In-depth solutions to the water crisis, rather than cosmetic actions

In addition to making improvements to dams and the way water is distributed, it is essential to instill in the general population a sense of responsibility for the nation's water resources.

In-depth solutions to the water crisis, rather than cosmetic actions
Mexico is Latin America's largest water purchaser. Photo by engin akyurt / Unsplash

Water scarcity in some regions of the country, especially in the north, is not only the result of weather phenomena, but also a complex problem in which population growth, resource management, excess consumption of the vital liquid, and available hydraulic infrastructure, among other aspects, are involved.

In Mexico, we are in the middle of a water crisis, and until we start to fix it, people will think that the lack of water for agriculture, industry, and homes is only due to climate change, according to Victor Magaña Rueda, a researcher at the UNAM's Institute of Geography (IGg).

Water security added According to Fernando González Villarreal, a researcher at the Institute of Engineering (II), water security consists of guaranteeing the supply of good quality and sufficient water for the population and economic activities, as well as having the water necessary for a healthy environment and achieving this in any condition (drought, flooding, global warming, etc.). This is "probably the most important issue in the world today."

We've reached a point where it's a scarce resource in some parts of Mexico, but the problems aren't being solved well, said the director of PUMAGUA and former general director of the National Water Commission (Conagua).

Mexico has historically experienced droughts because they are part of climate variability; there are years when it rains well and others when it does not, "in terms of how much water we expect". Some have been severe, but the current one is not, except in certain areas in the north; nevertheless, it has had important consequences. What is happening in places like Monterrey is part of that signal and shows the vulnerability of some regions, said Magaña Rueda.

In this regard, the doctor in atmospheric sciences from the University of California, Los Angeles, clarified that there are different types of drought: meteorological, when it does not rain as much as expected; hydrological, insufficient water in dams; agricultural, scarce for crop irrigation; and socioeconomic, when the resources are insufficient to supply populations and industry. Only the first is a natural process; in the others, the management of the resource is at stake.

The scientist pointed out that aridity is often confused with drought. The natural condition in the north is to be an arid and semi-arid territory: "we cannot fall into a naturalistic approach to the problem and say that nature "is taking its toll" or that "it does not want us. We must recognize that, due to the climatic conditions, it is going to rain little and, based on that, establish how much water can be distributed each year".

In turn, González Villarreal said that Mexico's hydrological variability is high (between rainy and dry seasons, between years, and between regions, such as the north and the south, for example), and "this has always exposed us naturally." Therefore, we need to have systems capable of dealing with any weather conditions and designed to supply water in adequate conditions at all times.

Mexico is experiencing one of the greatest water crises in its history.
Mexico is experiencing one of the greatest water crises in its history. Photo: Voz de América

Playing the Luck

The municipal shortage in the north of our nation is multi-causal. For example, the population of Monterrey almost tripled in 40 years. The demand for natural resources increased for that reason and because of the growth of the industry. Added to this are the concessions.

In the northeast, people normally bet on a hurricane filling the dams, but that is "playing with luck," says the IGg expert. In other years, when they have been on the verge of running out of water, it rains and they recover, but this year it has not been like that. We must recognize how the climatic information has been managed to produce good or bad water management. The results tell us that it has been very bad".

In 2022, there will be a La Niña condition, which is linked to droughts in the north of Mexico and the central United States. However, there will be more hurricanes in the Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico because of this condition."They should be one after the other, but so far in August, this has not been the case." These situations add to the uncertainty we have and constitute scientific challenges.

According to the university professor, "it is a mistake for the northern states to function thinking that the rain that should fall is the average; most of the years are dry, except when a hurricane arrives. We must recognize that there is little water." We have noticed that deforestation changes rainfall patterns; there is less rainfall "and that has nothing to do with global climate change, but with what we have done locally or regionally."

This is a matter for the authorities and society as a whole. People should be aware of their daily consumption, which, according to the Mexico City Water System, is 380 liters per person per day, while the World Health Organization recommends 100 liters per person.

In agriculture, the sector that most consumes this non-renewable resource, excesses must also be avoided, as well as crops that demand too much irrigation, as well as in some industrial sectors. Who makes decisions about the future of water and who distributes it fairly? The expert suggested that that should be established in the legislation, and that is why the General Water Law should be revised.

González Villarreal, who has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of California and is the director of the UNESCO Regional Center for Water Security, agreed that we need to be more efficient and find a new balance between water supply and demand.

Proposals for the water crisis

González Villarreal explained that there is little rain in the north: "If we put a bucket and captured a year's rainfall in the Mexicali area, for example, we would have five centimeters; in Tabasco or Chiapas, four meters. The average rainfall in Mexico is approximately 70 centimeters. Similarly, from June to October, the majority of precipitation is recorded, probably 85 percent, and stored in dams from which resources are distributed.

In Mexico, there are about five thousand dams, some built in the 16th century by private individuals or the state and federal governments; the largest is approximately 220, which are monitored by the Conagua. In the case of the country's capital, one-third of the vital liquid comes from dams.

If we compare the number of dams in Spain with other parts of Europe and the United States, our capacity is lower. We need storage facilities and to build them well without affecting, or at least minimizing, the environment and the populations in the basins, this requires careful analysis and greater investment.

Approximately 70 billion pesos a year are needed for hydraulic infrastructure. However, the investment is probably close to half. "We thought that the hydraulic problem was already solved and public and private investment (what we pay in fees and tariffs for water service) was left aside. If for various reasons, including political ones, rates do not go up and there are not enough fiscal funds, the resources to address the problem are scarce. "We need to double our investment to have, within 15 years, a national hydraulic system that provides water security," said the specialist.

It is also necessary to modify the existing ones, since some of them are silted up, and to build other types of infrastructure, such as treatment plants to reuse water, as well as the replacement of distribution networks in cities that have reached the end of their useful life. It is also critical to train new professionals to deal with this issue.

Today it is the northeast; but other regions, such as central Mexico, including the country's capital, are socio-ecosystems highly vulnerable to meteorological drought. We should have a plan in case of drought; "the best time to face it is when it does not exist. "This is, in effect, a matter of national security," said Magaña Rueda.

In the coming years, we must bet on a change in the systems for the use of the resources; stop using the water bodies as garbage dumps; recognize how much we have and how much we get; and that there is water justice to avoid being privileged in its access while others almost fight to have it.

The academics agreed, pointing out that without taking the pertinent measures, we would be heading towards Monterrey's condition. If we do not want this to be our future, we must change course; the current situation does not require cosmetic actions but fundamental solutions. We are in time to take them.