Northern Mexico is running out of water. Every year the drought worsens and this year the region was hit by one of the worst droughts in decades. Children suffer from parasites due to missing regular baths, small businesses face bankruptcy, and fights are breaking out over water at queues for government water supplies.
And yet, Big Beer continues like it’s any other regular day, guzzling up what little water there is left in northern Mexico to keep manufacturing their beer products. Even as stores run out of stocks of water, shelves are filled with beer and soda.
You’d open the tap and there wouldn’t be a drop of water. The brewing factories, though, produced and produced and produced,” said Blanca Guzmán, a resident of Monterrey, where Heineken operates a plant, as per The New York Times.Blanca Guzmán, a resident of Monterrey, Mexico
In Mexico, about two and a half liters of water is used to make one liter of beer. Brewers in Mexico obtain rights to gain access to water from the federal government. These water rights can last decades allowing beer companies to keep draining water to make beer – a non-essential carcinogenic product. Meanwhile, local communities suffer from water scarcity. But what matters to the beer industry are profits and Mexico, being the world’s largest beer exporter, is profitable.
Major multinational beer companies Heineken, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Constellation Brands all operate large plants in northern Mexico ignoring the region’s increasing droughts.
These beer giants don’t want to budge from the north because its proximity to the United States is where the profits come from. In 2021, beer companies in Mexico exported over $5 billion worth of beer products. A big chunk of the sales come from the U.S. where Mexican beer is the most popular imported beer.
Big Beer lobby group Brewers Mexico reported that the beer industry in Mexico increased their output by 5% in the first eight months of 2022, even while the drought worsened and communities suffered from water scarcity.
The drought in Mexico
Drought, water shortages, and beer multinational beer corporations exploiting Mexico’s water sources. The National Water Commission reported in July 2022, that:
- 8 of Mexico’s 32 states were experiencing extreme to moderate drought.
- 1,546 of the country’s 2,463 municipalities were facing water shortages.
- By mid-July, 48% of Mexico’s territory was suffering drought.
- Comparatively, in the same period last year, 28% of Mexico’s territory was facing drought.
The crisis is specifically acute in northern Mexico. In parts of the state of Nuevo León rainfall in July was only 10% of the monthly average recorded since 1960.
The city of Monterrey is the capital of Nuevo León. According to The New York Times, in August 2022, some neighborhoods in the city have been without water for 75 days.
The three dams that supply the city with most of its water are drying up. And the aquifers that provide the rest of the water are also running low.
In an effort to manage the crisis, the government is distributing nine million liters of water daily to 400 neighborhoods. This is sometimes the only water a family will receive for a week, barely enough to survive.
The escalating crisis with no solution has led to fights breaking out among people waiting in queues for the government water trucks. The truck drivers have been threatened and fear doing their job.
The water crisis in Monterrey has broad-ranging effects on people. For example, children are missing out on education. Schools in Monterrey had to close ahead of the summer break due to water shortages. Furthermore, livelihoods are under threat.
I have to buy a water tank every week that costs me 1,200 pesos (equal to $60 which is about half of the weekly income of $120) from a private supplier. We can’t handle it anymore,” said María De Los Ángeles, a resident of Ciénega de Flores, a town near Monterrey, who owns a garden nursery, as per The New York Times.María De Los Ángeles, a resident of Ciénega de Flores, a town near Monterrey, and a small-business owner
In an effort to reduce future water shortages, the state is investing about $97 million to build a plant to treat wastewater. There are also plans to buy water from a desalination plant under construction in a neighboring state.
The government has spent about $82 million to distribute water to neighborhoods, including renting trucks, hiring more drivers, and digging more wells.
President of Mexico opposes beer production in northern Mexico
Responding to the water crisis in August, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to end beer production in the north and send it to the south which has more water.
So far, the President has not taken further action on his words. However, his position on the matter is challenging the operations of Big Beer. Beer companies are using vast amounts of water amidst a climate crisis and escalating water scarcity.
As Movendi International reported in 2019, President López Obrador criticized Constellation Brands over a planned brewery in the northern city of Mexicali. For two years Mexicali residents called to stop the new brewery from being constructed as it would increase water shortages. Mexico’s national human rights commission also warned the beer maker risked violating the right to water and highlighted irregularities in the permitting process.
However, the construction work for the brewery started despite evidence showing a clear threat to water security if the brewery would commence production.
In 2020, while the construction was ongoing, the President called a referendum on the building of the brewery. The referendum allowed the communities to win against Constellation brands with 76.1% of residents voting against building the brewery.
Constellation brands have since announced plans to build the brewery in the south of Mexico in Veracruz.
Case study: Heineken in the northern city of Monterrey
Heineken has a water permit in Nuevo León state where the city of Monterrey is located. This permit allows Heineken to draw about six million cubic meters of water a year, according to Samuel García, the governor. A cubic meter of water equals to 1000 liters of water. Heineken draws from aquifers (a body of rock and/or sediment that holds groundwater) separate from the municipal supply which mainly relies on three dams to supply water to the public.
This year, the lack of rain was at record levels in Monterrey. Therefore, the dams were draining fast and water shortages worsened in the city. However, the Heineken brewery faced no water shortage as they use groundwater supplies separate from the state.
As the water crisis became more dire authorities publicly pressurized private companies with massive water rights to give some of the water to the city and its residents who were suffering.
Mr. García exposed that the Heineken brewery was only using about two-thirds of the permitted water and demanded the company send the surplus to the state.
This resulted in Heineken,
- temporarily transferring 600,000 cubic meters of water to the state,
- delivering water from its wells to the city equal to about 20% of the brewery’s consumption,
- delivering five tankers of clean water each week to distribute to local communities, and
- donating a well, worth $1 million to the city, according to Heineken.
Due to the pressure from authorities and the public several other companies also diverted some of their water supplies to the state including steel giant Ternium, a major Coca-Cola bottler.
The 600,000 cubic meters of water that Heineken diverted to the state or any of the other water that Heineken “gave away” did not halt or affect the production of the brewery.
The case study shows that Big Alcohol and other private companies hold a massive amount of water that they do not even need while communities suffer and children get sick due to the lack of water.
If Heineken was not draining the groundwater in Nuevo León state in the first place, there would have been no need for Heineken to divert its water to the state. This shows that Big Alcohol and other private companies are part of the problem but pretending to be part of the solution.
Communities call for improvements to how the effects of water concessions are measured before it is authorized
The National Water Commission reports that about 5% of Mexico’s water is used by industries, including Big Beer. This is a significant proportion in a country that has faced water scarcity for years.
As Movendi International President Kristina Sperkova wrote in an opinion piece already in 2016, Big Alcohol activity was causing dire water shortages in Mexico. In her article, Ms Sperkova includes quotes from a letter sent to Coahuila state governor Rubén Moreira by Mayor Leoncio Martínez Sánchez of the municipality of Zaragoza.
WE HAVE NO WATER FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION,” wrote the Mayor, in the letter as per The Guardian.Mayor Leoncio Martínez Sánchez of the municipality of Zaragoza
The crisis has only worsened since then.
The water concessions to industries are given by the federal government. Local communities and activists call on the federal government to improve how they measure the impact on local communities before giving these water rights to industries.
It is unclear how the federal government of Mexico will keep the promise made by President López Obrador to stop beer production in the north. The federal water authority can revoke the current contracts with beer companies and take away their water rights. However, this is likely to be met with long drawn-out legal battles. It is possible the President’s pledge will only ensure there are no new breweries in the north.
Meanwhile, the official in charge of issuing water concessions at the National Water Commission was fired last month. He was known to be a longtime water rights activist holding up the contracting process. The Commission said the move was made to “accelerate” an effort to reduce backlogs. If contracts are “accelerated” in the north the water scarcity could become even more severe threatening people’s lives.
Pollution, water insecurity, ecosystem degradation: alcohol fuels climate crisis
In a historic move on July 28, 2022, the United National General Assembly declared the right to a healthy environment a human right.
Movendi International has exposed that alcohol production is a threat to achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the environmental dimension of the Agenda 2030. This includes SDGs 6, 13, and 15.
The increasing severity of droughts in Mexico, while Big Beer continues draining groundwater to produce beer, is a clear example of how beer production is a threat to SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation and a threat to the human right to a healthy environment.
As per New York Times reporting, the governor of Nuevo León state, Samuel García called on governments around the world to act together to tackle the climate crisis, as it is beyond the capacity of one country or one government.
The climate crisis has caught up to us,” said Mr. Samuel García, governor of Nuevo León state, as per The New York Times.
Today we have to take care of the environment, it is life or death.”Mr. Samuel García, Governor, Nuevo León state
A necessary part of tackling climate change is tackling the unsustainable management of resources of Big Alcohol.
Alcohol’s health, social, and economic harms are well known. But alcohol’s adverse effects on the environment, biodiversity, water and food security and the climate are very real, often severe and growing – as the case of Mexico shows.
Alcohol production degrades ecosystems and threatens biodiversity
Increasing levels of alcohol production are degrading farmland, jeopardize local food production and threaten the ecosystem.
For example, in King County, Washington State, USA, the alcohol industry has been found to adversely impact rural and agricultural land, locally grown food supply and salmon migrating through local rivers by degrading all agricultural production districts and destroying the Sammamish Valley river ecosystem.
Alcohol production, consumption fuels climate crisis
Alcohol, particularly beer, fuels the climate crisis, according to calculations of greenhouse gas emissions.
- The yearly amount of Australian beer consumption is equal in emissions to a car driving 1.94 billion km – the equivalent of 48 000 car rides around the world.
- Emissions related to beer production and consumption cause the biggest damage to the climate when compared to other beverages such as coffee or tea.
Other aspects of the alcohol industry contributing to global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, high energy use, pollution and waste of natural resources are:
- Refrigeration in the hospitality sector,
- Use of fertilizers,
- Water use,
- Transport of raw material,
- Distribution of the products.
Alcohol consumption in the UK accounts for 1.46% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The share of beer in alcohol’s total emissions amounts to 65%. And in a lifecycle analysis of a Spanish beer, production and transport of raw materials used in beer production was found to contribute over one third of the total global environmental impact of the beer production lifecycle.
Alcohol production means – increasingly scarce – natural resources such as cereal crops and water are wasted for a “luxury good” instead of necessities.
The negative impact of alcohol production on availability of cereal crops for food, water security and food waste as well as the energy-consuming production processes are causing externalities that are unsustainable.
In 2018 a analysis scientists Poore and Nemecek showed that lowering alcohol consumption by 20% can help:
- Reduce land use of alcohol production by 39% on average;
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31 to 46%; and
- Reduce scarcity-weighted fresh water withdrawals by 87%.
Processing barley into malt is an energy-consuming process and barley production itself is highly vulnerable to unstable climate condition.
In 2016, the global beer production amounted to about 1.94 billion hectoliters, up from 1.3 billion hectoliters in 1998.
By some estimates, up to 92% of brewing ingredients are wasted.
The alcohol industry makes the bulk of its profits from heavy alcohol use: 65% of sales in high-income countries and 75% of sales in middle- income countries result from heavy episodic alcohol intake. Big Alcohol relies on heavy alcohol use for major parts of its profits
Alcohol production is jeopardizing natural resources, and is increasingly causing water shortages and food insecurity. Production of alcoholic beverages is very resource-intensive and not environmentally sustainable. In addition, climate change threatens to disrupt the supply of agricultural products.
A third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are already in distress and about 4 billion people, experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions – such as in Mexico’s northern region.
This is happening at the same time as the alcohol industry is causing major emissions of chemicals into waterways in its production, around the world and is fuelling water insecurity.
Alcohol production is a threat to water security in many regions of the world:
- The water footprint of wine is unsustainable: To get one liter of wine, 870 liters of water are needed.
- The water footprint of beer is unsustainable: Per one liter of beer, 298 liters of water have to be used.
The New York Times: “How Droughts in Mexico Could Shape the Future of the Beer Industry“
The New York Times: “Mexico’s Cruel Drought: ‘Here You Have to Chase the Water’“