Drought in northern Mexico threatens livelihoods

Restaurant owner Leticia Rodriguez celebrated the construction late last year of a new lakeside boulevard in this northern Mexican town that she hoped would attract more people to her business. But now that the La Boca Reservoir is nearly empty, tourists have stopped coming to boat, water ski, or just eat a meal.

Rodriguez had to lay off most of her staff in April and now runs the restaurant with her husband and children.

A worsening drought in northern Mexico is not only making daily life difficult for residents, but also, in some cases, threatening their livelihoods.

“The only hope is that it rains,” Rodriguez said. “Let even the tail of a hurricane come in so the reservoir can recover, because that’s what kills us the most.”

Last week, Mexico’s National Water Commission declared a drought emergency allowing the government to take action to guarantee water supplies. The country’s Drought Monitor has placed almost half of the country – almost all northern and central regions – in drought conditions.

The drought is linked to the weather event known as La Nina, the effects of which have intensified with climate change. La Nina is a natural, cyclical cooling of parts of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather patterns around the world. In some areas such as northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, this has resulted in increased drought.

The drying up of the Santiago reservoir is not the only problem for the industrial hub of Monterrey, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) to the north.

Another reservoir that supplies the city, Cerro Prieto is at less than half of 1% of its capacity – essentially empty – leaving a third reservoir called El Cuchillo, which is 46% full, said Juan Ignacio Barragan, director general of the Monterrey Water and sewer services.

Under normal conditions, 60% of the city’s water comes from reservoirs and the rest from deep and shallow wells and underground water intake tunnels.
Over the next two weeks, Barragan said the city plans to expand the use of tanker trucks to deliver water to more outlying neighborhoods.

To mitigate the worsening situation, the industrial and agricultural sectors of the state of Nuevo Leon agreed to cede a significant portion of their water rights to the state. Even so, experts say the next few weeks will be critical. If the usual onset of late August rains is delayed, water restrictions in the city will need to be extended.

Aldo Ivan Ramirez, a professor at the school of engineering at the Technological University of Monterrey, said that while the situation in Monterrey is worrying – it represents 12% of Mexico’s GDP – “it is much worse in other localities from the country”.

The city faced severe drought in 1998 and 2013, but it’s more complicated now because only El Cuchillo still has water, he said.

This year’s water crisis has taken many city residents by surprise. Few houses had reservoirs to store water. Many people have now adopted measures to conserve water.

“I think this crisis has made people think a lot,” Ramirez said. “I wouldn’t want to see a hurricane coming in to alleviate this crisis and everyone forgetting about it because that would be the worst thing that could happen to us.”

Back in Santiago, Rodriguez, the restaurant’s owner, said that before it dried up, hundreds of tourists came to the reservoir every weekend.

On a recent day, she pointed across the muddy lake bottom to an abandoned restaurant deep in the lake where diners were arriving by boat. It closed earlier this year when the water receded and tourists stopped coming.

“For me it’s worse than the pandemic, because at least during the pandemic there were people,” the 54-year-old Santiago native said.

Now the ducks walk in the shallow waters around the end of the wharf where tourists used to board boats for lake cruises.

Sitting in one of the seats in the old floating dock, Juan Perez, 65, said he lost his job along with 60 others when the company that ran boat trips went bankrupt earlier this year. Now he survives by working as a janitor for the city.

“It’s sad to see it like this…it’s worse than a cemetery,” Perez said, recalling the festive atmosphere here over the weekend.

Authorities are trying to evacuate as much of the remaining water from La Boca as possible.

They have installed a floating pump which they hope will extract some 400 liters (105 gallons) of water per second for delivery to Monterrey, said engineer Raul Ramirez, whose company installed the pump. They planned to leave enough water to sustain the remaining aquatic life.

Standing on a dry lake bed which months ago was covered in water, Ramirez said: “We have been warned about the possibility of this happening for the past year and unfortunately as a society , we didn’t listen, we didn’t want to understand.”

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