STORY INLINE POST
2022 has been a historic year for water shortages in Mexico. According to the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), lower than average rain levels combined with water management issues have led 70 percent of the Mexico territory to present some type of drought this past summer, and states like Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua, among the strongest economies in the country, to rely on water rationing.
While climate change, fast population growth and deforestation-led falling groundwater reserves have created a reduction in the amount of water available at the source, the problem goes far beyond this. At the distribution level, it is estimated that thefts and leaks in the pipe systems represent 30 percent to 40 percent of the total amount of water distributed: a waste of up to US$1 million a day in Mexico City alone. These leaks have worsened over time due to aging systems made of fragile materials, rendered more fragile still by earthquakes and other natural phenomena. Identifying the precise locations of the leaks is, moreover, a particularly difficult task to execute with the current models and technology, making any attempt at fixing those risky and costly.
Further down the supply chain, at consumption level, the picture helps identify the opportunities: according to CONAGUA, 75 percent of all the water distributed goes to the agriculture sector, and 14.7 percent to public use. The remainder is split equally between industries and the energy sector. Interestingly enough though, water restrictions, when they happen, are typically only asked of citizens, who end up reducing their individual consumption and queue in line to get their daily ration of water. Meanwhile, there have been public protests (most notably in Monterrey) around the unchanged quantities of water distributed to industries and agriculture — where the amount of water actually used is significant and still badly measured, making it hard to make efficient adjustments and distribute it more fairly year after year.
While actions like repairing leaks or adjusting budgets would have to be taken by governments and companies to have a long-term, comprehensive and real impact on droughts, it is clear that a more efficient distribution and consumption of water would make its availability less of a gamble every year, and its overall situation more sustainable for the future. Case in point, Plan Hidrico Nuevo Leon (Nuevo Leon Water Plan) estimated that a reduction of just 10 percent of the use of water in agriculture in the state of Nuevo Leon would mean saving one-third of the whole water consumed in Monterrey. But is it achievable?
The answer is yes. And while unhappy about policies limiting their water consumption during droughts, final consumers have a big role to play in achieving such results and detering similar political strategies in the future. A recent report found that food waste at agriculture level — and with it, the waste of water used to produce this food — amounted to more than 15 percent of the total food produced globally in 2021. Put differently, a significant part of the already large potion of water allocated to farms ends up being wasted due to overproduction. While many factors come into play, supermarkets have been found to play a systematic role in this problem: encouraged by their users’ choices and standards, they impose strict cosmetic specifications on farmers and only buy produce that fit size, shape, and color specifications regardless of its nutrition, taste, and value. Losses of up to 40 percent due to these standards have been registered by some farms. This results in farmers overproducing to meet their clients’ standards and immediately translates to massive quantities of water wasted to produce perfectly edible food that won’t even get to land into the hands of a potential customer.
So what can we do? We as consumers are used to selecting products that comply with unrealistic aesthetic standards, putting pressure on the distribution chain to exclusively offer items along those criteria. As we’ve just seen, this directly impacts the farmers and their excessive water consumption, which represents an existential risk for water access to the Mexican population down the line. Educating consumers on the fitness of all products based primarily on their nutritional value, so they revise their standards, could then have measurable long-term effects on the problem. Ripe bananas can be as flavourful as fresh ones. Ugly pears taste the same as perfectly shaped ones. Along the same line of thought, and although less related to agriculture, exceeding the best-by date does not make products unfit for consumption. And pastries are mostly still fresh after a few days of being produced.
Using these observations as educational materials, some grocery stores and third-party startups are now dedicating resources to selling imperfect food items like fruits and vegetables at a discount. In its first two years of operations, Cheaf’s users rescued almost a half million kilos of excess food from stores that would have thrown it away for cosmetic reasons or because of internal policies driven by customer behavior. While solutions like Cheaf immediately help reduce the impact of food waste, it also has an indirect, longer-term impact on water consumption: as customers get more used to eating products that don’t comply with typical aesthetic standards, the hope is that farmers won’t have to overproduce to the levels they do now to meet retailers’ unrealistic specifications.
While governments and industries develop plans for better measurement of water use or repairs to the water supply system at scale, this progressive change in people’s way of consuming food could then be a strong contributor to avoiding, or at least heavily reducing, the risk of further water crises in the future.