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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Opportunities and Constraints of Sustainable Water Management in Oaxaca City, Mexico

Natalia Reyna

Opportunities and Constraints of Sustainable Water Management in Oaxaca City, Mexico

This investigation has two primary goals: to describe the current water situation in Oaxaca City and to propose a sustainable water management solution to the existing water problems. The main research question this thesis seeks to answer is: how can the urgent need for improved water supply systems in Oaxaca City be met, while addressing environmental, economic, and socio-cultural sustainability?

Cities within developing countries, where the rapid urbanization and population growth have overwhelmed existing infrastructure, have been especially prone to water supply problems. Oaxaca City in Mexico is an urban area that exemplifies these global trends towards urbanization and population expansion, and the concomitant negative effect on water infrastructure. In Mexico, the water crisis is more an issue of access than of scarcity. An important challenge facing the country at the present time is assuring adequate and affordable water service to its urban population while improving its ability to protect the ecosystems on which it depends. Underneath Oaxaca’s beautiful colonial town lies an antiquated water grid that delivers contaminated water to homes, and a sewer network that in most cases flows untreated, into the city’s rivers. The metropolitan zone of over 500,000 residents is still dependent on infrastructure built in the 1930s, originally intended for a population of 25,000 (Murphy & Stepick, 1991). Today urban water management is being subjected to pressures from all sectors of society. From a financial and administrative point, the system is in crisis, with growing subsidies required to provide inadequate service that systematically discriminates against the poor sectors of society. The water supply system presents enormous problems because of lack of accurate information, uncertainty about the conditions of the aquifer from which water is drawn, and an absence of technical and administrative skills to define and implement basic management functions. Rather than focusing on better management of local ecosystems, promoting reuse, and repairs of distribution systems to face the crisis of urban water shortage, official strategies in Oaxaca called for inter-basin transfers of water and large-scale dam construction, approaches that have historically proven to be damaging and economically unjustifiable (Arrojo, 2005). There are no effective campaigns to incorporate water use reduction strategies into professional training or building codes. Rainwater harvesting and recycling strategies are virtually unknown in the public sector (Barkin & Klooster, 2006). Authorities in Mexico have yet to understand that the problem is not only to get enough potable water to meet people’s needs, but to find sustainable technologies that will preserve aquifers and also provide access to water on an equitable basis for the different sectors of the population. Furthermore, until now governmental authorities have been incapable of dealing with the strong seasonal variations in water flows, resulting in floods and droughts, with repetitive cycles of destruction that are labelled ‘natural’ disasters and primarily affect the poorest segments in society.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.