What can Mexico do to reduce the water impact from climate change?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mexico faces different challenges regarding water availability, the majority of whom have been present for many years. In recent years, the emergence of climate change has posed another risk to the country's water resources and infrastructure, as authorities have publicly acknowledged.

BNamericas spoke with María Eugenia de la Peña, a water and sanitation specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who managed the bank's water and sanitation portfolio in the country from 2011-2016, to learn more about the ways climate change is directly affecting the Mexican water sector, and what this means for government and private sector efforts on the matter.

BNamericas: How is climate change affecting Mexico's water resources?

De la Peña: In Mexico, water resources are not evenly distributed, of course. There are areas where water availability is much higher and others with low availability for human and ecological use. With climate change, this situation becomes more dramatic in the sense that there are increasingly more areas susceptible to flooding in the country, while at the same time there are another regions facing significant risk of drought. In addition, higher population density and rapid urbanization aggravate the situation even more given the increasing water usage for urban and industrial consumption.

BNamericas: What type of water infrastructure and programs should be implemented to address those effects?

De la Peña: Addressing these effects also entails adapting to climate change, and in that sense there are a lot of measures that should be implemented at different levels. For example, one of the first measures that national governments could undertake is to develop a more comprehensive approach to water management within the basin. It is necessary to correctly identify the water balance in a watershed and to supply water for different uses depending on availability. Due to climate change, a country's water availability is something to be considered in any government program in the short and medium term. Governments need to consider climate change impacts and be more cautious on water distribution and allocation for the different uses.

When it comes to water infrastructure, and potable water and sanitation systems, the kind of infrastructure to be designed must consider different variables such as weather - precipitation and droughts, more specifically. The factors should also be taken into account when it comes to urban water distribution and wastewater collection. In the case of the latter, climate change also creates more wastewater infiltration due to higher precipitation.

BNamericas: What type of efforts are Mexico's national and state governments, and private companies undertaking to address climate change in regard to water?

De la Peña: I believe the Mexican government has implemented some very good initiatives and has addressed these situations in an interesting way. The last few years have seen the creation of national climate change programs, and an inter-institutional committee integrated by different government ministries to approach climate change mitigation in a more holistic way. These measures are being implemented not only at the federal, but also at the state level, and I think Mexico is ahead of many countries on that respect. Moving forward with the planning actions is a first step, but I think that now the current challenge is to define the specifics of these measures so that they can have a significant impact on infrastructure. 

BNamericas: How is the IDB contributing to those efforts in Mexico?

De la Peña: During the time I served as the water and sanitation specialist at the bank's Mexico office, I was responsible for managing the sector's portfolio in the country. There is another area in the office that works specifically on climate change. For the past few years, the two areas have worked together to incorporate the issues of water and climate change mitigation in specific projects. The IDB usually develops its projects upon request from governments, so much of the bank's climate change initiatives are related to assisting the environment ministry in developing planning methodologies and emissions inventories. In regard to climate change and water specifically, we have worked with the government on very specific projects. 

We have a very interesting project regarding water reserves, through which we identified that water should not be ensured only for human usage -such as urban and agricultural uses, but also for environmental use. We have been working with the national water commission [Conagua] and the World Wildlife Fund in assessing different basins to identify water needs for environmental uses and set up water reserves that can only be used to supply ecosystems. So far, this program has created around four water reserves of this kind. In 50 years, we hope that the specific methodology we have developed can help guarantee that there will be water reserves destined exclusively for environmental use. The former is an example of a measure regarding adaptation to climate change. However, in all of our projects, whether they involve water and sanitation in rural or urban areas, or wastewater treatment, we always take climate change into consideration. We try to recommend the government to consider this element and take it into account when designing water infrastructure in order to minimize the risk of water shortages or droughts due to climate change. 

BNamericas: Some people have the perception that sustainable water infrastructure is less cost-effective than traditional one. What arguments could be provided to counter this?

De la Peña: It depends on which analysis and approach people use. Most time people say that when something costs a bit more, it is not financially sustainable. What we recommend governments to analyze is that the infrastructure they build not only has to be financially sustainable, but also environmentally, socially and technically sustainable as well. Infrastructure needs to be resilient too. If they only focus on the financial aspect, the cost of a project can be greater in the long term because it did not take into account all those different elements.

BNamericas: What do you think the future of the water sector in Mexico will look like in the short and medium term in terms of sustainability and climate?

De la Peña: There are several challenges in the country that are going to be increasingly more addressed by the authorities. The government has make a lot of progress in regard to producing information that can help us better understand climate change. There has been significant work to develop the meteorological system that produces the information on which Conagua bases its analysis to determine water availability. Now I think it is the time for Mexico to translate this information into specific programs and initiatives that can help boost the process of adaptation to climate change. The main challenge is to make all actors think about building resilient water and sanitation infrastructure that can also be sustainable at the same time. 

BNamericas: What do you think are other major challenges Mexico faces in regard to water and sanitation?

De la Peña: Although the country has progressed a lot in terms of water and sanitation coverage, the current challenge is to improve water and sanitation services. Authorities have ensured that most people have faucets at home and the challenge is now to make sure that water is really delivered to those homes. Another challenge is related to continue working in increasing the country's wastewater treatment rates. Nowadays, only 60% of the wastewater that is collected in the sewage systems is treated, which creates a significant problem for the country in terms of the pollution of water sources. This situation becomes even more severe due to climate change given that the risk of flooding with polluted water increases. Only around 92% of the population has access to sewage services, according to INEGI data, and that figure changes depending on if the population lives in urban or rural areas.
Water utilities have the major responsibility of supplying water to people and providing good service, but they face many difficulties and their limitations in terms of wastewater treatment are usually very significant due to lack of funds.  Most challenges are related to one specific situation: the country still lacks a comprehensive water legislation that can provide a framework on how to better regulate the water and sanitation sector; how to coordinate the different actors participating in the sector - the government, and the private and social sectors. That is an important aspect to address in the short term.

About María Eugenia de la Peña

Maria Eugenia de la Peña is a water and sanitation specialist in the water and sanitation division of the IDB. She is responsible for promoting storm water drainage and circular economy in water and sanitation projects in Latin America and supporting water and sanitation and waste management projects in Panama, Bolivia, Haiti, Mexico and Peru.

From 2011 to 2016, she was the water and sanitation specialist at the Mexico country office, responsible for identifying and structuring the sector's Mexican portfolio. Prior to joining the IDB, she worked at Mexico's national water commission.

De la Peña is a civil engineer from the UNAM university in Mexico and she has a master's degree in environmental engineering from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.

About the company

The Inter-American Development Bank is the main source of multilateral financing in Latin America. It provides loans, grants and technical assistance to create solutions to development challenges in the key areas of the region, including poverty and inequality, health and education, and infrastructure.