In the dry, arid desert of the United States, a streak of intense rain can leave residents, lakes, and cacti happy. And the sound of constant tapping of raindrops on windows in California, Nevada, and Arizona are soothing and welcome. However, in Mexico City, these same sounds mean more than puddle hopping and umbrellas. Instead, it means floodwater overwhelming the sewer systems and days of sludge and mud in citizens’ homes. Naturally one wonders how a city often immersed in fresh water pouring from the sky has a water crisis resulting in a public health and environmental nightmare. The answer lies within a history of poor decisions regarding infrastructure.
Mexico’s rainy season is intense and demonstrates that water is naturally meant to be a part of the landscape. Mexico City, the country’s capital, currently has one of the largest populations in the world, and its citizens are desperate for water. So how did Mexico City end up in a situation where—despite this abundance of water—people do not have enough water to bathe, cook, and maintain their communities?
When the Spanish conquered what is now Mexico City, it was an island located within Lake Texcoco, and while the Spanish were “enchanted” by the area, the lake environment did not captivate them. The Spanish developed an engineering project that depleted the lake of its natural source of life, allowing for maximum expansion and development. In an attempt to sustain this development, government administration began draining underground aquifers and nearby lakes. This practice remains in place today, centuries later, as the city’s population and demand for fresh water grows daily. City administrators also draw from underground aquifers as a means of supplying water to citizens, further exacerbating a lack of access to clean water by areas outside of Mexico City.
Marco Alfredo, president of the Mexican Association of Hydro-Engineers, best describes the present situation created by historical misuse: “Mexico City’s situation is chaotic and absurd. We could have natural pure water, but for hundreds of years we have been draining it away so we have created an artificial scarcity.” he argues. “This is not an engineering problem: we have the expertise and the experience. It is also not a problem of economics: we have the financial resources to do what needs to be done. It’s a problem of governance.”
What is the Solution?
Most people are not surprised when they hear about violence associated with the drug cartels in Mexico. However, most might be surprised to hear is the “artificial scarcity” of water has taken on a similarly dangerous face, where Mexicans in poor neighborhoods hold water delivery truck drivers at gun point and rely on “dealers selling purified water” on the streets just to get access to safe drinking water. One truck driver recalls being attacked by a mob of people: “They were desperate and angry, and they blamed me because I had water.”
The lack of access to clean water is not only a public health and safety concern, but it leaves those with unfettered access to clean water wondering how the gap between human rights and governance in Mexico City leaves families so desperate for water that they are willing to hold a delivery man at gunpoint to get it.
The government’s response to the crisis has been wildly insufficient. However, activists, conservationists, and engineers in Mexico are trying to change the way the country views its naturally wet rainy season. Historically, engineers have worked to create elaborate methods of depleting underground aquifers and lakes by piping, trapping, and diverting water. Engineers and conservationists accept that “water has never completely stopped flowing naturally to where it historically belongs,” and they believe that the dreaded rainfall filling the streets with water could be a solution to Mexico’s crisis. Valle de Chalco, once a large lake, is located within Mexico City’s watershed. About thirty years ago, the government tapped into and drained nearby aquifers resulting in ground sink. As rain naturally fell in the area, the Valle de Chalco hole eventually filled with water, replenishing the once large lake.
Activist Elena Burns with the Water for People, Water for Life campaign, argues the Valle de Chalco lake “should be the heart of the solution,” and by making the lake an additional eight meters deep, “we’d have enough water for 1.5 million people.” Burns, along with environmentalists, conservationists, scientists, and government officials in charge of dealing with the Mexican water crisis, see the value in naturally collecting rainwater in basins like Valle de Chalco. They argue that collecting rainwater in these types of basins can be done for minimal costs, offering long-term sustainability and turning the problem of rainwater and flooding into a solution for the city’s thirsty citizens.
In addition to the frustrations of activists and environmentalists, citizens are tired of waiting for the government to take action and have begun confronting the water crisis head on. Like some water-conscious Americans, Mexican citizens are looking to water harvesting as a sustainable solution. Many businesses in Mexico have installed catchment systems that collect and filter rainwater. Hayley Hathaway is the director of Casa de Los Amigos, a business that uses a catchment system. She recognizes that the benefit of these systems is not only that they provide citizens with access to clean water, but also that they ease some of the strain on the city’s infrastructure when it floods: “when it rains, it’s just disastrous in the city, with flooding everywhere. So if everyone had their own rainwater system, it would solve a pretty big chunk of that problem.” In other words, if families had the means to collect rainfall before it had the chance to accumulate, it could solve two separate water issues at once: flood prevention and drinking water.
Ramon Aguirre Diaz, the director of Mexico City Water Department argues that in reality water harvesting is not likely to be successful in Mexico because the cost of implementing such infrastructure is not “financially viable.” But that viewpoint comes as no surprise to the activists and environmentalists that have long recognized the Mexican government’s deep commitment to large, costly projects rather than small, sustainable changes. Thus, they have turned their attention to grassroots movements and local citizens to institute change little by little, providing access to rainwater harvesting equipment for individual households. Although change at the municipal level appears to be nearly impossible, the thirsty citizens are motivated and eager to implement changes to help sustain their own families, leaving activists hopeful for the future. After all, the Aztecs did not build Teotihuacan pyramids in a day.
Jennifer Collins, Going local to solve Mexico City’s water crisis, DEUTSCHE WELLE, (Oct. 20, 2015), http://dw.com/p/1GqnH .
Jonathan Watts, Mexico City’s water crisis – from source to sewer, THE GUARDIAN, (Nov. 12, 2015), http://gu.com/p/4dmxy/sbl .
Kathryn Dickason, Stanford historian unearths greed-drenched origins of Mexico’s groundwater crisis, STANFORD NEWS, (Oct. 17, 2014), http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/october/mexico-water-crisis-101714.html .
Marianne Goodland, Could this be the year for rain-water barrels in Colorado?, THE COLORADO INDEPENDENT, (Mar. 8, 2016), http://www.coloradoindependent.com/158191/could-this-be-the-year-for-rain-water-barrels-in-colorado.
Ioan Grillo, Dry taps in Mexico City: A water crisis gets worse, TIME MAGAZINE, (Apr. 11, 2009), http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1890623,00.html?artId=1890623?contType=article?chn=world.