Is Climate Change Really the Cause of Mexico City’s Water Problems?


A couple weeks ago the New York Times ran a gigantic front-page Sunday article by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman on Mexico City’s water crisis.

This piece was billed as the first installment in a series on the effect of climate change on cities. Which is a head-scratcher, since Mexico City’s problems don’t seem to have anything to do with that.

Mexico City is a megacity of 21.2 million people, making it roughly the size of greater New York. It’s also a mile and a half above sea level on a former lake bed in a valley among the surrounding mountains. So it’s at a significantly higher elevation than even Denver.

This creates huge problems. A gigantic city has huge water needs. At high elevation, using a gravity feed for water is complicated to say the least. This necessitates costly pumping to delivery water from remote sources. The city is surrounded by mountains making even drainage complex. Much of the city’s water supply has come from its own ground water, and the city is sinking from the subsidence as a result of pumping.

And of course Mexico and its capital are in the developing world, and so do not have the wealth to construct and maintain New York City style infrastructure.

All of this is basically covered in the Kimmelman piece, which is good in many ways. But it’s not clear where climate change comes in. All of these problems would exist apart from any climate change. At best, he simply argues that climate change will make things worse, though without citing any real specifics. He only says:

"It is a cycle made worse by climate change. More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city’s collapse."

Why in the world would the Times want to make this into a climate change story? It’s manifestly obvious from the article itself that the core water problems in Mexico City have nothing to do with climate change, but come from geography, size, and bad decision making.

Trying to make it a climate change story only draws attention away from the need to make local changes to address the water situation. It also won’t convince anybody of anything. People who already believe in climate change don’t need any convincing. Those who don’t are never going to be convinced by this article. What’s the point?

It seems to me that too many urbanist writers today simply can’t resist trying to make every single thing some manifestation of climate change. In that regard, they simply link more and more policy areas to something which is politically gridlocked in the United States. So what people do when they make things about climate change is to implicitly state that they don’t actually want to do anything about it.

Many changes are eminently justifiable on their own merits. Bringing in climate changes only poisons the waters politically. And it’s a cop out. If you can’t make the case for, say, transit, without resorting to climate change, then your case is simply weak.

When it comes to things like Mexico City’s water, where there’s a real problem and some action should be taken, better to avoid talking about climate change if you actually want to get anything done.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Fidel Gonzalez [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons