How to Make Sure Mexico’s Cities Don’t Run Out of Water

Water is a central issue for urban development in Mexico. Groundwater is overexploited, and there is a lack of wastewater treatment facilities. Jorge Silva reviews government programmes that aim to solve the problem.

The constitutional reform of 1982 saw the responsibility of providing water and the management of sewage systems shifting from the Mexican National government to the municipal governments. Despite the fact that the decentralisation strategy was aimed towards heightened levels of urban water management, the municipalities have found it hard to achieve their ameliorative mandate as required.

This in turn has led to local urban water administrations being exposed to clarion calls from divergent factions of the society. They are demanding to change the management structures for the purpose of meeting the set social, economic, sanitary, and hydraulic standards. If the urban water administrations do not heed the calls, then Mexican cities are bound to face water shortage.

The water administration authorities in Mexican cities are tasked with ensuring that citizens get enough water to meet their daily demands. They are made up of political appointees who work in tandem with the national government towards the achievement of their ameliorative mandate.

One example of a public government programme that has recently been implemented is the Monterrey water programme. This programme was developed to improve the quality of water. Summations drawn, however, indicate that the decentralised water programme has incurred high levels of costs for the citizens. This is primarily due to the fact that the water administration agencies operate without subsidies and can revamp or moderate the prices as they deem fit.

Water Sustainability Programme: Mitigating the Overexploitation of Groundwater

Another government programme implemented by the national water administration and rolled out to the municipalities is the Water Sustainability Programme launched in 2009. The programme cost the government more than US$2 billion, with its overarching aim being to mitigate the overexploitation of groundwater. The programme came in light of the flood that hit Tabasco City in 2007. The municipalities managed to supply more than 14 m3/s of water.

The groundwater will be sourced from the Tula Valley, and will then be treated and used for irrigation or supplied to the major Mexican cities. Furthermore, the programme will focus on the revamping of the Cutzamala system, which will help in the collection of 2m3/s of water, costing US$40 million. The water sustainability programme will also involve the purchasing and construction of the Emisor Oriente Tunnel, which will feed water into Mexico City. The tunnel will work in tandem with the Emisor central tunnel in the mitigation of water issues in the city. Despite the fact that the programme was launched more than 10 years ago, its objectives have still not been met due to construction delays. It is expected that the tunnel will be operating in October 2019.

In order to meet the sanitation needs of Mexico City’s population, the programme saw the government building a wastewater treatment plant which will sanitise the discharge from the tunnels. The plant will have a treatment capacity exceeding 23 m3 per second, and will hence be superior to the plants in Mexico City that have an installed capacity of 5.6 m3 per second with a real average flow of 3.42 m3/s. With this treatment plant, more than 60 per cent of the wastewater generated in the Valley of Mexico can be sanitized. Research findings indicate that the programme will help reduce water needs to 25 per cent of the current level by 2020.

The Green Plan: Reducing Groundwater Losses and Increasing Wastewater Treatment

Another important water management programme in Mexico City is the Green Plan project, which was launched in 2007 and will run until 2022. The programme aims to

(a) attain an equilibrium in the nation’s aquifers,
(b) reduce residential water usage,
(c) reduce groundwater losses in networks,
(d) increase treatment and reuse of wastewater.

As part of the Green Plan, Mexico City implemented a new policy for water pricing, which could help it in the effective collection of funds to finance its operations. Cost recovery has long been an issue for the municipalities as most of the water connections in households in the city are not registered. Furthermore, corruption in the government has made it difficult to record and charge people for their consumption.

The funds collected from the plan helped to finance the construction of treatment plants for wastewater. The project expected to reduce leakage by at least 6.8m3/s but has since only obtained a reduction of 5m3/s, so there is still a long way to go in order to establish a recharge and abstraction equilibrium.

Proposed Actions for Change

As can be seen from the two programmes discussed above, the Mexican government is undertaking efforts to solve water-related problems in the urban environment. However, in the case of the Water Sustainability Program, more than a decade has passed without compliance, due to the unfinished infrastructure works. In the case of the Green Plan, more than half of the goals have been met.

Several developments that are part of the Green Plan point towards successes in the future. In Mexico City, a direct link has been established between the National Meteorological System and the water system for real-time transfer of meteorological satellite information and images to predict and monitor problems that arise in the rainy season.

In addition, more than one million water meters have been rehabilitated, replaced and installed, which helps measure water consumption and define strategies to reduce it. 778 km of envisaged 892 km of secondary network pipes have already been rehabilitated. With the opening of the Emisor Oriente Tunnel, the situation will improve significantly. But there is still a long way to go to find long-term, sustainable solutions for the growing population in need of water resources.

Jorge Alejandro Silva Rodríguez de San Miguel

As Head of the Department of Territory and Environment and Research Professor, Jorge Silva’s work focuses on public policies of water and water resource management. He has received several recognitions and distinctions, among them the Lázaro Cárdenas Medal awarded by the President of Mexico in 2015. Jorge Silva is a member of the National System of Investigators (SNI, Mexico) and holds a doctorate in Administrative Sciences.
Jorge Alejandro Silva Rodríguez de San Miguel

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