Will Mexico’s Water Crisis Impact Expat Arrivals?

Waterfalls Mexico

With Mexico in the height of its dry season, water shortages and crises have erupted in multiple cities this month. While Mexico City’s situation has received international headlines (as well as plenty of Mexican media coverage), developments in Oaxaca and Guadalajara also warrant a closer look.

As expats, we are guests of Mexico and free to leave at any time. Mexican citizens are not so fortunate—they must find a way to survive with increasingly precarious water supplies.

 

How Did We Get Here?

Mexico’s federal constitution was amended in 2012 recognizing access to water as a human right. But following enactment Mexico’s federal government never created policies to ensure they could deliver on it.

For context, water scarcity has afflicted Mexico for many years, but the situation in 2024 is more acute than in years past. The causes vary from state to state, but major factors contributing to this situation include:

    • Multi-year droughts related to climate change
    • Over-exploitation of wells and aquifers
    • Increased water demand due to commercial & residential growth in major cities
    • Deforestation across much of the country (in Jalisco, it’s due to big increases in agave and avocado farming)
    • Leaking, aging infrastructure due to years of underinvestment
    • Public utility budgets under pressure from current leadership
    • Water waste in the absence of conservation incentives
    • No public infrastructure for water reuse or recycling, and limited private efforts

 

To understand why these problems are so tough to address, you must understand that Mexico’s water system is a system “in common.” What it means is…

Public water utilities have no mechanism to cut water access to homes or businesses that fail to pay their bills (like CFE does when you don’t pay your electric bill).

Everyone knows this and many consumers take advantage, with some large commercial entities running up huge bills that go unpaid for years, leaving the public utility underfunded to tackle basic upkeep and critical new investment.

Mexico's water shortage

President Lopez Obrador threw fuel on the fire when he slashed the water agency’s budget as part of the austerity program launched in 2019 shortly after he took office. His stated mission was reigning in wasteful public spending (which I’m all for), but spending on badly needed water delivery systems and maintenance can hardly be considered wasteful.

Water experts in Mexico estimate that the country’s aging infrastructure now leaks 40%-50% of the total water supply (numbers vary depending on which study you look at), a loss of catastrophic proportions.

As news followers know, AMLO’s infrastructure priorities have been centered elsewhere, e.g. mega-projects like the Maya Train for tourists and a second Mexico City airport that few travelers are using.

Then there are the climate change impacts.

 

Climate Change is Leaving Mexico Hotter & Drier

2023 was the hottest year on record in Mexico according to Yale University. Rainfall in Mexico was also well below average last year, with 55% of the country experiencing drought as of December 2023, according to Mexico’s National Meteorological Service (SMN).

The northwestern states Sonora and Chihuahua, along with Queretaro in Mexico’s Central Highlands are suffering the worst long-term droughts at the moment, but aren’t necessarily seeing big headlines.

 

What’s happening around the country

Below is a brief look at some of the most serious water crises across the country in early 2024.

Mexico City is now facing a shortfall so severe that many residents are struggling to satisfy basic needs like bathing, washing dishes, and flushing their toilets.

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It wasn’t always like this for the capital city of 21 million, which sits atop an ancient lake bed once filled with interconnected rivers. Over the years, rivers were paved over and the lake was drained.

A situation the media refers to as “Day Zero,” i.e. when water stops running in homes, is mentioned as a real possibility in the not-too-distant future.

Key factors include a 25% drop in the water supply year over year due to drought and over-exploitation of area wells and aquifers. As noted above, aging infrastructure that loses around 40% to leaks also contributes to the problem.

Shortages in CDMX have prompted rationing and increased dependency on external sources, even in wealthier neighborhoods like Coyoacan and Polanco, once immune from such challenges.

It should come as no surprise that class issues factor heavily into who has access to water and who does not. In addition, there is significant tension between demand from commercial interests and the residential population, with well-connected commercial projects often receiving more and better access.

Down south in Oaxaca, a state known for militant leftist politics and an independent streak, the drinking water crisis is being referred to by local media as a “matter of national security.”

Oaxaca water crisis

The public authority there is supplying just one-third of the water required by Oaxaca City in 2024, so an astonishing 40% of the population is now relying on “pipas,” or water trucked by the public authority to satisfy their basic needs, because water is no longer flowing from their taps.

As in so many other areas, Oaxaca’s population growth alongside low rainfall and inadequate infrastructure investment has contributed to a situation where water demand now far exceeds the supply this dry season.

Oaxaca’s water shortages have reportedly triggered street demonstrations and road blockages by city residents frustrated by supply disruptions and price increases.

In Oaxaca’s central business district dense with hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops catering to a growing wave of tourists, water prices have reportedly surged 35%-50% in 2024.

In response, some companies have reactivated work-from-home policies due to the lack of water in their offices. Many schools have also closed, forcing students to learn remotely through virtual classes as they did during the pandemic.

Hospitals in Oaxaca City haven’t been spared either. In one reported case, Presidente Juárez Hospital had its water supply cut in half, forcing doctors and nurses to substitute anti-bacterial gel for hand-washing, among other measures.

In Guadalajara where I live, the situation is not as acute thanks to the commissioning of the new El Salto-La Red-Calderón aqueduct (attended by AMLO himself) in late February.

This new aqueduct will bring water from the El Zapotillo dam to metro Guadalajara, supplying up to 1 million people with water. If not for the new system, Guadalajara would also have been facing serious water shortages this spring.

Mexico water crisis

Supply issues aside, water quality problems have dogged Guadalajara for some time. Last summer, images of brown water emerging from home taps in as many as 80 neighborhoods in Guadalajara, Zapopan, Tlaquepaque and Tonalá, received extensive media coverage.

Following months of denial and deflection, the discovery of dirty water in well-to-do Providencia prompted Siapa (as the water utility is known here) to finally admit it had quality issues. They soon began tearing up roads around town (most noticeably in Providencia) to make urgent repairs.

More recently, the head of Siapa conceded in public hearings that the core problem is a system where many pipes have reached the end of their useful life and urgently need to be replaced (not repaired) at a cost of $8 billion pesos.

As such, it’s a good sign that Siapa has been doing maintenance all over the city this month. No less than 20 neighborhoods in the far reaches of north Zapopan (beyond the Periferico) will have a shutoff of ~ 24 hours starting Wednesday, March 20 while pipe repairs are made.

Learning about scheduled maintenance and supply disruptions can be a bit of a crap shoot. Siapa doesn’t post repair-related information on its website or send emails to notify its customers. Details about its work schedule are announced the old-fashioned way – via newspapers, the radio, and local telecasts.

If these media aren’t in your orbit you could be in for a surprise. Resources I’ve found helpful to keep informed about Siapa’s activities include informador.mxmural.com.mx and milenio.com.

For most, supply disruptions don’t mean an immediate cessation of water from the taps. Most homes have cisterns and tanks that store at least one day’s water needs for a typical household. Problems arise for those without them (many lower-income households) and when outages stretch beyond 2 days.

 

What Can You Do?

Even though we are guests, expats can’t be mere spectators as Mexico’s water challenges worsen.

We may not be able to fix the leaky pipes, but we can still take steps to conserve water during the dry season — and throughout the year.

water conservation in Mexico

In the short-term, avoid using water for non-essential activities. Run fewer loads of laundry and take shorter showers. Longer-term, consider installing dual flush toilets and low-flow shower heads that consume less water.

A rainwater collection device is also a worthwhile investment if you have a garden. Please share more ideas for conserving water in the comment section below.

If you’re an aspiring expat not yet living in Mexico, the country’s water issues are critical to take into account. At the risk of stating the obvious, don’t opt for locations already dealing with extreme water challenges, to avoid adding to demand pressures.

I’d put Oaxaca (then Mexico City) at the top of this list.

In the meantime, let’s hope the rainy season arrives on time and is truly rainy this year, unlike 2023’s “dry” rainy season.

If Mother Nature doesn’t come through, could acute water shortages be the thing that finally slows down Mexico’s nearshoring boom, the peso’s strength, and a seemingly unstoppable wave of expat arrivals?

Time will tell.

Sources:

Telediario, Milenio, El Mural, Al Jazeera, EME | EQUIS, Government of Mexico

About Live Well Mexico

My name is Dawn Stoner. In 2022, my family sold our house and half of our possessions, then relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico. We now live here full-time.

Since then, we’ve learned how to navigate the real estate market, deal with the Mexican bureaucracy, and manage our finances as expats… all while having a pretty fine time!

I created this blog to help newcomers solve the everyday challenges of living in Mexico, because it isn’t easy figuring all this out for yourself.

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