Mexico focuses on more sustainable water-management policies

Mexico receives 1.49trn cu metres of rainwater a year, 67% of which falls between June and September. Its geography in terms of hydrology can be divided roughly into two regions – north and south – based on their distinctive socio-economic and environmental characteristics. The south tends to be more rural, with plentiful rainfall. The north, which encapsulates two-thirds of Mexico’s land mass, is classified as arid or semi-arid, and is generally more developed. It also has a larger population and contributes more to the country’s GDP. This geographic division leads to environmental pressures predominantly in the northern states, which are more industrialised in terms of both their manufacturing processes as well as their agricultural methods.

As for the types of usage, water can be divided into two groups: offstream, of which 4% is used for industry, 5% for thermoelectric power, 14% for public usage and 77% for agricultural production; and instream, such as that used for hydroelectric power.

Government Push

The National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua, Conagua), a decentralised organ of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, is responsible for administrating the nation’s waters, managing and controlling the hydrological system, and promoting social development. It carries out its tasks through 13 separate basin organisations, or hydrological administrative regions. The decentralisation of Conagua’s key functions was mandated in amendments to the National Water Law in December 2003. Subsequently, basin agencies and basin councils were created to more directly manage water policy, planning and management (see Legal chapter).

On June 6, 2018 the executive arm of the government issued 10 new presidential decrees that lifted 295 of the 756 prohibitions on water extraction from previously protected basins. The extraction will be carried out by mining, fracking and oil companies, which some observers view as a move to privatise water. The government, however, has refuted this claim, adding that the decrees will guarantee consumption levels for the population and future generations to come, as well as preserve the environment. Under the new measures, however, Conagua exceeds the International Water Resources Association’s and the World Resources Institute’s recommendation to reserve 35% of surface runoff for consumption and environmental care by 12%.


By far the largest consumer of water is the agriculture sector, which uses more than three-quarters of all freshwater supplies in Mexico, and is responsible for around one-third of soil degradation in the country. As agricultural exports continue to outpace broader economic growth, there is an increasing need for more sustainable agricultural practices that better manage Mexico’s water resources.

Mexico has the sixth-largest irrigation infrastructure in the world, even though just 12% of its farmland is irrigated. While further development to the irrigation system could boost exports of higher-value products, such as avocados and berries, it is seen as the most inefficient way to water crops (see Agriculture chapter). The growing use of pesticides is also a concern for the sector. Around 69% of agricultural production is exposed to pesticides, while the use of natural fertilisers continues to decline. This situation has led many industry players to call for a more holistic and sustainable approach to water usage in agriculture. “It should be the responsibility of all stakeholders in the agriculture sector to work towards more sustainable use of freshwater, especially in the driest areas of Mexico, where farmers are often reliant on just one source of water,” Jordi Valls, CEO of water management company Suez México, told OBG. “In Baja California, for instance, 85% of the water supply comes from the Colorado River, which demonstrates the need to develop other sources, such as desalination, in conjunction with smart agriculture techniques.”

According to an academic paper written by Enrique Palacios Vélez, a research professor at the College of Postgraduates in the town of Montecillo, there are two crucial components that need to be addressed to ensure the future relationship between water and agriculture: the federal government’s policy and the administration of water usage. However, there has yet to be a coordinated policy that clearly outlines how water should be managed or used.

In his report, Palacios suggests a number of recommendations to better manage the agriculture sector’s relationship with water. First, a legal definition of water usage should be passed, as has been the case in other countries. Without a legal definition, water resources are vulnerable to excessive exploitation by agricultural producers. To increase the efficiency and productivity of water use, while ensuring that firms are more mindful when using the resource, new water delivery systems, such as a volumetric endowment, could be implemented. Palacios also argues that a measuring system should be implemented by all sectors that use water, not only agriculture, in order to extend control over water distribution, as well as allow for the evaluation of water production throughout the country.

Industry Use

Mexico’s industrial sector is an important player in water management, even though it represents just 4% of the country’s total water usage. The environmental impact, however, is not measured by the amount of water used, but by the level of wastewater generated; large industrial production companies generate 345% more pollution than municipal sewage.

Furthermore, the pollution generated by industry is said to equal that produced by 100m people. This has a significant impact on water quality; by end-2010 more than 70% of Mexico’s water showed some signs of contamination. Several business leaders have announced that companies are obligated to take the lead on potential solutions. “The key to solving the problem is governability, from both the public and private sectors,” Valls told OBG. “Efficient and strategic water management in the country’s fastest-growing regions is needed.”

Moving Forward

These problems are widely documented and have put pressure on companies that use large amounts of water and produce high levels of pollution to take self-regulatory action. Large multinationals, such as Nestlé, beverage company FEMSA and building materials manufacturer Cemex, have joined economists and academic institutions to form the Water Advisory Council. Created in 2000, the board aims to help evaluate Mexico’s water supply. Many of its members have committed to targets to reduce both their usage and pollution, including Heineken, which aims to lower its water usage per litre of beer to 2.5 litres by 2020. By comparison, Grupo Modelo’s brewery in Hidalgo, one of the most water-efficient globally, uses almost 3 litres of water for every litre of beer produced.

Further efforts to tackle the issue of wastage can be seen in the north-central state of San Luis Potosí. In mid-June 2018 the Potosíno Centre of Scientific Investigation and Technology announced plans to launch the first facility using an innovative method for the treatment of industrial wastewater.

There is evidence to suggest that industry is using less water, based on figures released by Conagua in mid-2018. The agency reported that of the water assigned to the industrial and service sectors, only 52.5% is used. This implies that industry is consuming less than expected, which means that there is more water available for other users.

As Mexico’s population, agricultural exports and industry grow, the long-term challenge is to develop a more strategic and efficient water-management policy. The Water Advisory Council recognises that the responsibility cannot be placed solely on government, though the public sector does have a top-down effect in reducing water usage and preserving the environment. Given the scale and presence of many multinational companies in the country, as well as their innovative capacity, the private sector is an instrumental player in developing water management in the industrial sector.

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The Report: Mexico 2018

Energy & Utilities chapter from The Report: Mexico 2018

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