Saturday, September 12, 2009

Weather Worsens Mexico City's Water Shortage

SEPTEMBER 12, 2009

With El Niño Paring Precipitation, Officials Resort to Rationing, Fines and Warnings to Accustom Residents to Using Less

By NICHOLAS CASEY, The Wall Street Journal

MEXICO CITY -- This megacity -- which was built on the bed of a lake -- may be close to running out of water.

One of the principal reservoirs that feeds Mexico City, the Cutzamala dam system, is nearly half-empty and continuing to drop. Water shutoffs have become routine in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

A respite came this week with a few days of heavy rain. But with the country facing what could be one of its driest years in nearly seven decades, the government is running ads with a dire prediction: "February 2010: The City May Run Out of Water."

"If we can't get control of water demand here, the difference between what's offered and what's needed is going to leave parts of this city without any water," says Ramón Aguirre, head of Mexico City's water system.

Mexico's capital, with its 19 million residents, is confronting a crisis that also is a threat elsewhere. Los Angeles, Beijing and Singapore are just a few of the world's urban centers struggling to accommodate growing populations with dwindling supplies of drinkable water.

"For people on the edge of water sustainability, changes in climate can knock them right off," says Meena Palaniappan, of the International Water and Communities Initiative, a California think tank that focuses on sanitation and sustainable water supplies.

Scientists blame the far-flung dry spell on a raft of warm water off the Pacific Coast known as El Niño, a cyclical event that occurs about every three to five years and raises rain levels in some regions while drastically reducing precipitation in others.

Florida and Peru, for example, have received more rain this summer, while parts of Central America, Mexico, Texas and Australia saw below-average amounts. Guatemala's president recently declared a "public calamity" after drought and famine claimed more than 460 lives so far this year.

Mexico City, which endured a much drier summer rainy season this year, is also an extreme case. The city lies on a high plateau where water must be pumped up to more than 7,000 feet before it reaches the tap. While many cities -- New York, for example -- lie near rivers or drainage areas that head to the sea, Mexico City receives relatively little runoff.

"We're an exception among exceptions," said Mr. Aguirre, the water chief.

City officials have been using soft pressure to bring down water use. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico City's mayor, went on television to urge residents to limit showers to four minutes. The city also plans to fine residents caught watering their gardens during the day.

In some areas, the city is taking a more stringent approach: cutting off water completely.

Iztapalapa, the city's largest and poorest borough, has endured sporadic cuts this year, including one in April when water was shut off for 36 hours. On a recent afternoon, some local mom-and-pop shops moved jugs of water up to the entrance, selling them for 28 pesos, or about $2. The price is high for many in Mexico, where roughly one in two people earns less than $4 a day.

"I turned on the faucet last week and it was the color of coffee, then there was no water at all," said Damian Rosas Granados, a 79-year-old who has been seeking work in Iztapalapa. Mr. Rosas says he has diabetes and needs fresh water to take his medication.

During recent cuts, Mr. Rosas said, the city sent a water truck that was empty shortly after it was swarmed by residents. "It's because we're the poorest," he says. "Why are other neighborhoods getting water?"

The city said it isn't targeting poorer neighborhoods, but that Iztapalapa and others are affected more because of their disproportionate dependence on the evaporating Cutzamala network. Underlining the class division here, many buildings in wealthier neighborhoods have water tanks with emergency supplies. In Colonia Roma, one such area where supplies have remained steady, residents have traveled from poorer neighborhoods to collect water in buckets and take it back to their homes.

Mexico City was built on the foundations of the Aztec capital that once sat in the middle of a shallow lake. But Lake Texcoco was drained by later generations and the remaining aquifer is sinking nearly six feet a year, according to the water department.

Mr. Aguirre blames much of the crisis on the city's voracious consumption of water -- what he calls a "culture of thinking water is an unlimited resource."

Residents of the capital use on average more than 75 gallons of water a day, the city estimates, far more than their counterparts in most European and American cities whose daily rates are closer to 40 and 50 gallons a day, respectively.

It doesn't help that city planners entered the year with a list of unfinished repair projects for the aging infrastructure. One project being pushed now is a $70 million renovation of the Cutzamala system. Mexico City also is rushing to replace a 310-mile stretch of water pipes.

Some experts say the drought may not last much longer. Steve Zebiak, a climatologist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, says weather models indicate the worst may be over for southern Mexico, with weather patterns returning to normal this fall.

Write to Nicholas Casey at
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A12

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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