(Bloomberg) -- Carlos Gonzalez stepped out of his car into the cruel heat of downtown Monterrey, took a look at the Casa Brava bar and sighed. “They’ve done it again?” 

Gonzalez, who is tasked with tracking down water theft in Mexico’s industrial capital, had inspected the bar days earlier, found they were illegally piping water from the network and shut off their supply. The bar responded by tapping straight back into the network.

In the past few weeks, Gonzalez’s team has transformed into a pivotal part of 34-year-old Governor Samuel Garcia’s plans to fight a water crisis that has crippled the arid northeastern border state of Nuevo Leon. Authorities were forced to cut the state’s nearly 6 million citizens’ water access to a maximum of seven hours a day in June, as dams were at risk of emptying entirely, and since then, the inspectors within Nuevo Leon’s water authority have been very busy. 

The taps for domestic use get turned on first thing in the morning and are shut off by around 10 a.m., but many people have no water at all — instead lining up every day with large bottles at cisterns in the city. Some of those who do receive water have reported it coming out brown and cloudy because water pumped from close to the bottom of dams pulls up sediment, or even bright blue, as the low pressure means toilet water flows into pipes intended for drinking water. 

Climate change is hitting the area hard. Both average and extreme heat have risen, with the mean temperature rise estimated at 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial norm — far higher than the global average. Mexico and Central America can expect worse drought in the years ahead, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which noted that heavy water use in northern Mexico and the western US, and strained infrastructure, are worsening climate-related risks.

Monterrey stores water in reservoirs, and so for the city, more heat means more evaporation. The area in general loses a lot when rains come, as soil has become harder after years of drought, making flooding more likely. The changing climate and a history of failures to address the state’s water problems have created “the perfect storm,” said Alfonso Martinez, Nuevo Leon’s environment secretary. Until now, “there was no policy for sustainable water management — we never had one,” Martinez said. “There was no rule about caring for water, no rule for capturing rainwater, no rule against watering grass.”

The collapse has hit all sections of society in Monterrey, one of Latin America’s most affluent cities, which boasts an array of manufacturing plants and Mexico’s third-highest GDP per capita. Last month the mayor said he’d gone 10 days without water at home.

“Monterrey is a very wealthy city,” said David Campos, a 55-year-old Uber driver and English teacher who drove 40 minutes across town to line up in the scorching heat for water. Campos’s wife is being treated for breast cancer, and he hoped 100 liters would last two days for their family of four. “We’re not used to living like this,” he said.

On top of the punishing climate, Nuevo Leon’s water supply has been pummeled by dramatic population growth and systemic mismanagement. Between 2000 and 2020 the state’s population grew more than 50%, from 3.8 million to 5.8 million, as people moved from all over Mexico in search of work. Between 2000 and 2013, water use grew by 45% and supply by only 12%.

Perversely, the state’s most likely chance of a quick exit from the water crisis would be to have a new disaster — like a hurricane or a massive downpour, several experts said. 

“I don’t think that praying for water right now from a hurricane is going to be a solution,” said Ruth Cerezo-Mota, a researcher at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and a lead author of the IPCC’s recent work on Earth’s water cycle. 

Around 10% of the state’s water is lost to theft and another 11% to leaks, estimates Juan Ignacio Barragan, director of Agua y Drenaje, the state water company. To try to stem the tide, the company has stepped up the number of people working in teams to combat theft and leakage. 

Their actual powers, however, remain limited. People regularly have their water cut off and just reconnect “again, again, again and again,” said Gonzalez, a fresh-faced 36-year-old who spends his days haring around Monterrey with three colleagues in a small white Peugeot, strewn with packaging from the street food they gulp down on the move. The city fines violators, but some get away without paying.

Alongside efforts to cut waste, the governor’s 25 billion peso (around $1.25 billion) plan to boost supply involves developing 132 new shallow wells and 20 deep wells, and finishing construction of the Libertad dam. 

Nuevo Leon’s private sector has come under scrutiny, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador saying, “In an emergency situation, priority must be given and we must serve the people, not give water to businesses.” Companies have the right to use about 4% of the state’s water and the main business association has offered to cede a little over a quarter of those rights to the city during the crisis, although it doesn’t know how much of that water it actually uses. 

Governor Garcia said in early July the combined efforts have helped Nuevo Leon’s supply recover from 11,000 liters per second to 13,300 — still far short of the 16,180 minimum that its people, industries and government need.

Garcia has blamed the crisis on the “irresponsibility” of his predecessor, Jaime Rodriguez Calderon, known as El Bronco, who was arrested in May on corruption charges. 

Garcia alleges that Rodriguez’s administration stole 18 billion pesos (nearly $1 billion) during its six years in office, and he has pointed to Agua y Drenaje as a corruption hotspot. When Rodriguez took office in 2015, the company had around 1 billion pesos in assets, but it’s now 4 billion in the red, according to an investigation by the nonprofit Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción. Rodriguez’s lawyer declined to comment on the allegations. 

Rodriguez’s administration failed to do swaths of urgently needed upgrades, meaning problems like leaks got worse, said Ismael Aguilar Barajas, a professor at Tec de Monterrey university and author of a book on the city’s water problems.

“There was no vision, there was no planning, there was no serious consideration of the climate,” he said.

Getting the grid to parity can feel like whack-a-mole. In mid-June, a burst pipe saw 700 liters per second erupting out of the system — about 6% of the total supply at the time. “I nearly had a heart attack,” said Barragan, who took charge of the struggling water authority last year. “It was terrible, the biggest leak in the history of this company.”

Despite the last administration’s shortcomings, many citizens’ ire has been directed toward the young governor, who took office last year and posts regularly on TikTok about his government’s efforts. Lined up in the scorching heat for water, a 73-year-old woman used an expletive to describe Garcia. David Campos, the Uber driver, didn’t even want to say the governor’s name. “He has promised too much and accomplished very little,” he said.

Protesters in areas without water have been blocking off important streets and highways in an effort to get authorities’ attention, and fighting has also broken out between people desperate for water. “If the state government's leaders don't manage this carefully, there could be social conflict and even deaths,” Aguilar said. “It's a very delicate situation.”

Even before the crisis started, it wasn’t uncommon for the state’s water theft inspectors to be threatened by people they caught. Gonzalez’s colleague Armando San Miguel said people became aggressive two or three times last year and his office had to involve the police. “They told me they’d bash my head in,” he said. 

Now, as they criss-cross a city of furious citizens in a car stamped with the water company’s name, danger feels like it could be around any corner. 

“What scares us now is that they’re closing off avenues because people don’t have water. Imagine if you were stuck in the middle of that chaos in your car,” says San Miguel. “They could lynch you — it could really happen.”


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