Drought or Deception: Mexico’s Dubious National Water Emergency

Water Truck in Oaxaca 1

Scarcity or plunder?

My family has been affected by the worst national drought in a decade. My grandmother, who lives in Mexico City, went from having everyday access to water to relying on a scheduled distribution of tanks. She has been affected by the low reserves of the Cutzamala system, which holds 25 percent of the supply of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Area and is expected to dry by June 2024. In my case, Querétaro is one of the municipalities with extreme drought conditions. And prior to this investigation, I hadn’t even known about this grave scarcity due to the lack of media coverage on the issue. The water I receive is administered by a private enterprise, who have raised prices and made it impossible to know when the tap will be closed. Nonetheless, I must highlight the fortunate conditions that surround me. I live in a city, and I was born into a family that can buy a water tank that protects me from droughts.

Theoretically, Mexico can provide 549 cubic meters of water per person out of the 50 recommended by the United Nations. This is the Mexican paradox of water: over 80 percent of the territory is facing drought in 2024 while having more than five times the required resource. As such, we are forced to ask who manages water in the country? Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution establishes that water management and distribution is a state responsibility. Yet, the National Law of Waters, promulgated in 1992, interprets the resource as one tied to the market. 

Water is administered as a product sold to the highest bidder. Purchasers such as public and private enterprises and individuals have permits to extract over 237 billion cubic meters of water each year—the equivalent to around 94 million olympic-size swimming pools. Furthermore, not only has water been privatized, but it has also been politicized. Politicians have not made a change to this law for 32 years, which allows municipal governments to grant water administration to over 2,826 operators, all the while lowering the budget allocated to water distribution. Thus, to seriously analyze this impending national crisis it becomes imperative to look at the exacerbating inequality, environment, security, and gender factors. 

In power, there is no drought

I hold even higher privileges in comparison to the periphery communities, both rural and indigenous, that have not had water for years. This is contrary to governmental data, which says 96 percent of Mexicans have access to water—an increase of 20 points compared to 30 years ago. However, such data is estimated by the number of homes connected to the public pipeline without considering if the pipeline has water. An example of such a contradiction is Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico with the third highest poverty index level and second largest water reserves in the country. Despite the latter, at least 40 percent of the population obtains their water by purchasing water tanks.

Particularly, indigenous populations have borne the brunt of this inequality and have not remained silent. For instance, in 2022, their advocacy led to the first community water concession to 16 indigenous groups in central Oaxaca. Said grant was the outcome of 17 years of fighting spearheaded by the Zapoteca people. This fight to bridge inequalities touches the “[…] most sensible of fibers of all of the power mafias.” 

Additionally, the impacts of wealthy interest groups are felt in Mexico’s water uses: 76 percent of water functions for the agricultural sector as a result of lobbying by enterprises and the agroindustry. This sector wastes the most water in the country. A further example of mismanagement, estimates say 6 out of 10 sources of drinkable water in Mexico have pollution of some type, and even more alarming is that nearly all bodies of water have some level of pollution. The repercussions of such mishandling is felt across the country with examples ranging from reports of synthetic-smelling water to the bleak case of the polluted Santiago River, which has provoked the death of more than 2,647 people. Adding to the distressing environmental prospects is the climate change phenomenon El Niño, which impacts Mexico by causing rain in the winter and drought in the summer. 

Such conditions leave Mexicans with scant prospects of water security—a problem that has not been prioritized by past and present administrations. This is illustrated by the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), an overwhelmed institution that has been unable to inspect concessions, fulfill legal obligations, or give maintenance to outdated hydraulic infrastructure, among other shortcomings. Basic human rights such as access to food and health are simultaneously put at risk with the government’s neglect of water. Furthermore, it seems as if water shortage is often overlooked as a threat to national security despite its prevalence. Water conflicts are increasingly ubiquitous, such as the armed violence that victimized the inhabitants of Ayutla, Oaxaca in 2017, and the increasing looting of water by organized groups which has sparked the creation of a regional Prosecution Office for Hydric and Environmental Crime. Despite all this, CONAGUA’s budget was lowered by 12.6 percent in 2023.

Water for care and protecting the territory 

Bearing in mind how water impacts inequality, the environment, and security, it is possible to observe the gender perspective is missing. Water is a human right, but water also portrays relationships between a community through which gender dynamics are conspicuous. The United Nations estimates that, worldwide, 7 out of 10 people without water and sanitation are women. Not to mention that when water is scarce, the labor of getting and storing water falls mainly on women and girls who spend double the time men do on the same job. Gathering and securing water for a community and a household is inherent to the unsalaried, invisible care and domestic work women bear. 

In addition to spearheading the labor of carrying, filling, boiling, filtering, and negotiating with authorities and water providers, women face a series of vulnerabilities throughout these processes.1 For example, many women experience higher exposure to violence, especially in cases of harassment perpetrated by water truck drivers who demand sexual favors in exchange for water trucks.2 Human rights are also imperiled as women’s societal responsibility for water increases their chances of being school dropouts, diminishes their time for recreational activities, and reinforces the feminization of poverty.3 And unfortunately, it is impossible to quantify or completely understand the extent of age, gender, and geographic inequalities because of a lack of data.4

Regardless of women being most affected by the use of water, men tend to be decision-makers in institutions and dialogues related to water rights, and there is discrimination towards social and environmental topics developed by women.5 In the field, women tend to work in administrative not operational areas, whereas in communities they tend to pressure men to improve access to and care for water.6 All in all, this leads to the verticalization of water policy which emphasizes infrastructure (such as dams or processing plants)—without considering care and the conservation of water and land.7 

Therefore, incorporating gender perspective, from decision-making to grassroots initiatives, can contribute to diminishing the social, political, and economic inequalities faced by women. Still, women defend water in ecofeminist collectives to prevent the vulnerabilities, conflict, and social exclusion that stem from its privatization and politicization. As water activist and academic Claudia Elvira Romero Herrera notes, “women are pillars to defending water and the territory due to their integral vision and their capacity to set the collective good above the particular.”8

Watered, clean, accessible pipelines 

Mexican water is accessed, polluted, and controlled by the (usually cis-male) rich elite. These privileged few both ignore and cover up the scarcity and plunder of water. They are far removed from the 74 percent of citizens who have experienced an interruption to their water sources, 48 percent who said they have not had water, and 20 percent who went to sleep thirsty in January 2024. Politicians and the private sector contribute to downplaying conditions that do not allow for water to take its place at the top of the national agenda. This will proliferate with the upcoming presidential elections in June 2024, where voters will expect proposals from each candidate on how to face the water crisis. Solutions have been proposed by various activists all over the country, such as the Center for Sustainability Incalli Ixcahuicopa or Water and Life, an ecofeminist organization. These are just some of the organizations that risk their lives in one of the deadliest countries for environmental activists. One of their main demands is a new national law that can install new parameters for water sanitation, bar companies from 100 year concessions, and more. It is time for the Mexican hydrocracy to promote and undertake a shared, proportional, and gender-conscious approach to defending this vital liquid.


Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Water truck refilling home storage tanks in Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico on April 23, 2011| Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

  1.  Claudia Elvira Romero Herrera, “De la estadística a la realidad: las mujeres en el cuidado, gestión y defensa del agua” Impluvium 19, (April – June 2022): 21-28, http://www.agua.unam.mx/assets/pdfs/impluvium/numero19.pdf ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Denise Soares, Omar Fonseca, Juan Gabriel García, “Mujeres y Agua: Reflexiones desde los Derechos Humanos,” Impluvium 19, (April – June 2022): 8-14, http://www.agua.unam.mx/assets/pdfs/impluvium/numero19.pdf ↩︎
  4. Juana Amalia Salgado López, “Seguridad Hídrica y Género: Desafíos en Agua, Saneamiento, e Higiene.” Impluvium 19, (April – June 2022): 14-21, http://www.agua.unam.mx/assets/pdfs/impluvium/numero19.pdf ↩︎
  5. Eloisa Domínguez-Mariani, Carmen Julia Navarro-Gómez, Rebeca López-Reyes, “Participación de las mujeres en áreas de gestión de agua” Impluvium 19, (April – June 2022): 14-21, http://www.agua.unam.mx/assets/pdfs/impluvium/numero19.pdf ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. Claudia Elvira Romero Herrera, “De la estadística a la realidad: las mujeres en el cuidado, gestión y defensa del agua” Impluvium 19, (April – June 2022): 21-28, http://www.agua.unam.mx/assets/pdfs/impluvium/numero19.pdf ↩︎


Andrea is a student at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Class of 2024) in Mexico studying International Relations with a minor in Peace, Conflict, and Security. Andrea is a member of the YRIS international correspondents program in the 2023-2024 cohort and has academic interests in gender, transitional justice, anti-corruption, and human rights.