 degrees (40 C.)
“This is a situation which has forced us to ration water, to be able to distribute it more equitably throughout the city,” Barragán said. He accused the previous administration, which governed the state from 2015 to 2021, of allowing water extraction from dams in high levels without considering the impacts that the prolonged drought had already caused to the state’s water sources.
For a city accustomed to consuming 4,225 gallons (16,500 liters) per second, it now has only 3,435 gallons (13,000 liters) per second available.
Barragán said the city has begun an effort urging city residents to use less. Historically, average daily consumption in Monterrey has been around 160 to 170 liters (42 to 44 gallons) per day per person, far higher than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of around 100 liters (26 gallons) per day.
About 60% of the Monterrey’s water comes from dams, with the rest coming from public wells. The state also has private wells, which owners, ranchers and businesses drill with strict limits on how much they can pump. But those limits often appear to have been ignored, and some wells may have been drilled surreptitiously, according to state and federal officials.
And it’s not just Monterrey. According to the North American Drought Monitor, a cooperative effort between drought experts in Canada, Mexico and the United States, 56% of Mexico is experiencing some level of drought.
All of Nuevo León is either “abnormally dry” or in drought. The natural weather phenomenon La Niña and climate change may be factors in unseasonably low rainfall, according to officials and experts.
“For those who don’t believe in climate change, here are the consequences,” said Nuevo León Gov. Samuel García. “This is clearly the result of climate change: a semi-desert area gets drier.”
Brenda Sánchez, a former official of the federal ministry of Environment and Natural Resources who now serves as a local legislator in Nuevo León agreed, saying that urgent action was needed to combat the “real-life consequences” of climate change.
For now, the authorities’ response to water shortages has been more of the same: dig more wells, reservoirs and dams. A fourth dam is currently under construction in the state’s southeast and an aqueduct to carry water from the El Cuchillo dam, the state’s largest, is planned. Authorities are also looking to halt illegal water grabs from rivers that feed the dams and have tried to get large corporate water users to share some of their water rights with city residents.
Rosario Álvarez, an activist with the environmental group Pronatura Noreste, said the government’s plans are too little, too late.
“The most recent problem is that we haven’t planned for a drought like the current one,” Alvarez said. “We have had several years with below-average rainfall, we haven’t had hurricanes.”
“What came together was a lack of significant infrastructure, a lack of understanding of the characteristics of the region where we live and poor administration of what little water we have,” she said.
Meanwhile, until the next hurricane streams up the Gulf of Mexico — and there are none in sight — anger is growing among residents and street protest have broken out in Monterrey.
“We are fed up,” said 35-year-old Mónica Almaguer, a resident of the suburb of San Nicolas. “They haven’t even lived up to the schedule in which they said there would be water. I have gone 35 days without water.”
Gabriel Revillas, 47, who has also been without water for several days, filled up a jug at a private purified water supplier.
“The only thing we can do is pray, pray for a miracle,” he said.
—Associated Press reporter Suman Naishadham contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
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