The Water Crisis in Mexico City

Wednesday, March 2, 2022 1:00 pm EST

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Michael Talbot, Director for Initiatives in Mexico, University of Notre Dame
  • Alejandro Estefan, Assistant Professor of Development Economics, University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs

The fourth virtual event of Global Dialogues: The Worsening Water Crisis was moderated by Michael Talbot, Director for Initiatives in Mexico at the University of Notre Dame and featured Alejandro Estefan, Assistant Professor of Development Economics at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. This session examined the root causes of the water shortage in Mexico and unveiled how complex the problem is, complicated potential solutions, and daily life for Mexicans experiencing water scarcity.

Despite common misconceptions based on Mexico’s geographic location, the country’s water crisis is not caused by drought. Instead, the shortage of water is driven by a variety of factors including unreplenished and overused aquifers, increasing population growth, costly electric water treatment, and shifts in economic activities such as agriculture have increased the city’s demand for water. Additionally, Mexico’s poor infrastructure — an issue shared by many global megacities — further complicates the shortage; with civilians often refusing to pay water bills due to frequent outages and poor service, there is less revenue to invest in improving water systems’ efficiency, and the poor infrastructure currently in place is forced to remain unchanged. 

Estefan emphasized the problem of awareness with many consumers. When there is a lack of awareness of the city-wide water shortage, customers waste more, and the water flow deficit is worsened. Furthermore, the refusal of taxpayers to pay utility bills reduced the finances that the government relies on to provide a consistent water supply. By enforcing the fulfillment of tax payments, taxpayer benefits, and public good motives, payments can increase. In Estefan’s words, it is a two-fold problem: “Local governments need to fund their yearly or day-to-day activities using their own tax revenues,” while also balancing the need to “partner up with the federal government to make large investments in water infrastructure,” all on top of the government’s obligation to provide basic life-sustaining services.

The water crisis is also worsened due to the government’s lack of a city-wide system to measure the entire population’s consumption. Estefan and Talbot considered a policy measure to install water meters in every home to get a more precise measure of water usage. However, this solution is not simple or easy to implement because the areas with the greatest lack of metering are also the areas with densely-populated housing and irregular urban settlements, making it a costly initiative. An alternative or complementary policy measure, focusing more long-term, would be to conduct an updated and more accurate survey of household income to reduce the tax burden for vulnerable populations. Through these discount programs, pensions funded by the government could be provided to the elderly and other vulnerable populations that struggle to fulfill tax payments. 

Limited water access leads to a fall in consumers’ productivity and an increase in infectious diseases. Additionally, when consumers have inconsistent access to water, which leads to water waste, there are implications for water-dependent industries, and discontent with the Mexican government — both federally and locally — grows. There is little reasoning to subsidize water usage or implement city-wide measures to control water waste. Rather, Estefan suggested the importance of raising macro-level awareness of the need to reduce water usage in Mexico.

Visit the event page for more.

Key Takeaways

  • Mexico City’s water shortage is not due to a drought, but rather, not enough water is being captured and properly distributed to meet the increasing demand for the growing city, 1:09.
  • Awareness, or lack thereof, of the water crisis is a major barrier to addressing the problem. Some citizens continue to waste water and refuse to pay their utility bills due to poor water quality and service, 10:49.
  • Local governments need to provide basic, life-sustaining services and the federal government needs to make investments in improving infrastructure; with a lack of fulfilled tax payments, both of these initiatives are compromised, 22:58.
  • City-wide metering would be a good solution to better manage water usage on a more granular level. However, implementing metering to the entire population, specifically in highly-dense areas and those with irregular urban settlements, is a costly endeavor, 30:57.
  • Compromised water access can cause an increase in infectious diseases and a fall in productivity, just a few implications that the water crisis has on public health and economic development, 34:51.

Key Quotes and time stamps

  • “Many of us living in Mexico City don’t face this problem — it is localized in some ways. You mentioned that particularly dense areas, poor and marginalized communities, struggle with access to water in a way that more affluent parts of the city perhaps do not.” — Mike Talbot, 9:57
  • “There are things that the government can control and can do to readily increase tax morale among the population of Mexico City and broader Mexico.” — Luis Elizondo Gracia, 18:10
  • “The problem that local governments face is actually a problem of self-reliance as well. They need to be able to levy sufficiently large tax revenues for them to provide consistently high quality water service.” — Alejandro Estefan, 22:09
  • “The state has these obligations of providing access to water to its citizens. But at the same time, it has to fund water provision, and the only way that the government can fund water provision in the long run is by increasing tax revenues.” — Alejandro Estefan, 25:52
  • The government knows how much water is used in the city. What they don’t know is who uses that water, so they don’t know who to charge with water consumption. It’s a problem to pay for all of this electricity if there’s nobody to charge that electricity to, so of course, when water payments are reduced there’s also a reduction in water quality through electricity.” — Alejandro Estefan, 45:18

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