As taps run dry, Mexican drought fuels anger over water inequality

In Nuevo Leon state, residents have little option but to buy water off companies that are using up much of the supply

The heat is stifling in Jaime Noyola’s modest house in the Mexican industrial hub of Monterrey, but he can’t quench his thirst with a glass of water from the kitchen tap — the supply to his neighbourhood has been cut for 12 hours a day.

Monterrey has been hit hard by a drought affecting nearly 60 per cent of Mexico, where restrictions on domestic water use are fuelling anger about water concessions that critics say grant businesses — including drinks firms — almost unlimited supplies.

“I’d always drunk water from the tap. Now I’ve no choice but to play into the companies’ hands and buy water from them,” says Noyola (57), an activist who filed a complaint with Nuevo Leon’s human rights commission in April accusing state authorities of failing to provide water to residents. “We have to defend our water. Our own lives are at stake,” he adds.

Noyola says it feels bitterly ironic to have to buy water from a leading drinks firm that extracts water from a well close to his home, and he has joined a number of protests at bottling plants since rationing began earlier this year.


Nuevo Leon’s water authority said in February that the three reservoirs that provide drinking water for the northern state were too low to last the spring and summer, prompting rationing that halts the flow to homes from 6am to 6pm daily.

As the drought drags on, residents in some parts of Monterrey — especially those living in the city’s poorer fringes in the hills — say the taps have been dry for days at a time.

“Last week, we had no tapwater at all. Not even a drop,” domestic worker Maria Juarez said earlier this month, as she stood in her backyard among plastic buckets she fills up whenever possible. “We had to shower with bottled water.”

Climate change

Climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of droughts worldwide, including in water-scarce Mexico, where a lack of clean drinking water is a historic problem in many areas, including poorer parts of the capital.

It is also stoking tension over who should be allowed to exploit the country's water resources.

In 2020, US brewer Constellation Brands was forced to scrap plans for a $1 billion factory in the northern border city of Mexicali after local residents rejected it in a referendum.

And last March violence erupted when police evicted protesters who had occupied a water bottling plant owned by France’s Danone in the central eastern state of Puebla.

A 30-minute drive from Monterrey, the water levels at the La Boca reservoir are so low that relatives of missing people and law enforcement officers have been sifting through the soft ground for human remains. More than 6,000 people are currently registered as missing in the crime-plagued state.

“Two of our dams are in a critical situation; we are practically a couple of days from running out,” Juan Ignacio Barragan, director of Nuevo Leon’s Water and Sewage Institute, said by phone.

Barragan, along with state governor Samuel Garcia, are named in a separate rights complaint lodged by the Ciudadanos Desconocidos (Unknown Citizens) group.

The current drought is linked to the effects of the La Niña weather phenomenon, which has become more marked due to climate change and led to increasingly erratic rainfall since 2015, says Barragan, adding that he is unaware of the complaint.

Acknowledging public anger over the rationing, he says the state government is looking into alternative water sources, such as deep wells, as well as extending the piped water network and improving infrastructure to prevent leaks and illegal use.

Previous administrations failed to invest in infrastructure improvements even as the reservoirs dried up, he says.

Last month, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced a $110 million investment to build a new dam for Nuevo Leon, set to be completed by late 2023. The leftist president has criticised water concessions for companies, but has not so far announced reform plans.

While the rights complaints target state authorities, much of their anger is directed at big companies and the water concessions that allocate them supplies.

“If you compare the quantities [of concessions given to these companies] with the policy of drinking water allocated for domestic users, there is a great inequality,” says Gonzalo Hatch Kuri, professor of geology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who has investigated water inequality.

Water concessions are granted by a federal body, the National Water Commission (Conagua), and Barragan says some of them date from as far back as a century.

In Nuevo Leon, the commission has issued concessions that let industry extract 4 per cent of all water resources in the state — roughly 100 times more than the share allocated for domestic use. Farming and public sector use accounts for much of the rest.

Five big soda and beer companies alone — among them Heineken and the Coca-Cola Company — extract 16 per cent of the water allocated for industry in Nuevo Leon, according to data analysis of the Public Registry of Water Rights done by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conagua and the Coca-Cola Company did not immediately reply to a request for comment, while Heineken said in a statement it was donating 28 of its own wells in Nuevo Leon for domestic use and investing $20 million in a new deep well for the state.

The brewer belongs to the Caintra state industrial association, which says its members are doing what they can to alleviate the crisis.

Local companies have helped rehabilitate 15 wells in the city and are giving up 25% of the water from their own wells for residential use, said Caintra president Rodrigo Fernandez.

“We estimate [those actions] will provide an annual contribution more or less of 20 million cubic metres,” he told a recent news conference, saying that volume would be enough to supply 60,000 homes for a year.

But with the hottest summer months fast approaching, activists say it is time for far-reaching reforms that ensure households are first in line when water supplies dwindle.

“The companies here haven’t had to alter their production and have no water restrictions,” says Raul Bolanos, a member of the Ciudadanos Desconocidos group. “Meanwhile, we have to buy from them the water we do not have access to.” — Reuters