Mexico City Grapples With Acute Water Shortages, As “Day Zero” Approaches

Unless dramatic steps are taken, one of the world’s largest cities could face “Day Zero” — when supplies of water run so low that government must begin rationing the precious liquid — as early as 2028. 

Many residents of the working class barrio of Azcapotzalco, in the northwestern part of Mexico City, had a very dry Christmas this year. Water stopped flowing to many households on Christmas Day, allegedly the result of an outage of three power stations in an electrical substation that provides power to wells in the neighbourhood. Representatives of Mexico City’s Sacmex Water System said the situation would be resolved in a matter of hours. In the end, it took ten days, and only after local residents had forced the issue, in classic Mexican fashion, by blocking key roads in the neighbourhood.

“They told us they were going to bring us water tankers and that the service would be fully restored the day after,” Paty Pérez, a resident of the area, told the daily newspaper Excelsior. “It is impossible for us to live without water. Azcapotzalco is one of the municipalities that always lacks water; there are elderly people who live on the fourth floor of their buildings who have to carry the water up the stairs.”

It is not just poor neighborhoods that are feeling the effects of Mexico City’s worsening water crisis. Whenever my Mexican wife and I come to her native city (where we are at the moment), we stay in a 13th floor apartment on the edge of the leafy, colorful middle-class barrio of Coyoacan, which is home not only to the Museo de Frida Kahlo but also the former home of Leon Trotsky, both well worth a visit. The apartment belongs to a generous, gregarious septuagenarian Argentinean emigree whom my wife regards as an adopted aunt.

She and her neighbours are also having problems with water. At any moment, particularly in Spring, the supply can suddenly run dry and may not return for a number of hours or even until the next day. This has been happening for many years but it began occurring a lot more frequently when work began, in 2012, on a giant skyscraper complex a few blocks away called Complejo Mitikah. The complex features two office towers, one owned by We Work, both of which are overshadowed by Mitikah tower, a 67-floor apartment building that, once finished, will be Mexico City’s largest residential skyscraper.

The complex is billed as a fully self-contained “vertical city” that will include a giant shopping mall, a supermarket, a private hospital, gyms, swimming pools, boutique restaurants and bars. If the skyscraper’s residents, many of whom will no doubt work from home, would rather not venture out into the city, they won’t have to; just about everything they could possibly want or need is on site.

Naturally, the complex has massively increased the demand for water in the local neighborhood, but it is other local residents that are paying the price. More and more often, the underground water tanks that serve nearby residential buildings are running dry. This is particularly true in Springtime, just before Mexico’s rainy season begins. It can take hours or in extreme cases even days before water tankers arrive to refill the tanks. On public holidays or over long weekends the government can sometimes cut off water to residents in order to carry out much-needed maintenance work.

Two Dry Years

Mexico has suffered two consecutive years of low rainfall. The situation was already severe in April 2021. As an article in El País noted in May, “surviving the dry season depends in large part on how much water has been accumulated during the wet months”:

“In 2020, the rains were not sufficient to fill all of the country’s network of dams and now, as a consequence, of the 210 biggest in Mexico, more than half are at less than 50% of their capacity. Furthermore, 61 are at critical levels at less than 25% capacity, mostly in northern and central Mexico.”

Mexico is no stranger to water crises. In 1996 and 2011 the country suffered severe droughts but as the El País article points out, lessons were not learnt. It is also true that Mexico has not exactly taken care of its precious water resources. Mexico City itself lies in the heart of a region called Valley of Mexico that was once home to a vast network of lakes. Located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, the valley contains most of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area, as well as parts of four neighbouring states: the State of Mexico, Puebla, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala.

Between the 17th and early 20th centuries the five lakes of Valley of Mexico — Xaltocan, Chalco, Texcoco, Xochimilco and Zumpango  — were almost totally drained, partly to protect the city from constant flooding but also to help it grow. Mexico City could only grow into the vast metropolis it has become through a ruthless process of land reclamation. Xochimilco, in the southern part of Mexico City, still exists but it is much diminished. Zumpango, in the State of Mexico, was reconverted into a reservoir in the late eighties and early nineties.

A Step in the Right Direction

Lake Texcoco may also see a renaissance of sorts in the coming years. Almost a decade ago, the drained lake bed was chosen as the site for a massive new international airport, despite the fact that it continues to attract much of Mexico City’s run-off water. The ground has extremely high water content and low resistance to stress — not exactly ideal conditions for a huge international airport. But as I reported for Wolf Street, for the construction companies involved, it would have been the perfect boondoggle: once the airport was built, the chronic structural problems that ensued would have necessitated huge amounts of maintenance work, just to keep the land fit for purpose.

By 2018, hundreds of billions of pesos had flowed into the project and costs were soaring. But then in December of that year, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador won the presidential elections. One of his first acts was to cancel the project, after consulting the public on the matter in a referendum, much to the horror of the investment community. The AMLO government’s current plan for Texcoco is to restore the former lake and build a national park around it. Given that under Texcoco’s marshy land lies one of Mexico City’s most important aquifers, this is a welcome development for a city facing an existential water crisis.

As a recent report by Greenpeace points out, not only is Mexico City suffering from a severe shortage of water, but what water is available is distributed unevenly. In largely middle or upper middle-class municipalities such as Benito Juárez, Coyoacán, Cuauhtémoc and Miguel Hidalgo,  only 0.1% of homes do not have piped water compared to 11% in working class neighborhoods such as Milpa Alta.

The Crisis in Numbers

Mexico’s water crisis has been a long time in the making. In 2016, more than 50 million Mexicans — roughly 40% of the population — were facing perennial or seasonal water shortages in urban areas, according to research published in Nature, which ranked Mexico as one of the countries where water scarcity was likely to deteriorate the most. That was before the latest drought. According to the same study, Mexico City was the third most populous mega city on the planet facing severe water shortages (on a seasonal basis), behind Delhi and Shanghai.

The city already has a population of nearly 22 million, rising to 27 million if you include the surrounding areas, but the local authorities expect it to reach as high as 30 million by 2030, reports the BBC. It has more rainfall than London but with most of its lakes gone, much of that water is wasted.

Mexico, together with Spain, is the world’s fifth largest consumer of water on a per-capita basis, after the United States, Australia, Italy and Japan. Water consumption in Mexico, as in most of the world, is divided into personal, industrial, and agricultural use. Globally, industry accounts for 22% of the world’s annual water consumption, compared to 8% for personal consumption and 70% for agriculture, according to UN data. In Mexico, according to the National Water Commission, agriculture uses between 68 and 70% of the country´s water, industry and hydroelectric plants around 14%, while personal consumption accounts for around 10%.

Much of that water is not safe to drink. As Greenpeace reports, the groundwater in Mexico City has seen an increase in the concentration of metals such as arsenic, boron, iron, manganese and lead, as well as chemical compounds, drugs, antibiotics and other emerging pollutants. Most people who can afford to, drink bottled water, which has provided huge profits for companies such as Coca Cola, Nestle and Pepsi Co, while sharply increasing the country’s consumption of plastics.

In the last few years, Mexico has topped numerous rankings as the world’s largest per-capita consumer of bottled water. And the level of consumption keeps rising. Seventy-six percent of  households currently buy bottled water, according to a household and environment study by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi). That number is up from 70% in 2015, according to the same document. The total amount spent on bottled water has increased three fold in the past 15 years, reports the Mexican daily La Jornada.

“Day Zero” Approaches

A recent study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Latin America’s largest university, warns that time is fast running out for Mexico City. The metropolis could face its own “Day Zero” — when supplies of water run so low that government must begin rationing the precious liquid — as early as 2028.

Cape town, South Africa, was the first major city on the planet to come close to running out of water. “Day Zero” arrived in 2018, when the South African government began to set quotas and manage the amount of water that each citizen could use. The same could happen within the next decade in Mexico City, the UNAM report warns:

Water is the most valuable resource we have, but we could run of it out in a matter of years. Mexico faces an acute water crisis, but its citizens are not aware of it as water continues to flow freely from the taps.

In order to avoid running out of water… immediate actions are needed…

Those actions include increasing the cost of water for industry and farmers, raising public awareness about how to reduce one’s personal consumption of water (such as by turning off the tap when brushing one’s teeth or saving shower water while waiting for it to heat up) and investing more in maintenance of the city’s water infrastructure. Some 35% of Mexico City’s water is lost in leaks as it flows along the city’s pipe network.





Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. The Rev Kev

    Bit ironic this when you reflect that Mexico City is built on top of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan – which was built on an island in the center of the inland lake system. There is going to be a lot of competition between the inhabitants of that city, industry and agricultural interests as water supplies dwindle. Maybe the only way is that all three pay the same rate for water with none of them getting any subsidy in any shape or form. So the more water that you consume, the more that you pay which should force all three sectors to be as efficient with water usage as possible. But if they think that they can grow the population from 22 million to 30 million while ignoring the future water requirements, I have news for them and it is all bad.

    1. Nick Corbishley Post author

      Rev Kev, an important correction: the projected increase is actually from 27 million to 30 million. I double checked the stat and realised the total number cited by the BBC includes the city’s surrounding areas. It is still a 10% increase in nine years, which is going to put immense pressure on the city’s already overstretched resources.

      Also, thanks for mentioning Tenochtitlan. It is incredible to think how the place must have looked on Cortes’ arrival (this Wikipedia post features a couple of maps and images which give some idea). Two of my favourite places in Mexico City are the Templo Mayor, where the remains of the main temple of Tenochtitlan stand (in the heart of the city centre), and the Museum of Anthropology, where you can spend days wandering from one exhibition to another. It gives a very vivid idea of the richness of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic culture.

      1. Joe Well

        Here is Diego Rivera’s imagining of what Tenochtitlán looked like.

        A stunning city of canals and temples unlike any on earth, especially considering that at around 200,000 people, it would have rivaled any city in Europe at the time.

        1. Skunk

          They reportedly called it “the most beautiful city they had ever seen”…before they proceeded to destroy it. The plunder of beauty and culture for profit has long history. Today, it is the natural ecosystems of the Earth are often called “beautiful” but are being destroyed just as surely as Tenochtitlán.

        2. Gc54

          Love the blood trails down the steps of all of the big extermination temples. DC might wish to copy that detail, starting with Supreme Court bldg

    2. divadab

      AN inland lake system which was extensively gardened on floating gardens. Totally sustainable food production that actually increased the biomass and bio-diversity. And no ruminants – the population was mostly vegetarian (plus fish; rodents; birds) as a result. Except for the institutionalised cannibalism which seems a bit much to modern eyes but probably no risk of instituting now since it would be cultural appropriation…..

  2. Tom Stone

    Due to climate change much of Mexico will be uninhabitable in 50 years or less.
    Mass migration and mass death or simply mass death will be the alternatives.

    1. Christopher Horne

      Seems to me the Mayans were brought down by a similar environmental
      crisis. In their case, they needed to produce the lime to make their
      pyramids and plazas gleam with whiteness, and they used a lot of wood
      to do that and the rest they cut down for agriculture. Enter a drying of
      the climate, exit Mayan civilization. Not saying this is any reflection on
      present day Mexican policies- I just think its a curious coincidence.

  3. Larry Goldsmith

    Mexico City is already rationing water, and has been doing so for quite some time. I don’t mean brushing your teeth and washing the dishes without leaving the water running–everyone already does that (one of the things I notice first when I visit the U.S. is the enormous amount of water that is wasted there). In my (central, lower middle-class but gentrifying) neighborhood, we get water in the mornings, but in the afternoon or evening it tapers off. We don’t usually notice it in my apartment building because like many, we have a system of cisterns in the ground and pumps that take the water up to storage tanks on the roof. It’s only when there’s no water for 2-3 days (which happens occasionally) that we run out. This is also the reason why tap water is unsafe to drink–it’s not just the heavy metals, etc., but also the fact that it sits in tanks for hours or days at a time, breeding bacteria and parasites. It’s basically an individualization/privatization of a big part of the municipal water infrastructure. The current airport is crowded but serviceable (its water is entirely delivered in tanker trucks). The cancelled Texcoco airport was a horrible idea and deserved to be cancelled. But the new airport is causing water problems in northern Estado de México and Hidalgo (which already provide much of Mexico City’s water and accept much of its trash and sewage) even before it opens; it is putting a severe strain on those communities and causing permanent environmental damage (though it will have multimedia bathrooms: All of this might be fixed by a serious investment in essential public works, but our current “leftist” government has in common with previous governments that it prioritizes a new airport, a new tourist train, cheap gasoline, and new freeways over public utilities like water, electricity, and public transportation.

  4. T_Reg

    I’m elated to read of AMLO’s cancellation of the insane airport project; I think that will help. But with the water running through so much pollution before reaching the erstwhile lake area, I think a more immediately productive effort would be to implement rainwater catchment systems city-wide – starting in the poorest areas. It would be a huge disappointment to fans of megaprojects and privatization, but I can live with that.

  5. Dave in Austin

    When Cortez arrived the population of Mexico City and the surrounding valley was between 100,000 and 200,000 people. During the 20th century, Mexico City’s population has grown from 345,000 in 1900 to 1,029,000 in 1930, 3,136,000 in 1950, 9,045,000 in 1970, and 15,785,000 in 1990. The most rapid growth occurred in 1930-70, when the population grew by more than 5% annually.

    Mexico’s total population is now growing very slowly, but it is too late for them. The latest refugee influx into the US from the south is coming from high-birth-rate central America, not Mexico. Until probably 1930 the rainfall in the valley of Mexico even during so-called “drought years” was enough to recharge the aquifer that fed the wells. The water was sufficient for a million people but not 15 million people, so even in good rain years now, the water tables go down.

    Population levels matter, in both Mexico and the US, so when you hear the cry “Its the drought!” think “No, its the population increase”.

  6. Susan the other

    I guess the problem is way too big to make sufficient water from hydrogen, which in turn has been made from oil. What is the byproduct/pollution of this process? Probably the problem will be partially solved by migration to smaller towns where streams can be dammed up. I remember a few years ago Guadalajara got a monsoon of hail 3 ft. deep. And the entire northern Pacific Rim now gets atmospheric rivers. So the water needs to be captured somehow. It’s going to be a problem that so many people are moving to Mexico to retire in nice little mountain towns pretty close to Mexico City (I know some who think it is heaven down there) – that might mean even less water draining into Mexico City’s aquifers. Too many people in one place.

  7. tegnost

    Thanks for this post.
    A glimpse behind the Mexico curtain.
    The bottled water issue is kind of a story within a story by itself when considered globally.
    I have some friends whose go to for purity is always bottled.
    It’s an enigma.

Comments are closed.