Mexico is facing its worst water crisis in 30 years as reservoirs serving about 23 million people dry up. The climate crisis has caused consistently hotter summers, and this year’s La Niña weather patterns created the perfect conditions for severe drought. More than half of Mexico is suffering from drought, and the national water authority, Conagua, declared a state of emergency in four northern states. Several cities have now reached the point of critical water scarcity when water supplies ran out.
While drought grips Mexican cities like Monterrey with people lining up with buckets for brackish water Coca-Cola and other firms are still extracting groundwater. The drought in North Mexico means taps run dry. People cannot afford bottled water so water tankers (pipas) are the only way to deliver water to homes and businesses. Monterrey is facing a “sanitary crisis” as those who cannot afford bottled water drink unclean water from the pipas.
Anger is growing that beverage companies with bottling plants, including Coca Cola and Heineken, are extracting billions of litres of water from public reservoirs. Several brewers and soft drinks companies have factories in the city, and these use about 60 times the amount consumed by the city’s population, nearly 90bn litres a year in total, and over half of that – nearly 50bn litres a year (or 50m cubic metres) – is water from public reservoirs. activists have popularised the phrase: activists have popularised the phrase: “No es sequía, es saqueo” (“It’s not drought, it’s plunder”)
Jaime Noyola, director of the Alliance of Users of Public Services, says his organisation predicted the crisis months ago. The public-interest group regularly protests outside government buildings. They allege that local leaders, including the governor of Nuevo León state, Samuel García, are directly profiting from drinks companies’ water use.
“From the behaviour of the companies, we don’t see anything that indicates they will give up water voluntarily,” Noyola says. “And on the part of the local and state government, there’s a crisis of ineptitude, and they blame everyone but themselves.”
Though a group of drinks companies, including Arca Continental and Coca-Cola, have collectively pledged to give up 28% of the water they use while the drought continues, the companies did not mention lowering prices of the essential drinking water they sell.
“How do you assign a price to water? It’s a human right,” says Noyola. “But these companies, namely Coca-Cola, in selling bottled water as the only potable water source, have made their product obligatory. Now water costs nearly as much as gasoline.”
Mexico is the world’s largest per-capita consumer of bottled water. Noyola adds: “Even if they stop production, they are still selling their products while people are suffering and infections are spreading [from people drinking water from the pipas].”
The water crisis has sparked protests and violence along class lines, as wealthier areas are given higher water quotas than poorer areas, and still have tap water for up to 12 hours a day. On 16 July, residents of two impoverished Monterrey suburbs learned that a portion of the remaining water from a nearby reservoir would be diverted to the city. In response, they blocked a highway with a barricade of cars, tyres, rocks and tree branches, stalling traffic for two days. Then they burned the water pipes.