In an excerpt from his exclusive interview with Mexico Infrastructure and Urban Sustainability Review 2017, Ramón Aguirre, Director General of Mexico City Water Systems (SACMEX) as he discusses the city’s water scarcity problem.
Q: How is SACMEX responding to water scarcity problems in the region?
A: SACMEX created a 25-year plan that incorporates expert recommendations with scientifically backed data to help ease Mexico City’s water scarcity issues. It is divided into phases that include rain water collection, pipe leakages, the use of treated wastewater for activities that do not require potable water and the reduction of water consumption. We also are considering reinserting water into the aquifer and using more advanced technology to optimize extraction rates. The point is to use the largest number of tools and strategies possible to attack the issue. In the short term, the aquifer is our only option. We cannot halt extraction and leave the population without water. We have to accept it as temporary solution until we find more permanent alternatives. SACMEX strives to create a permanent water system that does not rely on a limited source like an aquifer. Before cementing our plan, the city has to fix its water leaks. The amount of leakage is proportional to service hours and water pressure. We can import water from outside sources but it will only increase the number of leaks in the system. Our network gives an average of 13 hours of service per day with average water pressure of 90kPa. Developing countries have on average 200kPa and 24-hour service. If we had the same amount of pressure and service hours with our current pipeline system, the percentage of water lost would rise from 40 percent to 74 percent. We cannot strategically adopt alternatives before fixing the leaks. The agency needs to monitor 13,500km of pipelines to find the leaks. Depending on the severity of the deterioration, a plug or the installation of completely new pipes will be required. Forty percent is not an acceptable percentage but we have a realistic goal of diminishing the leaks by 20 percent as every pipeline in the world has some level of exposure. It will take about seven years to accomplish the work and the amount of water saved could be distributed to areas that are severely lacking.
Q: What are Mexico City’s largest water infrastructure challenges?
A: Mexico City is often mischaracterized as the driver of the valley’s high population density and the country’s fastest growing city. Its political city limits are often misunderstood. The true origin of the megacity’s growth rates comes from more than 20 neighboring municipalities in the State of Mexico, while Mexico City alone has surprisingly low population growth. The capital is home to 9 million people and the surrounding municipalities encompass the remaining 13 million. The capital is a strong economic center but many people must live outside the city limits where there is cheaper housing. The city has a potable water system that relies on the exploitation of an aquifer with a limited capacity, which experts estimate will last 50 years at the most. It is being overexploited at a rate of 25,000l/s. Aquifers take thousands of years to develop and the city has managed to drain it in a short period of time. People tend to see it as a permanent system when it is only a BandAid solution. Satisfying the water demand in Mexico City is trickier than other regions due to its central geography and its high altitude of 2,200m above sea level. Its position makes most solutions complicated and expensive.
Q: What role is the private sector playing to bridge the gap in water infrastructure?
A: The private sector has always had a presence in the city’s water system, providing construction, spare parts and services. SACMEX’s 24/7 project promotes contract services from private companies to guarantee 24-hour accessibility and to lower the rate of water leaks. We prefer to use contracts over bidding rounds, choosing specialized companies that have the technology and experience to determine the best methods for solving pipe failures. Mexico has relatively few companies dedicated to this. Mexico City is far from privatizing its system. Commercializing water availability would be incongruent with the idea that it is a human right. Even though the city enjoys a relationship with private companies and the maintenance services they offer, that does not mean we are considering water privatization. SACMEX is negotiating finance with FONADIN, the World Bank and BANOBRAS to fund our projects. We see credit as the one of the best strategies for medium to long-term projects when used adequately.
Exclusive interview with Ramón Aguirre, Director General of Mexico City Water Systems (SACMEX)
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