Science, Tech & Environment

Mexico City residents brace for water cuts that will leave them dry for days

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A mother and son fill a container with water collected from a public tap in Tecacalanco, on the outskirts of Mexico City. With a population of more than 21 million, Mexico City and its suburbs place huge demands on the area's water supply. 

Credit:

REUTERS/Henry Romero 

Mexico City is one of the world’s thirstiest places, with billions of liters consumed by the capital’s growing population of about 9 million, and a metropolitan area that tops 21 million. And this week, millions of the city’s residents got news that they should prepare for water cuts that will leave them without any water for days.

The announcement was released quietly on the city government’s website last weekend, and only spread through the media and word of mouth shortly before the cuts were implemented. Water is expected to be restored by Monday, though the system won't be at full capacity until perhaps as late as next Thursday.

Why is this happening now? The National Water Commision, or Conagua, says maintenance is urgently needed at the Cutzamala system, a complex network of dams and pipelines that fans into neighboring rural provinces and supplies about 30 percent of Mexico City’s water. Many of its pipelines are worn and leaky and at risk of collapse, federal water officials say. At the same time, the system is under increasing pressure to pump more water into the city, as groundwater is increasingly depleted. As a result, Cutzamala is one of the world’s biggest and most crucial systems of its kind.

Expanding the Cutzamala system, by tapping new rivers and streams in the area, also isn’t easy. It can mean clashes with people who live in the area, including indigenous groups who feel under threat by possible water-supply development. Often, they have fought back. 

In 2005, a group of indigenous Mazahuas from the State of Mexico protested in Mexico City against damage caused to their land by dams created to help supply water to the capital. The tensions continue today.

Credit:

REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar DA

But for many in Mexico City, from families living in apartments to storeowners, news of the water cutoff meant checking their cisterns, the water tanks that many buildings have that connect to underground water pipes. If they are running low, it means waiting, hoping, that one of the hundreds of water trucks now being dispatched throughout the city will manage to stop by and fill their tank (and not illegally charge for the service, which is sometimes the case). Those water trucks, called pipas in Spanish, face a major task. The announced cuts will shut off or severely reduce the water supply for 410 neighborhoods — affecting up to 4.5 million residents, or half the city’s population. 

But cutoffs like this have happened before (although rarely so widespread and prolonged), and there is hardly panic. Indeed, for many who live in Mexico City’s poorest areas — where plumbing is old or non-existent — going without a steady water flow is part of life. Some take to harvesting water from the sky. Many simply wait for a truck filled with the liquid to rumble by. This weekend, those trucks will roam a much bigger swath of the city, the latest example of a water supply system at the brink.