Mexico comes clean on its water problem

The Mexican environment minister has admitted that the nation’s water problems are more serious than thought, with grave problems of desertification and pollution.

With less drinking water per capita than the desert nation of Egypt, 60% less than 50 years ago, 73% of its supply contaminated and a danger to public health and 93% of its rivers polluted, according to the government itself, Mexico has a grave water problem. “The problem is more serious than we thought. There is no place in this country, with the exception of maybe one or two cities, like Monterrey, where you can drink the water without worrying you’re going to get sick,” the environment minister, Victor Lichtinger, admitted in a radio interview.

Even President Vicente Fox has referred to Mexican rivers as “a lethal source of sickness” after “decades of having been overexploited, without planning, without sense”, and recently declared water as an issue of national security (see related story). Only 14% of the nation’s municipal and industrial wastewater is currently treated.

The national water commission says that at least $30 billion must be invested in the next decade to halt the contamination and to treat enough water to keep pace with people’s needs. However, Mexico does not even currently have sufficient funding for its present water-treatment facilities. In Chiapas state, for example, none of 13 treatment plants are working. In the world’s most populous metropolis, Mexico City, some of the aqueducts date back to Aztec times, up to half of the water supply is lost to leaks and, due to the depletion of its underground aquifer, major city landmarks are sinking and bending.

Lichtinger says that one of the most serious water issues to be dealt with is the waste of at least 35% of the nation’s water supply by agriculture and mining, the biggest consumers nationally. The minister said that the government is to end free water supplies to these industries, which account for at least 1% of the entire national budget, encouraging them to use water more economically. “The water situation is so serious due to bad policies, whereby the rich are subsidised, whilst the poorest have no drinking water, due to a lack of money,” the minister said, adding that some 12 million people, one in every eight Mexicans, are without drinkable water, and pay up to 12 times more for some form of supply.

Under the new plan to be introduced in Congress, industries will also be forced to pay for water according to its supply, for example those in the parched north will pay far more than those in the tropical south.

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