- Residents of Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz, Mexico, have been struggling with a worsening water shortage that often leaves people without daily access to household water for washing.
- The problem is nationwide, in 30 of 32 states, forcing residents to purchase and recycle water and postpone bathing.
- Experts have blamed climate change and extreme heat for the country’s water shortages; others also blame corruption that allows companies to pay for unlimited water use.
- Deforestation for development, an increase in construction and building and population increases are also factors.
Xalapa, Veracruz, MEXICO — In April 2023, Julia Martínez was washing her two children when she turned on the tap, but no drops came out. She did her best to get rid of the soap and then used drinking water from the house’s 20-liter (5.3-gallon) jug, costing almost $2, to rinse them.
Shortly after, Julia discovered that her neighborhood in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, in east-central Mexico, received tap water only twice a week as a result of tandeos, a local government program that rotates water distribution among different areas of the city throughout the week.
Water deprivation has been particularly dire between April and October 2023, primarily in Xalapa’s outskirts. Mexico itself is facing water shortages in 30 of its 32 states, forcing residents to purchase and recycle water, postpone baths and protest against authorities.
Like many other Mexicans facing water shortages, Martinez’s family has decided to skip showers, flush the toilet only if necessary, recycle water when washing or cleaning and buy water when they run out. They do not have 2,256 pesos ($132.23) to buy a water tank to save 1,100 liters (290 gallons).
By 2050, between 40% and 80% of Mexico’s population will live with high water stress, according to the World Resources Institute. The country is running out of time to reverse a water crisis that will only worsen in the coming years, says José Antonio Ordoñez Díaz, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a climate change expert. He says this water crisis has been forgotten for more than 50 years, causing a 70% decrease in water per capita at the national level.
In late July 2023, almost half of Mexico was experiencing moderate to severe droughts, according to Conagua, the federal water commission. Experts have been blaming climate change and extreme heat for the country’s ongoing water crisis. Ordoñez Díaz also blames corruption, which has allowed many companies to pay what they want for unlimited water use without considering the population. “The available drinking water is not much, but politically, it is always divided per capita, and the use that companies make of it is not mentioned; for example, when companies sell beer or soft drinks, they export water,” he explains.
“There is a serious conflict of interest in not addressing the situation urgently, such as nepotism, the economic and political situation,” Ordoñez Díaz tells Mongabay. He attributes the worsening water scarcity to the government’s negligence in enforcing laws such as the Official Mexican Standards (NOM) — technical regulations to guarantee the conservation, safety and quality of water use — and citizens’ unwillingness to recognize the environmental risk of water shortages.
For almost three decades, Ordoñez Díaz has been warning about climate change, water scarcity and corruption. But he says that has cost his job, as he witnessed threats against fellow activists. Still, he says, “Companies work well where there is adequate legislation on natural resources, but where corruption is rampant, no company will behave well, and there is an opportunity for looting.”
Xalapa’s water struggle
Xalapa’s water supply comes from different river basins: the Huitzilapan (58%) in Puebla, the Pixquiac in Perote (38.2%) and the remaining 4% from seven springs located in “El Castillo” ejido, in the east of the municipality. However, all of them have lost water volume between 2018 and 2020, according to Xalapa’s Municipal Water and Sanitation Commission (CMAS). The commission has not responded to Mongabay’s request for information.
Eduardo Aranda Delgado, a biologist with Friends of Pixquiac NGO, says Xalapa´s water shortage is mainly due to the loss of coffee plantations and 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of mesophyll mountain forest, a fog-rich ecosystem with an essential role in the water cycle. Clearings began in 1992 to make way for development in the region. A combination of climate change, overpopulation, insufficient rainwater collection and water body pollution has led to longer water crises in recent years, angering local communities, Aranda Delgado tells Mongabay.
“The Pixquiac River water levels have decreased in the last 18 years, to the point of drying up, as happened in 2011 and 2012, due to the diversion of dams that the CMAS built to store water and distribute it to neighborhoods in Xalapa,” Aranda Delgado says.
Deprived of water for about seven months in 2023, people in Xalapa started protesting. In the neighborhood of Cienaga, residents have suffered from a lack of water for up to two weeks, and the only way to get a response from the authorities has been through demonstrations.
“We must protest to demand water from CMAS, but even when they send water tankers, it is often not enough for the whole neighborhood. We are not the only ones who have protested,” says Armida Ramírez, a health worker and local resident of Cienaga.
In June, residents of Banderilla municipality blocked the federal highway. When the mayor, David San Gabriel Bonilla, arrived, he explained to them that the drying of the Sedeño River was responsible for water shortages and assured them that authorities were looking for solutions. However, a few days later, the mayor sued some protesters for throwing eggs at him.
Yajaira Martínez, a resident of Temaxcalapa, a neighborhood of Banderilla, said that three years ago, they were able to drink water from the springs but they were told to stop during a local town meeting, where the mayor explained that a drainage pipe was polluting the water.
According to Ramírez, in small towns across Veracruz, some people go to the wells, fill the water tanker and sell the water from house to house. “You can see queues of trucks with tankers to fill and sell. It’s quite a business, but not everyone can afford it, and families with sick people, children and dengue fever are at risk. This whole situation can create more diseases,” she tells Mongabay.
Xalapa is known for its cold winter weather, fog and chipi-chipi, a faint rain that used to appear twice daily. However, the warming climate has pushed clouds and precipitation to form 200-400 meters (650-1,300 feet) higher in the atmosphere compared with the 1980s, causing the city to overheat.
Speaking to Mongabay, Guillermo Rodríguez Curiel, an environmental activist and member of the Veracruz Assembly fro Environmental Initiatives and Defense, recalls that until 1980, local temperatures didn’t exceed 26° Celsius (78.8° Fahrenheit). In March 2023, temperatures reached 35.6°C (96°F), while in 1998, the temperature record was 39.5°C (103°F), according to Conagua.
Development over water
Rodriguez Curiel, Ordoñez Díaz and Aranda Delgado agree that the 1992 change to the Constitution to allow privatization of ejidos — communal land mainly used for agriculture — to make way for property development, has led to an increase in the local population while water sources have remained the same. Deforestation for residential buildings and infrastructure has also increased, Aranda Delgado tells Mongabay. “There is a gluttony of construction and real estate companies.”
Real estate development in Mexico has promoted the deforestation of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) per year since 1992, says Ordoñez Díaz. At the same time, the country has lost the use and customs of traditional vegetation cover, such as milpas and home gardens, which have low impact on natural ecosystems.
“In the last 60 years, changes in Mexico’s climate and water supply have occurred due to deforestation of the highlands, loss of restoration areas and urbanization, creating an ecocide by not respecting minimum water balances, caused mainly by real estate development,” he tells Mongabay via video call.
The unwanted effects of managing water shortages
“People have to store water in whatever container they can find, which favors the proliferation of the mosquito that transmits dengue fever, which has caused countless cases in Xalapa,” explains Ramirez.
Health issues are compounded by economic ones. Months of water shortages have forced people to purchase drinking water, with prices sometimes doubling in shops on the outskirts of the city. Esther Esparza, a resident of Campo de Tiro, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Xalapa, says that in 2023, they had only one out of eight water days.
“We were used to having tandeos in the summer, but now it seems that the problem is permanent. Sometimes, the municipality doesn’t inform us that we won’t have water. We ended up buying it in the shops. Now we bathe like cats,” she says, smiling.
Xalapa’s water shortage has become a typical situation in other parts of Mexico too. In 2022, only 78 million of Mexico’s more than 120 million inhabitants had daily access to water at home; 6 million people didn’t have access to drinking water, and 11 million had no access to sanitation. The same report states that 71% of the national territory has high or very high water stress.
Ordoñez Diaz warns that water shortages in Mexican cities will likely increase, causing livestock, crops, energy and food to suffer. “There is a negative balance in the water that we use and receive, jeopardizing the development of life ecosystems and any industry that uses little water,” he tells Mongabay. Rodríguez Curiel says the lack of water will only lead to more violent and frequent protests.
Ordoñez Díaz insists on the importance of paying and working with the communities already providing environmental services such as water harvesting. “We need to start at the local level to increase action and monitoring, but corruption and conflicts of interest with developers or beer or soft drink companies make this very difficult. Money or technology is not vital, but a respectful understanding of how to develop ourselves to co-create, without further harming nature, because in doing it, we are harming ourselves,” he says.
Banner image: The Pixquiac River has been monitored by Global Water Watch, researchers and local communities for 12 years. Image by Eduardo Aranda.
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