Could Mexico City run out of water soon? Region faces historic shortage

FILE - The city skyline observed from Latin American Tower in the historic city center on Jan. 3, 2023, in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Mexico City, one of the world’s largest with over 21 million residents, is facing the potential of running out of water. 

The densely populated metropolis has been suffering from drought conditions for some time, and officials have warned of "unprecedented" low levels in the main water system that supplies millions of people. The conditions have also been worsened by infrastructure issues and rapid urbanization, according to officials.

The Cutzamala system — a network of three reservoirs serving over 20 million residents in the Valley of Mexico — has dropped to historic seasonal lows after abnormally low rain. As of November, the system was 44% lower than it should have been at that time of year.

"We're extracting water at twice the speed that the aquifer replenishes. This is causing damages to infrastructure, impacts on the water system and ground subsidence," Jorge Alberto Arriaga, the coordinator of the water network for the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Without drastic measures taken, experts have warned of a "day zero," where there won’t be enough water to supply many of the area's residents. Some estimates say that day could come as early as June. But Mexican authorities have pushed back on that notion, calling the idea of a day zero "fake news."

Mexican President López Obrador called an urgent meeting earlier this month with senior officials and promised to improve the water supply by 30% within a year, according to El Pais. Among the federal government's plans is the excavation of wells in the surroundings of the capital, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, some residents have already reported their taps running dry. In the Azcapotzalco neighborhood of Mexico City, resident Maribel Gutierrez told Reuters in January that she had been without water at her home for more than a month. 

Mexico’s national water commission, known as Conagua, announced in October that it would restrict water from the Cutzamala system by 8% "to ensure the supply of drinking water to the population given the severe drought."

Less than a month later, officials announced more drastic water cuts, representing a further 25% of the system’s total flow. 

They noted the rainy season — which at normal levels of precipitation would replenish the city’s water — won’t start until around May.

Some residents in the region took to the streets to protest the water shortages. In the community of Acambay, located about 80 miles outside the Mexican capital, protesters forced open the gates of an office of Mexico's National Water Commission, breaking windows and ripping shingles off the roof, according to Reuters.

What’s causing Mexico City's water crisis?

Officials said El Niño and heat waves caused the recent falloff in rain, but added that drought conditions have been intensifying over the past four years and gradually lowering reservoir levels. 

Studies have shown climate change creates stronger El Niño patterns that bring periods of decreased rain. Mexico as a whole had 25% less rainfall than expected in 2023, compared to averages from the past three decades. 

Mexico City, specifically, is situated in a high-altitude valley and built on a former lake-bed. The area is prone to earthquakes, complicating the issue of water infrastructure and contamination. 

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.