As Mexico’s ‘day zero’ arrives, advocates urge new government to prioritize water legislation

For water advocates in Mexico City, the water crisis the city faces has never been a question of praying to Tláloc, the Aztec god of rain, but about the government’s lack of prioritizing equal access to water.

The arrival Wednesday of “Day Zero,” a day some scientists thought would see the city run out of water for residents, came amidst days of heavy rain in the area. The Cutzamala Reservoir System, which supplies the capital with 20% of its water, is still running at severely low levels, with the supply falling from more than 2,100 gallons per second to more than 1,500 on June 21.

Emmanuel Balderas Guerrero, owner of Las Tortochas restaurant in the Santa Maria La Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City, hasn’t had a consistent water supply for over five months now.

“We fill up tanks of water in the morning before it’s just a drip of water from the faucets, which starts around noon. After that, it shuts off completely at two in the afternoon,” Balderas Guerrero said in an interview at his restaurant.

He uses the water for hand washing, dishes and cleaning but has to buy potable water jugs from down the street for cleaning vegetables and cooking.

“The city helped a little bit months ago with water deliveries from hoses, but then the elections came and we haven’t heard from anyone now for months, they were busy putting up campaign posters around the neighborhood instead,” he said.

Mexico’s water law hasn’t changed since 1992, when the National Water Law was enacted under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The law allows private individuals to access Mexico’s water directly through the National Water Commission. Before that, such concessions were given under presidential mandate and had to be in the best interest of the population.

According to a 2024 report published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which aims to draw politicians’ attention to the most crucial socio-environmental issues in the country, 70% of all water concessions in Mexico are in the hands of just 7% of concession titleholders.

Water advocacy groups, such as Agua Para Tod@s, have been urging legislation on a new water law since 2012 when lawmakers amended Article Four of the Mexican Constitution to guarantee the “human right to water.” Congress was then given one year to replace the National Water Law with a new General Water Law, intended to clarify how the Mexican government would guarantee this right. 

That time limit expired. More than a decade later, Mexico has made little progress in guaranteeing water rights to citizens and some aren’t so optimistic about the incoming administration.

“Claudia Sheinbaum talks about nearshoring, how she welcomes nearshoring. But there’s no plan for the operation of the industrial parks in those areas on the border where water is most scarce. The industrial parks are unregulated and contaminate the underlying aquifers,” said Ricardo Ovando Ramírez, national coordinator for the water advocacy group Agua Para Tod@s. “It’s going to introduce more out-of-control urbanization, more sprawl, more pollution to the aquifers, more water for large companies.”

Before the June elections, Agua Para Tod@s sent out a digital pamphlet to political candidates that outlined their organization’s five proposals for new water legislation, which concern regulating industrial parks in water basin areas, transferring water from Zumpango to Mexico City, replenishing Lake Zumpango and implementing a legal program to strengthen autonomous water committees.

Pedro Arrojo Agudo, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights to drinking water and sanitation, said in a June 21 speech at a water rights conference in Mexico City that the right to clean water is not just good political practice but is the legal obligation of all governments.

“More than 22% of legal water concessions are in the hands of 1%. That fact that we have two billion people without access to potable water is a planetary disgrace,” Arrojo Agudo said. “But it’s not due to drought. The immense majority of those two billion aren’t without water near where they live, but instead they live near rivers and above aquifers that are contaminated or seized by powerful interests.”

Arrojo Agudo, with hopes that President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum’s incoming administration will be receptive, stressed that now is the time to get a new water law passed that water advocacy groups have been urging for years.

“I would like to celebrate World Water Day on March 22 by coming here and asking the new president to pass the new water law,” he said.

In a June 20 press conference after the announcement that she was chosen as Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Alicia Bárcena stressed her commitment to water management and hopes to be part of a transition from extractivism to sustainability.

“This country requires a great restoration crusade to combat deforestation, forest fires and destruction,” Bárcena said.

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