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Extreme drought in northern Mexico has left millions of residents without water

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Temperatures this weekend in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey are once again expected to top 100 degrees. Extreme heat and drought there have left the 5 million residents with barely any water. NPR's Carrie Kahn found that two of the three reservoirs that serve the city are practically empty, and the last one is draining fast.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Margarita Santos got an urgent text message on her Monterrey, Mexico, neighborhood chat group. After five days without a drop, water was coming back out of the spigots.

MARGARITA SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The 60-year-old widow says luckily she caught the text, which came at 1:30 a.m., because by 7 a.m., there was no more water.

SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We didn't sleep much at all," she says. The pressure was so low it took hours to fill every bucket, pail and container they could find. Her 25-year-old son now takes naps at lunchtime and after work so he'll be ready in the middle of the night if the water comes back on. This is what life has been like in Monterrey, about 2 1/2 hours south of the Texas border. Water restrictions began back in March, as the levels at three reservoirs serving the city began falling. Tens of thousands of homes now have no water coming at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The situation is grave in Monterrey," says President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He blames past administrations for allowing industry to explode in the dry north of the country. He's asked soft drink and beer bottlers there to halt production.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Help us out," he said earlier this week. But researcher Jose Antonio Ordonez Diaz, who has done water studies at Mexico's top universities, says this problem has been long coming. Monterrey has never had a reliable water source. Droughts are getting longer. And urban planning is shoddy.

JOSE ANTONIO ORDONEZ DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "No one has dealt with this. There's been a dearth of leadership for more than 50 years," he says. German Martinez Santoyo, who heads Mexico's federal water agency, CONAGUA, says delayed plans to build a fourth dam and more well drilling are being fast-tracked, but Monterrey is an economic powerhouse and can't be limited.

GERMAN MARTINEZ SANTOYO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's a zone where we can't damage its productivity or its economic growth," he says. Adrian de la Garza Tijerina (ph), head of one of the state's biggest cattle farmer associations, says members are slaughtering cows earlier now. They're losing weight and value without water and feed.

ADRIAN DE LA GARZA TIJERINA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "In the end," he says, "nature and limited water will control growth in and around the city." Monterrey resident Margarita Santos says she's exhausted after weeks of struggling for water. She makes three trips a day to a nearby park to wait in line with hundreds of residents in the hot sun to fill up from an irrigation hose.

SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "My hands, my back, legs, everything," she says, "hurts." Like state officials, she too hopes rain is coming soon. Unfortunately, forecasters say that's not expected until September.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.