MONTERIE, Mexico (AP) – The Monterrey industrial hub has long been one of Mexico’s most prosperous cities, so nearly 5 million people were shocked when they lost their most basic services: water.
The combination of intense drought, poor design and high water use has left Mexico’s industrial power plant residents resorting to extreme measures that create isolated, poorer areas: storing water in buckets for one scoop at a time.
“We are panicked because we do not know when the water will return,” said Maria del Carmen Lara, 60, a resident of Monterrey. “Eventually we gave them a water truck to send us, but we still don’t have running water.”
Local authorities began cutting off water supplies in March as the three dams helping to supply the city dried up. At present they hold only 45%, 2% and 8% of their capacity and the city authorities say that the two lower dams were left with water for only a few days. Earlier this month, they said water would only be available between 4 p.m. and 10 a.m., with a recent extension of service until 11 a.m. But authorities have not even been able to supply it, and in thousands of homes, not a single drop has come out of the taps in weeks.
Lara and her husband have not had running water for three weeks and do not have enough money to hold tanks to store a significant amount. In one meter, some of the city’s suburbs have created giant plastic water tanks in public squares to fill residents with water containers. So one hot, sunny day, they were busy dragging buckets and buckets into a water tank truck to fill them.
Large, expensive and sometimes corrupt water management plans have come and gone, but the lack of long-term planning or maintenance remains. A project that would have built an aqueduct to bring water from the Pánuco River, 310 miles (500 km) into the city, which authorities then claimed would provide the city with water for 50 years, fell in 2016 due to alleged corruption in the award of contracts by the previous administration.
Experts say it was clear to see the crisis coming: for six years, Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon, has been experiencing below-average rainfall or total drought.
In a arid plain against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre Oriental, water — except for brief, catastrophic floods — was never abundant in Monterrey. For decades, state water planning has essentially resulted in a hurricane waiting in the Gulf to swell local rivers.
Juan Ignacio Barragán, the city’s water director, said Monterrey had been hit by a double drought and higher temperatures, which had drained the city’s reserves. This May, the state reported the highest average temperature ever, reaching a high of 104 degrees (40 C.)
“This is a situation that has forced us to take care of water, so that we can distribute it more fairly throughout the city,” said Barragán. He accused the previous government, which ruled the state from 2015 to 2021, of allowing water to be pumped from dams at high levels without taking into account the effects already caused by the prolonged drought on the state’s water sources.
For a city accustomed to consuming 4,225 gallons (16,500 liters) per second, only 3,435 gallons (13,000 liters) are now available per second.
Barragán said the city has launched an effort urging residents to use less. Historically, the average daily intake in Monterrey was about 160 to 170 liters (42 to 44 gallons) per day per person, much higher than the World Health Organization recommendation of about 100 liters (26 gallons) per day.
About 60% of Monterrey’s water comes from dams, with the rest coming from public wells. The state also has private wells, which owners, ranchers and businesses open with strict limits on how much they can draw. But those limits often seem to have been ignored and some wells may have been secretly opened, according to state and federal officials.
And it’s not just Monterrey. According to the North American Dought Monitor, a collaborative effort between drought experts in Canada, Mexico and the United States, 56% of Mexicans experience some degree of drought.
All of Nuevo León is either “unusually dry” or dry. La Niña natural weather and climate change may be contributing factors to the unusually low rainfall, according to officials and experts.
“For those who do not 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 region is becoming drier.”
Brenda Sánchez, a former Federal Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources official who now serves as a local legislator in Nuevo León, agreed, saying urgent action was needed to combat the “real consequences” of climate change.
At present, the authorities’ response to water scarcity is more the same: they dig more wells, tanks and dams. A fourth dam is under construction in the southeast of the state and an aqueduct is planned to transport water from El Cuchillo Dam, the largest in the state. Authorities are also trying to stop the illegal seizures of water from rivers that supply dams and have tried to persuade large corporate water users to share some of their water rights with city residents.
Rosario vlvarez, an activist with the Pronatura Noreste environmental group, said the government’s plans were too few, too late.
“The latest problem is that we have not planned a drought like the current one,” Alvarez said. “We had many years with below average rainfall, we did not have hurricanes.”
“What happened was the lack of significant infrastructure, the lack of understanding of the characteristics of the area where we live and the poor management of the minimal water we have,” he said.
Meanwhile, until the next hurricane erupts in the Gulf of Mexico – and no one is visible – anger is rising among residents and street protests have broken out in Monterrey.
“We are bored,” said Mónica Almaguer, a 35-year-old San Nicolas suburb resident. “They have not even adhered to the timetable in which they said there would be water. “I have been without water for 35 days.”
Gabriel Revillas, 47, who has also been without water for several days, filled a jug at a private clean water supplier.
“The only thing we can do is pray, pray for a miracle,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Suman Naishadham contributed to this report from Washington, DC
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