Got water? Hard to know in Mexico City.

Every day, 50 to 60 broken water pipes are repaired in this megacity of over 20 million residents. Sometimes that means a surprise loss of water for Mexico City residents.

Julio Cortez/AP
People run through a water fountain in front of the illuminated Revolution Monument in Mexico City, Jan. 4.

The usually leaky faucet had stopped its perpetual drip. So it didn’t come as a surprise when, instead of a stream of fresh water, I opened the faucet to a gurgling, gagging sound.

Not a drop.

It was the third occasion in roughly a month when the water at my apartment in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood disappeared without warning. The city government frequently alerts residents a day or two in advance when there will be a shutdown, but in the most affected neighborhoods, it’s easy to get caught unawares.

There was no announcement, no time to fill the washing machine with water to divvy out for cleaning dishes, flushing toilets, or taking a meager bath with a pot of water heated on the stove.

With 20 million-plus inhabitants in the metropolitan area, Mexico City’s water woes are hardly surprising [read more about water in Mexico City in our recent megacity series]. 

Every day, the city repairs 50 to 60 broken pipes, says Ramon Aguirre Díaz, director of Mexico City’s water system. There are so many fixes needed that sometimes those repairs, which require the water to be shut off, are made without first notifying residents.

On New Year’s Day, the city announced it would suspend water for two days to 126 neighborhoods – including five hospitals – while it did work on pipes delivering potable water from an aqueduct in nearby Mexico State. This cut affected the city’s far north borough Gustavo A. Madero; yet a similar announcement was not made for the cuts on Dec. 31 to the Benito Juarez borough where I live.

New ideas?

While consecutive center-left governments have been lauded internationally for their attention to environmental issues such as reducing traffic and improving air quality in Mexico City, the water issue has largely fallen by the wayside, says Guillermo Velasco, coordinator of environmental studies at the Centro Mario Molina, an environmental research center.

Former Mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s government built a new metro line, added three Bus Rapid Transit lines to the public transportation system – the Metrobus system has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 100,000 tons annually – and launched a bike-share program.

“There was a lot of leadership in the environmental sector," says Mr. Velasco. “But on the water issue it was more of the same. New concepts are needed instead of having the idea that everything can be fixed with pipes.”

Mr. Aguirre Díaz, the water system director, concedes as much. He says that, as a government agency subject to political whims, the water department isn’t set up to think long-term. As a result, he says, most large cities decentralize the water department to run as a public, private, or hybrid company – a plan Mexico City is currently contemplating.

“There is no long-term solution that can be proposed because administrations change,” Aguirre Díaz says. “Right now it’s a controlled problem and what we need is to prevent a crisis.”

Aguirre Díaz defines a “crisis” as a situation in which a drought causes the aquifer that supplies much of the city’s water to run low. If that was to happen, more than 30 percent of the city could go without water, affecting millions.

In the meantime, the city controls the shortages and the repairs and truly drastic measures haven’t been needed – yet.

But I’ve learned my lesson. With the faucet running again, I started filling up jars and buckets, saving water for a “rainy” day.

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