The Hernandez family—young Alberto and his father and grandfather, both named Fernando—is in the water-delivery business, using their pipas truck to supply Mexico City.

Every Last Drop

On any given day in North America’s largest city, millions of residents can’t count on getting water through their taps. Meet the Mexico City natives whose lives are ruled by scarcity.

Alberta Garduño Espinosa, a 60-year-old grandmother, sometimes gets in line for a water delivery the night before it arrives. Her home in the Mexico City district of Iztapalapa technically has plumbing, but the water pressure is so low that it rarely makes it through the taps of the homes in her neighborhood. When water is scarce—as it usually is—she might stay up all night waiting for the water truck known as the pipa, for the pipes it uses to fill up cisterns. If no one is there to meet the pipa, it might pass the neighborhood by. Garduño Espinosa hopes to be among the first to fill up her colorful plastic containers, which she will load onto a piece of plywood on wheels and push home. If she is lucky, the water will last her until the next pipa arrives—which could be anywhere from a day to two weeks later.

Greater Mexico City is one of the most populous metropolitan areas on earth, with surrounding mountains and ravines filled in by houses—as seen here in the municipality of Huixquilucan.

Mexico City’s low-income residents depend on water deliveries to sustain their daily lives, and the schedules of Garduño Espinosa and the other women in her neighborhood are closely tied to the erratic rhythms of the pipas—a ritual so demanding it can prevent women in poor neighborhoods from holding a job outside the home. According to the city’s government, nearly 20 percent of its 21 million residents can’t count on having running water on any given day. The severity of water scarcity in Greater Mexico City—a metropolitan area of 3,037 square miles, built on what was once the basin of a lake—has been compounded by factors such as climate change and overpopulation, and the subterranean Valley of Mexico aquifer on which the city depends for much of its drinking water has not continued to replenish itself during recent rainy seasons, due in part to the pavement covering the city.

Workers set up a pipa truck before making deliveries.
Norma Gonzales calls to request a pipa delivery for her neighborhood in Iztapalapa.
Angel Sanchez, an employee of the Sistemas de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (SACMEX), fills up his pipa truck before heading out on his rounds.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous district, more than a third of the 1.8 million residents live in poverty, often with no running water—either because their homes were built with no permits or plumbing, or because the city just doesn’t maintain infrastructure in poorer, more remote neighborhoods.

By contrast, those living in middle class and wealthy areas tend to both have running water in their homes and be able to buy bottled drinking water. If wealthier residents find their taps running dry—as might happen once or twice a year—they can pay for a private pipa company to deliver water at a cost of anywhere from 60 to 75 US dollars per 10,000-liter truck. The public water deliveries to neighborhoods like Iztapalapa are theoretically free, the pipas regulated by the Water System of Mexico City (SACMEX). Iztapalapa residents order water via telephone, and although there may be a vague time set for delivery, in practice, when and how often pipas arrive is often a mystery.

Valeria Reyes communicates with her neighbors via walkie-talkie to coordinate water deliveries to their corner of Iztapalapa. The hill at the end of their road is part of an old mine.
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Pipas start their deliveries in the west, closer to the Cutzamala reservoir system—provider of about 30 percent of Mexico City’s water—and they fill up at sites known as garzas. When pipas arrive in a neighborhood, there needs to be someone waiting to receive them. At 11 a.m. on a Friday, Norma Calderón, 37, stands in the middle of an unpaved street talking on the phone. She has already coordinated three water-truck deliveries to her neighborhood, and she will coordinate at least three more that day—unpaid work that can last until evening, since pipa drivers have no fixed schedule or route. Not only that, but Iztapalapa is both poor and on the east side of the city, far from the reservoir system.

Calderón’s job is to direct the drivers to the various giant plastic water barrels around the neighborhood, where they will each deliver 10,000 or more liters of water several days a week—although sometimes they bring less than that, or don’t come at all. The water that arrives in Iztapalapa is sometimes brown (or as one local described it, “tamarind”) after its voyage in a rusty, old truck, and it will sit uncovered in communal plastic barrels until residents—usually women who stay at home with children or elders—fill up smaller plastic receptacles with it and carry it home for daily household needs.

“I do this for my neighborhood,” says Calderón, who only takes Sundays off from coordinating her area’s water delivery. She shares a home with nine family members, including two grandchildren, and says it is a struggle to keep her family healthy when they have to bathe in dirty water. And when water isn’t delivered for some 15 days—as was the case this past June—she can’t afford to buy the water she would need to bathe her grandkids. “When kids arrive at school dirty, they tell them they smell bad and send them home,” she explains, looking at the ground, her hand clutching her phone.

Carrying water to the kitchen for cooking in Iztapalapa. This part of the district was only established as a residential neighborhood about a decade ago.
Isabel Vergara organizes water delivery for her building in the Cuauhtémoc district, near the center of Mexico City. They’ve had water shortages for the past two years, which she attributes to all the construction happening nearby.
Inside a home in Iztapalapa, where residents might have to wait as long as two weeks for a water delivery.

As Jacobo Espinoza Hilario, a researcher at the Commission for the River Basin Amecameca at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, explains, one of the central problems is that 70 percent of the city’s water comes from wells drawing on the aquifer, which are exploited 300 percent more than would be considered sustainable. (He adds that this doesn’t include the many illegal or unregistered wells in Mexico City which locals drill without permits.) Frequent earthquakes—Mexico sits at the boundary of three fault lines—also pose challenges to aging subterranean pipes, which now lose 25 to 35 percent of the water they carry to leaks.

Espinoza Hilario says the last time the water situation was stable in Mexico City was when it was Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire from 1325 to 1521. The Mexicas, as the indigenous people of the Aztec empire were known, built their city on an island in the middle of what was then Lake Texcoco—but the conquering Spaniards later drained the lake, expanding their city onto the spongy clay they found underneath. Espinoza Hilario says that now for every liter that makes it into the Valley of Mexico aquifer from rainfall, the city draws four. Because of this, the ground is constantly sinking, throwing buildings such as the Metropolitan Cathedral permanently off-kilter; Mexico City has sunk an average of 24 feet over the last century. “Even if we stopped taking everything out of the wells now, the city would continue sinking,” Espinoza Hilario added.

An abandoned pipa truck in Huixquilucan. SACMEX says budget cuts have made it challenging to maintain the underground pipes needed to supply running water in Mexico City.

The first pipas hit the road in the late 1970s, and José Luis de León’s father drove one of the first to deliver in Iztapalapa. When de Léon was 19, he started working for his father; now his son, Ángel, drives a water truck, too. De Léon, 61 and semi-retired, says that when his father started his business, water trucks could only hold up to 8,000 liters, and there were only three pipas that delivered water to the district. Today water trucks can carry between 10,000 and 40,000 liters, and the district is serviced by up to 348 trucks making 1,800 trips a day.

De Léon and other pipa drivers say they have been regularly hijacked on the job, using the verb secuestrar, or “kidnap” in Spanish: people desperate for water stop trucks, pull out machetes or guns, and demand that the driver redirect water deliveries to their neighborhood. “It gets worse every day,” says de Léon’s daughter-in-law, Fabiola Nuñez de León, 41, who has lived in the area for 15 years. “Every day people get more aggressive. The young people set water trucks on fire. I wouldn’t call it kidnapping exactly, but they have held my husband and forced him to deliver water.”

Even women can be fierce with drivers, says José Luis de León; they have shouted insults and gotten physical with him and other drivers when water hasn’t been delivered. “Women have always made decisions in the streets and at home. Always,” he says. “Because they are at home, they are the ones who need water. The men who work don’t even realize if there isn’t water. When women get together, it is difficult to control them!”

Residents of the Mexico City neighborhood Agrícola Oriental set up their own buckets (with their street addresses written on them) as they wait for a pipas delivery.
SACMEX employee Sergio Hernandez makes a delivery in the Juarez neighborhood of Cuauhtémoc.
A resident of Iztapalapa’s Rubén Jaramillo neighborhood fetches water from the communal barrels.
Residents of the Mexico City neighborhood Agrícola Oriental set up their own buckets (with their street addresses written on them) as they wait for a pipas delivery.
SACMEX employee Sergio Hernandez makes a delivery in the Juarez neighborhood of Cuauhtémoc.
A resident of Iztapalapa’s Rubén Jaramillo neighborhood fetches water from the communal barrels.
Monserrat Espinoza, here pictured at eight months pregnant, lives in Juarez, in a building where the taps often run dry.

Sometimes, Alberta Garduño Espinosa says, “We wait in line here for water that will never arrive. Ten years ago, it was different: whoever gave [the drivers] more money got water, and those who didn’t, well, got nothing.” Now when water doesn’t arrive for days or weeks, Garduño Espinosa says that she and other women in the neighborhood organize, file complaints, make calls, and, as a last resort: “We all go, women who are 60, 70, 75 years old, and we shut down the streets.”

“Women have always made decisions in the streets and at home. Always. They are the ones who need water.”

José Luis de León says he remembers women starting to close the streets in Iztapalapa as a tactic to get water delivered about 25 years ago. Now Nancy Hinojosa, 34, says that roughly every two months, when water isn’t delivered, she organizes 500 to 600 women in the neighborhood to shut down a major thoroughfare in protest, physically blocking passage with their bodies to get the attention of local authorities. Unfortunately, in their experience, pursuing formal bureaucratic paths such as calling the water company or going to company offices to request water delivery does not have the same effect. “We take the kids with us because we don’t have anyone to care for them,” says Lorena Anaya, 34, who lives in the same neighborhood as Hinojosa. Hinojosa says that when they stage these protests, a representative from the local delegation will eventually show up; then they will require him to make the call to request the water trucks in their presence. This past June, an angry driver ran over three protestors from the crowd blocking the streets. (They survived.)

Filling up the communal barrels in Iztapalapa.
A worker monitors a garza—one of the outlets where pipas fill up with water—south of Mexico City.
SACMEX employee Julio Cesar Portuguez fills up buckets in Agrícola Oriental.

Hinojosa and Anaya both explain that although the public pipas deliveries are theoretically free, water often comes with conditions. The drivers might ask for small cash bribes or soft drinks or snacks in return for water. Sometimes, at the request of local politicians, they will make water delivery conditional on residents’ political affiliation: politicians have stopped by and promised that water would always be delivered to residents if they would serve as protesters-on-demand for different issues at the request of their political party. But “we don’t support any political party,” says Hinojosa; regardless of whether the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) or the National Action Party (PAN) has been in power during her ten years in the neighborhood, she explains, getting water delivered has always been a struggle.

“On the news, they always talk about the importance of water education, of not wasting water,” she continues, “but the people who have the resources when they turn on their faucets—they are the ones who waste it the most. Because we have few economic resources, we fight for it and we know what it means to carry water home.”

People have adapted to the pipa routine—even buying their own pipe extensions, as seen here, so they can flow water directly from the truck into their indoor cisterns.
Veronica Vazquez holds the pipe snaking through the building to fill up the cistern.

Norma Calderón waits in the street as morning stretches into afternoon. Women and girls of all ages walk by, brightly colored buckets in hand, on their way to the water barrels. Despite all the work done to secure its arrival, sometimes the water that is delivered is too dirty to use, or doesn’t arrive for days or weeks. Then the women who can afford it buy bottled water to bathe their children, at about 40 pesos for 20 liters. (“Buying water is expensive,” says Hinojosa, “but buying medicine is going to cost me even more.”) Others, like Calderón, who have fewer resources, live with the shame of having their grandchildren sent home from school for being dirty, their education interrupted for as long as they can’t bathe. Women and children’s daily lives are defined by the cycle of fetching, carrying, storing, and recycling water. As Hinojosa says, “The only constant in our lives is water scarcity.”

Pipas trucks wait to fill up before going out on delivery.
A water pipe snakes through the hallway of a middle-class building in Juarez to fill up the cistern, leaking water all over the floor in the process.
A girl fills her water bucket in Agrícola Oriental.

“Buying water is expensive, but buying medicine is going to cost me even more.”

Lugging water home, once again, in Agrícola Oriental.
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