The Paucity Problem: Wastewater Treatment in Mexico

The construction of the world’s largest waste water treatment facility in the state of Hidalgo is not a mirage in the Mexican desert. After three years of preparation, the plant is finally set to quench the region’s needs for sanitary solutions in the face of alarming water shortages. Large investors including the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, participated in the creation of the new plant.1

Mexico is not alone in its struggles for obtaining water resources, indicating that it might very well be a pioneer in the growing necessity to treat wastewater.

[protected]Mexico City’s 20 million inhabitants depend on an aquifer in Hidalgo for drinking and agriculture.[1] A crucial crack in this relationship is that the aquifer is expected to disappear within the next 50 years.[2] States to the north of Mexico’s capital are already experiencing major losses due to the paucity of water. The destruction of thousands of heads of cattle and crops in recent years heightened the necessity for wastewater treatment.[3]

Before the introduction of the Atotonilco water treatment facility in Hidalgo, 90 percent of Mexico City’s wastewater was used to irrigate nearby alfalfa and crop fields.1 Without treatment, the unsanitary irrigation system posed dire health risks to both field workers and consumers of raw fruits and vegetables. When treated according to the World Health Organization’s guidelines, however, wastewater has been proven to return beneficial nutrients to the soil and increase crop yields. The objective of Mexico’s new treatment plant, with the capacity to treat 60 percent of Mexico City’s wastewater, is to provide safe water for agriculture and free up the drinking water currently used to irrigate fields.1

A legitimate push-back from opponents of wastewater treatment is that facilities often offset the environmental benefits of converting unsanitary water by releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the process. While certainly a concern for some treatment centers, the Atotonilco facility demonstrates that an environmentally-conscious solution is possible. A project funded by Mexico’s national government uses methane released in the treatment process to generate the plant’s heat and electricity needs.[4] Estimates predict that facilities built in the region will reduce CO2 emissions by 1 million tons per year.4

Mexico’s monumental wastewater treatment project is a harbinger for changes that must shortly arise in countries around the world. Middle Eastern countries have long used wastewater to irrigate fields, and the necessity to do so is rapidly spreading to countries that previously had no need to recycle resources.

This year, Mexico’s northern neighbor is experiencing water shortages in 36 of its states.[5] A recent study by BCC Research estimates that the global industry for wastewater treatment will grow to $96 billion in the next three years, suggesting that investors providing innovative solutions will profit from the world’s need for clean water.[6][/protected]