By Cassandra Garrison
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Frustrated Mexico City residents have been protesting weeks of water shortages, with officials warning of “unprecedented” low levels in a main system that supplies millions of people.
The bustling metro area of 21 million people – one of Latin America’s largest cities – is struggling after years of low rainfall blamed on climate change, as well as chaotic urban growth and outdated infrastructure.
In the community of Acambay, about 80 miles (130 km) outside the Mexican capital, protesters forced open the gates of an office of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua), breaking windows and ripping shingles off the roof, local media reported.
In the Azcapotzalco neighborhood of Mexico City, residents lined up to fill buckets and trashcans with water piped from a truck.
Azcapotzalco resident Maribel Gutierrez said she had been without water at her home for more than a month. Neighbors have started fighting over the limited supplies, residents said.
“I think they should be empathetic,” Gutierrez said of government officials. “We understand there was a serious water problem, but they must understand that water is vital for everyone.”
The Mexican capital, situated in a high-altitude valley and built on a former lake-bed, has struggled to supply its residents for years. It relies mostly on water pumped from its underground aquifer and reservoirs outside the city to meet demand.
Officials from Mexico City’s water utility SACMEX have said the Cutzamala System, a network of pumping plants, dams and other infrastructure that is the source of water for about 6 million people, is the most stressed it has ever been. They have asked residents to change habits in order to conserve as much water as possible.
“Due to … the number of residents, plus the population that comes to work in our city, it is in an unprecedented condition. It is something that we had not experienced during this administration, nor in previous administrations,” said Rafael Carmona, director of SACMEX.
The Cutzamala System was at 39.7% capacity on Jan. 29, down from about 41% in December and 54% this time last year, government data show.
Mexico City gets at least half its annual rainfall from the North American Monsoon between May and August. With recent seasons drier than usual, the city’s reservoirs are now depleted with no chance at rebounding until the summer months, said Andreas Prein, an atmospheric scientist for the NSF National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
“In Mexico, you have to wait until May or June until you can really get a significant boost of precipitation to have a chance to recover water in the reservoirs,” Prein said.
The situation puts Mexico City and other major world capitals at risk for the so-called “whiplash effect,” Prein said – when a city experiences a rapid swing to wet conditions that can spark flooding.
“The swings are getting more extreme due to climate change,” Prein said. “This is what we see on a global scale.”
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison, Diego Delgado and Rodolfo Pena Roja, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)