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Water crisis and privatization in Mexico City, Mexico


The capital of Mexico nowadays represents a largely urbanized and heavily populated area where water scarcity, missing access and pollution are grave, yet long-lasting problems [1]. Despite having periods of rainfall statistically everyday for a period of almost six months, poor planning, a lack of infrastructure investment and corruption have led to water shortages affecting especially poorer neighbourhoods [2]. 

The official statistic of the National Household Survey in 2017 estimated that in Mexico City, only 79% of households have daily water supply. Furthermore, that study found that 11% of homes receive water only two or even fewer times a week [10]. Future projections by the World Bank and Mexico’s National Water Commission foresee even more severe water deficits by 2030, induced by urban growth and climate change and gravely affecting water access for millions of inhabitants [4]. 

Since 2012, water has finally been a constitutionally protected human right and is heavily subsidised, but its implementation in legislation is still absent and thus water often does not arrive at all or in bad quality. The coordination of the Water System of Mexico City (Sacmex) admitted that more than 40% of the city’s running water is lost to leaks [4]. The water that arrives is contaminated by a variety of -sometimes- deadly bacteria. According to researchers at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma, Mexico City ranks first in the world for gastrointestinal infections from water consumption [5]. 

Although these problems are well known, solutions strategies in the context of Mexico City and the country itself, usually concentrate on private management, containing a dominant agenda of economic efficiency. These dominant strategies were not able to significantly improve water access infrastructure for vulnerable people, while at the same time water tariffs rates were increasing and creating economic distress for large shares of already precarious living citizens [7]. 

A fact tragically illustrated best by the cities semi-privatized Cutzamala water supply system, where water is coming from a small lake 100 km away from the capital, through 30-year-old pipes in desperate need of maintenance. Simultaneously water supply by this important system is deeply separated among the socioeconomic profile of the neighbourhoods which it crosses. In fact, poorer neighborhoods are more often exposed to water shortages and cut-offs while unofficial settlements almost have no access to such a water supply [8]. 

Since the 90s, water service contracts are in the hand of four private corporations, organized in four sections of the Federal District. Each of these companies is a mixed venture, consisting out of 51% of Mexican companies and 49% multinationals, including Veolia Water and Suez Environment [3]. From the beginning, the involvement of these companies was questioned due to the frequent overbilling mistakes and distress affecting the population [1]. Over the years, NGOs reported a multitude of cases where the private concessionaires failed to fulfill their obligations in the maintenance of hydraulic infrastructure, while gaining high profits out of their contracts [7]. 

Several attempts to further privatize services were made in recent years. In 2009, a scheme to privatize infrastructure maintenance was announced. This scheme excluded five delegaciones (regional areas), leaving city parts with the biggest technical and social challenges under the authority of the city government [3]. In 2015 another debate in the national context about a neoliberal approach to water management favoured by the powerful central water authority aroused. The plan of the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), contained a privatization friendly agenda and led to marches with thousands of protesters claiming that “El H20 no es un negocio - Water is not a business.’’ [5]. The agenda was based on a controversial General Water Law (Ley General del Agua), also known as the 'Korenfeld Law' after a leading politician of the ruling party and also the director of CONAGUA. It was largely based on a technocratic interpretation of the constitutional reforms mandate to institutionalize the human right to water. Due to the public outcry, the law was later suspended [6]. 

On the other side Civil Society Actors and advocates for the improvement of public management such as 'Agua para Todxs' are challenging the ineffective water management [7]. In 2015, a citizen’s initiative was started containing a socially inclusive approach developed by activists, academics and civil society groups with a human rights agenda for universal and equitable access to water. That approach was explicitly focused on marginalized poor communities, healthy watersheds, and an expanded capacity for citizen participation. Although the demands of civil society actors and the success of a progressive coalition in the last elections showed that traditional power imbalances are shifting, a legally binding framework to guarantee the universal human right to water without discrimination is still not implemented [6]. 

In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mexico City became a grave example of the gap between rich and poor. Entities in charge are discriminating users actively by favouring the distribution of scarce water resources and infrastructure developments towards richer, more lucrative, and thus powerful citizens [2]. The capital of Mexico soon became the epicenter of the countries Covid-19 infections and especially poorer parts as the overcrowded neighbourhood Iztapalapa, were severely affected by the virus. Missing or only very limited access to safe water supply and thus hygiene measures resulted in high infection and fatality rates among its residents. In absence of any social protection, many residents are forced to expose themselves to the virus in order to survive economically [9] [10]. In the light of these grave water access inequalities, the government's approach to tackle the pandemic by public health campaigns based on water and sanitation as a prevention strategy seems tragically paradox [2]. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Water crisis and privatization in Mexico City, Mexico
State or province:Ciudad de México
Location of conflict:Mexico City
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Water access rights and entitlements
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific commodities:Water

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Mexico City obtains 66% of its water from internal sources and is equivalent to producing 23.4 m3 of water.

34% comes from the 3 external systems, Lerma, Cutzamala and the Internal Supply Programme (PAI), equivalent to 11.9 m3 per second

Of this total there is a flow available of 22.95 m3/s: because 12.35 m3 are lost in leaks , representing a loss of 35%. (2018)

Project area:148,500
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:Around 21% of the total population are missing safe water access (2017)
Start of the conflict:01/05/1993
Company names or state enterprises:Sistema de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (Sacmex) from Mexico - Public Entity with outsourced services
Tecnología y Servicios de Agua S.A. de R.L (TESCA) from Mexico - Private actor, part of the cities water and sanitation management
Industrias del Agua de la Ciudad de México (IACMEX o IASA) (IACMEX/IASA) from Mexico - Private actor, part of the cities water, sewage and sanitation management
Servicios de Agua Potable (SAPSA) from Mexico - Private actor, part of the cities water, sewage and sanitation management
Agua de México S.A. (AGUAMEX) from Mexico - Private actor, part of the cities water, sewage and sanitation management
Relevant government actors:National Water Commission (CONAGUA): Administrative, technical advisory commission of
Mexico's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Agua para Todxs (
Coalición de Organizaciones Mexicanas por el Derecho al
Agua (Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water – COMDA) (
Food&Water Watch (

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Soil erosion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Infectious diseases, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Specific impacts on women
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:The 2015 Citizensʼ Initiative represents a maximalist approach to achieving the human right to water requirements and guaranteeing water justice in Mexico and its capital. The proposal includes increasing water access to 100 lpd and extending the guaranteed water access to irregular, rural and indigenous communities. In addition, it envisions a dramatic increase in citizen participation in water decision-making, investment in resources and social oversight. Furthermore, it proposes novel forms of public control to prohibit industrial projects that extract or use water resources and prohibits private sector involvement in implementing the human right to water. The implementation of this right is needed in order to solve the problems within water supply [6].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:This is an ongoing conflict around water governance in a complex environment. Private actors are partly complicit in neglecting better water access for vulnerable sections of the city’s population because of missing investment and failures in maintenance. A position that is challenged by progressive civil society actors delivering alternative proposals, but real change still needs to be implemented by political spheres.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries


[6] Wilder, M., Austria, P. F. M., Romero, P. H., & Ayala, M. B. C. (2020). The human right to water in Mexico: challenges and opportunities. Water Altern, 13, 28-48.

[8] Van Dusen, R. (2016). The Politics of Water in Mexico City.

[2] Matt Rivers and Natalie Gallón, CNN - Water shortages make pandemic hygiene tough in Mexico City. 2020

[3] Food and Water Watch - Water Privatization Threat in Mexico City: The many failures of private water management, both national and international, cannot be ignored. 09.18.09

[4] Kylie Madry - Covid exposes Mexico City’s water access gap between rich and poor. 01/10/2020

[5] David Adler - The War for Mexico’s Water. 2015


[9] Azam Ahmed - In the epicenter of Mexicos epicenter, feeling like trapped animal. 14.10.2020

[10] Anthony Esposito - Water shortage leaves poorer Mexicans high and dry in coronavirus fight. 24.4.2020

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Materiales Agua para [email protected]

Meta information

Contributor:Luca Scheunpflug, Philipps-University Marburg, [email protected]
Last update10/11/2020
Conflict ID:5285



En la colonia Del Mar, en Tláhuac, los vecinos hicieron largas filas para obtener un poco de agua

Foto Víctor Camacho (

Protest sign

Protest sign 2