MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — Monterrey’s industrial center has long been one of Mexico’s most prosperous cities, so its nearly 5 million residents were shocked when they lost its most basic service: water.
A combination of intense drought, poor planning and high water use has led residents of Mexico’s industrial powerhouse to resort to extreme measures that conjure up images of isolated, poorer areas: storing water in buckets to use one scoop at a time.
“We’re panicking because we don’t know when the water will start again,” said María del Carmen Lara, a 60-year-old resident of Monterrey. “Finally we got them to send us a water truck, but we still don’t have running water.”
Local authorities began restricting water supplies in March as the three dams supplying the city with water dried up. They currently control only 45%, 2% and 8% of their capacity, and according to the city government, the two lowest dams only had water left for a few days. Earlier this month, they stated that water would only be available between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., recently extended to 11 a.m. But the authorities have not even been able to deliver that, and in thousands of homes there has been no drop from the taps for weeks.
Lara and her husband have been without running water for three weeks and don’t have enough money to keep tanks to store a significant amount. As an emergency measure, some suburbs of the city have placed giant plastic water tanks in public squares where residents can fill containers with water. So on a recent warm sunny day they were busy hauling buckets and tubs to a water tanker to fill them up.
Big, expensive and sometimes corruption-laden water management plans have come and gone, but the lack of long-term planning or conservation remains. A project that would have built an aqueduct to bring water from the Pánuco River, 500 kilometers away, to the city, which authorities claimed at the time would ensure the city’s water supply for 50 years, was halted in 2016. for alleged corruption in the awarding of contracts by the previous government.
Experts say it was clear that the crisis was coming: For six years, Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo León, has faced below-average rainfall or outright drought.
Set on an arid plain against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, water has never been abundant in Monterrey except during brief, catastrophic floods. For decades, state water planning essentially boiled down to waiting for a hurricane in the Gulf to swell local rivers.
Juan Ignacio Barragán, the city’s water director, said Monterrey has been hit by a double whammy of drought and higher temperatures, drying up the city’s reserves. In May, the state reported its highest average temperature on record, peaking at 104 degrees (40 C.)
“This is a situation that has forced us to ration water in order to distribute it more fairly across the city,” Barragán said. He accused the previous government, which ruled the state from 2015 to 2021, of allowing water extraction from high-level dams without considering the effects the prolonged drought had already caused on the state’s water resources.
For a city used to consuming 16,500 liters per second, it now only has 3,435 liters (13,000 liters) per second available.
Barragán said the city has begun urging city residents to use less. Historically, the average daily consumption in Monterrey was about 160 to 170 liters (42 to 44 gallons) per day per person, much higher than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of about 100 liters (26 gallons) per day.
About 60% of Monterrey’s water comes from dams, the rest comes from public sources. The state also has private wells, which owners, ranchers and businesses drill with strict limits on how much they can pump. But those limits often seem to have been ignored, and some wells may have been surreptitiously drilled, according to state and federal officials.
And it’s not just Monterrey. According to the North American Drought Monitor, a collaboration between drought experts in Canada, Mexico and the United States, 56% of Mexico experiences some degree of drought.
All of Nuevo León is either “abnormally dry” or in drought. The natural weather phenomenon of La Niña and climate change could be factors in unusually low rainfall, according to officials and experts.
“For those who don’t believe in climate change, here are the consequences,” said Nuevo León Governor Samuel García. “This is clearly the result of climate change: a semi-desert area is becoming drier.”
Brenda Sánchez, a former official with the federal Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources who now serves as a local lawmaker in Nuevo León, agreed, saying urgent action was needed to combat the “real-life impacts” of climate change. .
For now, the authorities’ response to water shortages is more of the same: dig more wells, reservoirs and dams. A fourth dam is currently under construction in the southeastern part of the state, and an aqueduct is planned to carry water from the El Cuchillo Dam, the largest in the state. Authorities are also trying to end illegal water grabs from rivers feeding the dams and have tried to get large corporate water users to share some of their water rights with city residents.
Rosario Álvarez, an activist with the environmental group Pronatura Noreste, said the government’s plans are too little, too late.
“The most recent problem is that we haven’t planned for a drought like the current one,” Alvarez said. “We’ve had several years of below-average rainfall. We’ve had no hurricanes.”
“What came together was a lack of significant infrastructure, a lack of understanding of the characteristics of the region where we live, and poor governance of the little water we have,” she said.
Meanwhile, until the next hurricane surges into the Gulf of Mexico — and there’s none in sight — residents’ anger grows and street protests have erupted in Monterrey.
“We’re tired of it,” said Mónica Almaguer, 35, a resident of the suburb of San Nicolas. “They didn’t even stick to the schedule where they said there would be water. I was without water for 35 days.”
Gabriel Revillas, 47, who has also been without water for several days, filled a pitcher at a private supplier of purified water.
“All we can do is pray, pray for a miracle,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Suman Nashadham contributed to this report from Washington, DC
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