MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico is suffering from its driest year in 68 years, killing crops and cattle in the countryside and forcing the government to slow the flow of water to the crowded capital.
Below-average rainfall since last year has left about 80 of Mexico’s 175 largest reservoirs less than half full, said Felipe Arreguin, a senior official at the Conagua commission, which manages the country’s water supply.
“We have zones where the reservoirs are totally full but others that don’t have even a drop of water,” he said in an interview late on Tuesday.
More than 1,000 cattle have been lost due to lack of rainfall, and up to 20 million tons of crops managed by 3.5 million small farmers are at risk of being lost, agriculture groups say.
The arid northwest region of Mexico has been hardest hit, along with the central part of the country surrounding Mexico City where 20 million people live.
Mexico typically has a rainy season from around June to October, topping up lakes and reservoirs that supply much of the country’s water during the rest of the year.
The El Nino weather phenomenon, a warming of the seas in the Pacific Ocean, has induced a dry spell in South America and is likely partly to blame for Mexico’s lack of rain, experts say.
Authorities have reduced the flow from the Cutzamala series of dams and rivers more than 60 miles long that supplies a quarter of Mexico City’s water to ensure enough is available until next year’s rainy season.
Trucks are delivering water to some parts of the capital where cuts have made the flow of water intermittent.
“If all we have is a bucketful, we wash up with a cloth, but not well, not like you should,” said Maria de la Luz, who has sold chicken at a neighborhood market for 48 years. “Now is the worst it’s been since I was a girl.”
Arreguin said the water situation in the capital was alarming but not yet a full emergency.
“If it were a traffic light it would be yellow,” Arreguin said.
In Mexican states like San Luis, Aguascalientes and Colima, some farmers have been unable to successfully plant their crops because of a lack of rain, while others watched their corn and beans plants wilt. Authorities are handing out cash to small farmers in hard-hit areas.
Four-fifths of Mexico’s water resources are used to irrigate crops and the government is encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient methods over the long term.
In neighboring Guatemala, the government is distributing emergency food to 56,000 families whose crops have been damaged.
“This problem happens every year, but this year it seems particularly serious,” said Guatemalan government official Juan Aguilar.
Mexico’s sugar crop was harvested before the drought set in, and coffee farms are mostly in unaffected areas.
Already-taxed underground water accounts for most of the supply to Mexico City, an urban sprawl built over a drained lake bead, and will likely face more stress.
Mexico has had slightly less rainfall over the past decade but there is insufficient data to say how much global warming can be blamed, Arreguin said.
“How much of this phenomenon is from El Nino? How much is from climate change? The best thing is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Arreguin said.
Mexico City officials are urging residents to conserve water by installing efficient shower faucets and to use buckets instead of hoses to wash their cars. (Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Sarah Grainger; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)