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Climate change hits northern Mexico, as officials look to solve water crisis

  • Water scarcity in northern Mexico has gotten worse over the last several years, especially in the state of Nuevo León and its capital city of Monterrey.
  • The crisis is a result of a combination of declining rainfall, increasing deforestation of natural aquifers and government mismanagement of climate change readiness policies.
  • Officials are investing in new dams and aquifers to address the problem through 2050. They’ve also “bombed” the sky to make it rain and implemented temporary water cutoffs for residents in urban areas.

In northern Mexico, it’s become common to see tankers delivering thousands of gallons of water to local middle and high schools. People wait in long lines outside of convenience stores to purchase water jugs. And in some cases, armed men intercept delivery trucks and take water back to their own neighborhoods for distribution.

Water has been hard to come by in northern Mexico for decades. But in recent years, the shortages have been especially dire. The state needs 15,000 liters of water per second to meet its needs but currently operates with around 12,000 liters.

Earlier this year, warning lights went on at two dams due to dangerously low water levels, and in February the state of Nuevo Leon announced a state of emergency because of persistent shortages.

The announcement cited a lack of rainfall as one of the main causes of the emergency. But critics say the problem has also been made worse by government mismanagement of climate change readiness policies and the conservation of surrounding forests, which have historically acted as natural reservoirs.

“The water levels have started to decline because of evaporation, which is more intense than in other years, but also because of socioeconomic activities and the increasing demand for water in the northern states,” said Christian Domínguez Sarmiento, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Atmosphere Science and Climate Change.

A gradual crisis

The state of Nuevo León, where Mexico’s water crisis is the most drastic, is located in the arid and semi-arid desert of the northeast. Average annual rainfall has slowly declined over the last several years, seemingly taking officials by surprise and leaving the state capital of Monterrey with a shortage.

Declining rainfall in Mexico has largely been understood as the result of climate change by officials and environmental NGOs. If it isn’t addressed, a USAID report said, rural areas are expected to suffer from more extreme temperatures and “erratic rainfall.”

“The climate crisis caught up with us,” Nuevo León Governor Samuel García tweeted in July. “Efforts against climate change fell far short and its consequences are hitting us hard.”

At the same time, the area around Monterrey has experienced deforestation and forest degradation, most notably in the 177,935-hectare (439,686-acre) Cumbres National Park, which is responsible for capturing and filtering around half of the water consumed in the area.

Monterrey has been hit particularly hard by the water shortages in northern Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

“We continue clearing,” Rosario Álvarez Gutiérrez, director of the environmental NGO Pronatura Noreste, told Mongabay of the area’s forests. “We continue losing vegetation. The investments made in Parque Cumbres pay off in the amount of water we have, in the aquifers and in the dams. But it’s impossible to think that our dams and aquifers are going to be fine if the surrounding forests, which give us water, are in poor condition.”

Despite receiving national park protections in 2000, the area continues to suffer from forest fires, often caused by tourists, as well as some illegal logging, according to the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP). But Álvarez said there are reforestation and restoration efforts taking place to protect the area aquifers.

Flawed solutions

In 1980, then-Monterrey governor Alfonso Martínez Dominguez predicted there would be a water shortage by 2020 if the area population grew beyond 3.5 million residents. Today, the population has surpassed 5 million. But experts say there could still be enough water for everyone if the state can figure out how to confront climate change and better manage its forests and reservoirs.

“We have always lived in an area with ​​water stress, with aquifers that are either overexploited or at the limit of overexploitation,” said Álvarez. “I think we haven’t handled this situation very well. We haven’t managed our resources well.”

Regulating household consumption has been one short-term solution to conserving water, with residential areas of Monterrey experiencing cutoffs several hours a day. Domestic water use, however, contributes to water shortages less than industrial agriculture and cattle ranching, according to Pronatura Noreste. And few policies have been put in place to regulate their activity.

One way of reducing their water usage would be to update and regulate farm irrigation sprinklers. Right now, it’s unclear how much water is being wasted on outdated systems. “We don’t know how much is used,” Álvarez said. “We know the concession volume, but not how much is needed to make irrigation more efficient.”

Governor Samuel García speaking about infrastructure plans to solve the water shortage crisis in his state. (Photo courtesy of the Monterrey Water and Drainage Service)

Officials have also “bombed” the sky with silver iodide to make it rain and discussed transporting water from the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, despite that it has its own long-term water management to think of. These solutions have been met with skepticism by conservationists, who feel officials need to focus on more sustainable solutions.

“This is the water in our basin and we have to be able to live adequately from our basin and not have problems with neighboring ones,” Álvarez said. “Each basin has its cities, inhabitants and its users of livestock and agriculture.”

She added, “I think we could adequately subsist on the water from our basin if we were more responsible with its use.”

Improving infrastructure to fight climate change

In May, the government of Nuevo Leon published a new $1.2-billion “master plan” for water management in the state, which addresses both the short- and long-term needs of the region. Immediate action includes maintenance work to repair leaks on existing pipes and tanks. Longer-term solutions involve the drilling of wells and expansion work on the state’s aqueduct systems.

Construction on the $496.8-million El Cuchillo II aqueduct is scheduled to finish by the middle of next year, aiming to transport an additional 5,000 liters a second from the El Cuchillo dam to Monterrey.

Work is underway for El Cuchillo II and the La Libertad dam. (Photo of courtesy of SADM)

Another project currently under construction in the state, the $169-million La Libertad dam, is expected to contribute another 1,600 liters per second. In July, officials announced they were providing more workers and equipment to the project in order to speed up completion by December 2023.

The Monterrey Water and Drainage Service, which oversees many of these projects, didn’t reply to a request for comment for this story.

The work is supposed to guarantee Nuevo León has sufficient drinking water for the next ten years, giving Monterrey around 25,000 liters per second. It’s also supposed to put the state in a position to combat drought and other effects of climate change well beyond 2050.

“It was and is undoubtedly the worst crisis that the state has experienced,” Governor García said in a July address. “But we will get out of it. It continues to be about a change in thinking, a change in mentality. Government, society, agriculture, industry, you and your family.”

Banner image: Aquifer infrastructure in Nuevo León. Photo courtesy of SADM.

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