Course:GEOG352/2019/Water Security in Mexico City, Mexico

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Map of Mexico

One of the most essential natural resources for survival, water, continues to strongly dictate livelihood of societies everywhere. This is especially pertinent in an era of increased urbanization and environmental depletion, as water security has become very important to the continued and future survival of urban hubs.

This theme of water security is especially relevant to the context of this course, as the management and mismanagement of natural resources, largely impact the growth and development of urban areas. This is further applicable to our studies of cities in the geographical south and east, due to the continued increase and influx of populations in these areas. This phenomenon creates a larger emphasis on how natural resources must be understood and approached in these areas, if cities want to continue expanding within an urban context.

Representing an ideal case study of urbanization in the geographical south and east, is Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. Located in the central, but leaning towards South-East region of the country, the greater Mexico City area has a population of roughly 8.8 million residents[1]. With a population density of 6 thousand people per square kilometer, it is evident that is is a bustling and growing metropolitan hub[1]. The greater Mexico City area encompasses 16 municipalities and as of 2016, 75% of the population of the country lived within this area[1]. As Mexico City has experienced relative growth in recent years, this has forced them to face numerous problems, including the inability to keep up with infrastructural and basic services[1]. The accumulation of all these factors make Mexico City an ideal case study for water security, as it amplifies these deep themes of inequality and urbanization.

Water Security


Although water has always been an important topic of international discussion, the concept of water security was first introduced in the early 2000s, during the Declarations of the Second World Water Forum[2]. From the original conversation surrounding what water security represented, it was later established that water was essentially “vital for the health of humans and ecosystems and a basic requirement for the development of countries”[2]. This already put an emphasis on understanding the importance of water security, in the grown and expansion of urban areas, despite themes of urbanization not yet being a frontrunner topic in international scholarship.

As the study of urbanization has grown, today’s understanding is mostly in line with that of the United Nations’ which defines water security as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”[3].  Thus, we can understand water security as a term that both encompasses a more holistic protection beyond simply water and ecosystems, extending to definitions including the quality and accessibility of water for future populations.


Water security in itself, is largely important, due to how it impacts the overall functionality and survival of urban areas. In 2014, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, with an estimated growth of 66% by the year 2050[2].  This has created an unprecedented pressure on the maintenance of infrastructure and resources to meet these needs, especially those related to water[4]. These increased numbers only represent that there will be almost a doubling in need of resources, which only increases the necessity of having water security in urban areas. Issues in water security can contribute to several socio-economic factors, such as continued inequality, poverty, and limited functioning fundamental institutions, such as education and health-care. These issues are already largely prevalent and widespread in urban areas, and thus the importance of addressing these issues are vital to the survival of cities.

A Global Issue

Water security poses one of the biggest global challenges of the 21st century, with  nearly 80 % of the world’s population suffering from water related security risks[5]. With the overall projected growth of the world’s population by almost 50 percent, from 2000 to 2050, as well as the current migration of rural to urban, water security has become a critical problem in urban centers around the world[2]. Furthermore, due to the global issues we are facing not only with the depletion of natural resources, but also the realities of climate change, the international response and understanding of water security is rapidly changing. With increased populations flocking to urban centers and cities, we must continue to expand the concept of water in urban spaces, and evaluate the implementation of a more sustainable response. If not, we are faced with detrimental risks, not only affecting the growth and livelihoods of cities but also diverse populations of the world. Rapid and unplanned urban growth is a threat to sustainable development, as well as a concern for water security, due to the lack of developed water infrastructure[2]. Furthermore, in certain cities of global south and east there is a lack of developed policies that ensure that the benefits of city life, such as access to adequate water, are equitably distributed[2]. Evidently, this phenomenon is overall a global issue, that is being exacerbated by both the threats of climate change and the growing population of the world[2].

Brief Overview

Mexico City, which is the second most populated megacity in the world, is expanding exponentially, which has created immense consequences to its water security. Currently, only 60% of the cities’ tap water is suitable for human consumption, already representing its difficulty in providing resources for its citizens[6]. This problem of water accessibility and security largely stems from issues with its infrastructure, resulting in extreme challenges of meeting both the demand and quality of water services for its residents[7].  As evident with other cities of the global south and east, the most at risk to environmental and socio-economic issues, such as flooding, reduced water services and inadequate infrastructure, are the poorer populations[6]. Also, the city itself is consuming more water than it can replenish with the aquifers, where much of its sources comes from. Overall it is being depleted at a rate that exceeds its natural recharge, by roughly 1.73 times[8]. All these factors, including, but not limited to: environmental limitations, lack of developed water services, and prevailing conditions of inequality,  combine to make Mexico City a prime example of a city dealing with water security issues of quality and quantity.

Case Study of Mexico City

Environmental Issues

Conquistadors arriving at Tenochtitlan, which is now known as Mexico City

Historical context

Many problems surrounding water security in Mexico City, relate back to its local environmental conditions which have been aggravated by human development over the years. Mexico City is built upon an island in the midst of a shallow lake in the Valley of Mexico, which hints to the future infrastructure issues due to the precarious nature of what is essentially a lake bed foundation[9]. Furthermore, it was surrounded by four other lakes which would flood the city when rainfall was too heavy since there was no outlet for the water to flow out to the ocean[9]. In addition, the land was eroded by agriculture performed by the Aztecs and pushed further into destruction by the arrival of the Spanish who brought 16th century European farming methods and tools[9]. The increase in infrastructure, erosion, and clearing of trees led to more flooding which the Spanish attempted to solve by building a drainage system, however, this was done without thinking about implications for the future[9].

Intake and Aquifers

A primary issue as to why Mexico City is not the most qualified location to build a large, important city, besides being built on a lake bed, is that it is a closed water system, which also explains why flooding was (and to a degree still is) such an issue[6]. A closed water system means that there are no outlets that lead to the ocean such as rivers, therefore making the city reliant on other forms of fresh water[6]. This has led Mexico City to become dependent on limited water sources, in particular surrounding aquifers which hold groundwater[6]. Although the use of aquifers themselves are not negative as they provide a fresh water source, problems do arise when they are overused. 106 of 654 aquifers in Mexico are being exploited while the water extraction in Mexico City is 1.73 times greater than its rate of recharge of its aquifers[7][6]. The rate of recharge refers to how long it takes for the aquifer to reach a certain volume of water[10].  Allowing the quantity of water to fall to a certain point in the aquifer leads the water to mix with minerals compromising its freshness and poses a threat to maintaining the supply the source provides[8][6].  

Mexico City, Metropolitan Cathedral[11]

Socio-economic Issues

The issue of water scarcity is especially relevant to Mexico City, Mexico, due to the subsequent presence, and persistence, of severe societal socio-economic issues. With a population over 20 million, currently, 14% of the population lacks access to water in their homes and must often rely on water supplies, such as by tanker trucks[12]. Mostly due to the prevalence of past historical inequalities, issues in relation to water scarcity have especially impacted less economically stable individuals and households. Individuals who are often more impoverished are more vulnerable to environmental risks, such as access to water, and water contamination, as they do not often have the resources to cope with the risks and consequences[12].

Inaccessible Water

Many residents struggle to receive adequate water supplies, resulting from a lack of adequate water and sewage system infrastructure, contributing to further issues, such as proper pressure and continued leakages[12]. Furthermore, most of the residents facing water security are also categorized as having very irregular economic stability, making their situation even more precarious[12]. Furthermore, the scarcity of water also continues to perpetuate social inequality, as the residents, dependent on water delivery, often must pay a tip or they are not granted access to the water[12]. As evident from the persistent problems, the continued inaccessibility to water in neighborhoods, disrupts household’s access to health and education services, continuing to negatively impact different socio-economic categories[12]. Not only present in households, but a lack of water in schools has caused periodic closures, forcing children to miss classes[12]. Beyond simply integral institutions such as the education system, the lack of sanitation in health clinics continues to impact the health sector across Mexico City[12].

Issues with Water Quality

The issue of water security does not only end at dealing with water scarcity, but also the inadequate quality of the water supplied, which can also exacerbates subsequent socio-economic issues[12]. Many households with water, report that the water quality is not up to standards, and often is yellow, foul smelling, and has contributed to the emergence of health issues[12]. As a result, in order to cope with these persistent issues, many residents have resulted to increasing personal water storage capabilities, through storing water in small storage tanks[12]. Yet, this method also continues to increase the chances of water contamination and pollution, not representing a perfect fix[12]. While purchasing drinking water continues to be a norm for all economic classes in Mexico City, purchasing water for cooking and washing is an additional burden for low-income households[12].


[13]Flooding caused by rainfall, Mexico City

It also cannot go without being said, about the devastating socio-economic impacts of flooding, which goes far beyond the control of water supply and quality. Flooding can severely and frequently damage property during the rainy season, impacting homes and neighborhoods and thus, has the potential to deteriorate clean water sources and methods of receiving water sources[12]. As flood water tends to be combination of rainwater and sewage, the damage resulting can also often results in further lost income for residents, as they are now forced to deal with rebuilding and repairs[12]. Furthermore, when trying to dig deeper for groundwater, there is a higher chance of minerals, that are toxic to humans, mixing with the otherwise potentially clean water[8][6]. Arsenic and fluoride are two examples of minerals that could be detrimental to the population if they get dissolved into the water supply causing helath and safety concerns[8]. A second way this depletion of groundwater affects the public is through infrastructure, by means of subsidence which is when the ground shifts and caves in[6][8]. This causes issues to housing, public services, the airport, and most importantly, to the drainage system of water and water pipes[6].

Lessons Learned

Our case-study of exploring issues of water security in Mexico City, has helped us to explore the intricacies of increasing populations and depletion of natural resources, in an ever urbanizing world. This analysis also provides an additional case-study for other megacities around the globe, as the issues prevalent in Mexico City can be mirrored in other cities of the global south and east.

Population Growth

We can also begin to create a deeper understanding surrounding population growth, and how this will impact the future of urban hubs. If populations continue to increase, and resource requirements are not met, then this will largely deter the development of urban areas. Due to the risks associated with population growth, an additional spectrum of issues associated with water security arise particularly those that deepen disparities between classes. These problems faced by precarious city dwellers can directly contribute to a “poverty trap”, where the conditions of poverty continue to reinforce feedbacks, ultimately maintaining the condition over time[12]. As evident from the case in Mexico City and it’s hindered advancement, which can largely be attributed to the lack of adequate water resources, both for drinking and utilities, in addition to an absence of infrastructural investment, sustainable city planning should be taken seriously with all citizens needs kept in mind.


This analysis has also increased our understanding of the importance of educating the population on how to use water in a sustainable manner, and the consequences of the mismanagement of natural resources[6]. Not being aware of the dangers of water pollution can contribute to increasing illnesses and safety concerns with residents. Furthermore, for residents that have adequate water sources, the misuse and overconsumption can continue the problems stemming from water security. If water is continued to be wasted, it is already depleting resources that could be better improved and managed, to increase the overall harmony of the city.

Political Action

There is evidently, a strong need for proper research and city planning, as it is fundamental to avoid planning and expanding urban areas in these regions. In Mexico City during colonial times, the most reasonable solution was to relocate the city, however this action is extremely complex and implies large number of people[9]. There is clearly a strong mismatch and disagreement among the various levels of governance, ranging from municipal, provincial, federal and national, which had contributed to the widespread and complex issues in regards to water security. For example, these lack of attention in regards to water security from governance is evident, as in 2011, Mexico City had one of the lowest amounts in the world paid for water services[6]. Continued lacking cooperation between these various levels of government in Mexico City, will only continue to perpetuate improper planning and institutional services for it's citizens.

Although cities cannot change past city planning decisions, they can continue to take proper action in the future, in order to mitigate any future issues with increased population fluctuations and growth. Furthermore, in an era where most cities, especially in the global south and east are facing large climate change concerns, the develop of sustainable policies need to be done in order to protect the distribution of all resources, especially water.

Reference List

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Mexico Population 2019". World Population Review. Retrieved April 7, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Brears, Robert (2017). Urban Water Security. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley and Sons.
  3. "Water Security and the Global Water Agenda". UN Water. May 8, 2013.
  4. "What is Water Security? Infographic". UN Water. May 8, 2013.
  5. Srinivasan, V., Konar, M., & Sivapalan, M. (2017). "A Dynamic Framework for Water Security". Water Security. 1: 12–20.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Spring, Ursula O. (2011). "Aquatic Systems and Water Security in the Metropolitan Valley of Mexico City". Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 3(6): 497–505.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Galindo-Castillo, E.; et al. (2017). "Modeling the Groundwater Response to Megacity Expansion Demand and Climate Change. Case Study: The Cuautitlán–Pachuca Aquifer, in the Northeast of Mexico City". Environmental Earth Sciences. 76(15): 1–16. Explicit use of et al. in: |last= (help)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Spring, Ursula O. (2014). "Water Security and National Water Law in Mexico". Earth Perspectives. 1(1): 1–15.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Hoberman, L. S (1980). "Technological Change in a Traditional Society: The Case of the Desagüe in Colonial Mexico". Technology and Culture. 21(3): 386–407.
  10. "Water Science Glossary of Terms".
  11. Zwegers, Arian (April 12, 2015). "Mexico City, Metropolitan Cathedral". flickr. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 12.14 12.15 Eakin, H.; et al. (2016). "Adapting to Risk and Perpetuating Poverty: Household's Strategies for Managing Flood Risk and Water Scarcity in Mexico City". Environmental Science & Policy. 66: 324–333. Explicit use of et al. in: |last= (help)
  13. ProtoplasmaKid. "Rainfall at Copilco Station, Mexico City - 2.jpg".

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This urbanization resource was created by Sinem Culhaoglu, Elena Munk, Daniel Suarez, Olger Orlando Portocarrero Varhen.