Mexico City Water Crisis
Welcome to Iztapalapa, one of the sixteen municipalities of Mexico City. As the most populous borough of Mexico City, Iztapalapa is home to 1.8 million residents with a population density of 40,000 people per square mile – approximately 150% of the density of New York City. It is also the poorest neighborhood in Mexico City. The archetypal image of an urban slum, the city’s residents all share the same obsession, an obsession that permeates every action, movement, and thought: clean water.
Growing up in Iztapalapa, or any other of Mexico City’s impoverished boroughs, citizens might incredulously chuckle at the idea that the brown and gray landscape they find themselves living in, with the faucets in their homes that are either broken or dry, was once a breathing civilization upon an even livelier lake. Indeed, this was the case until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and drained the lake for their own well-being, filling it with concrete. Now, centuries later, millions of people still yearn for this lost water.
For a country striving to emulate the success of its neighbors, Mexico’s government maniacally refuses to commit resources to solve a 20th century engineering problem. After expelling the clean water that naturally resided within the city, the capital – located more than two kilometers above sea level – has not found a way to effectively retain and recycle rain water. Moreover, their sewage system is a travesty, and the city is forced to discharge billions of gallons of dirty water through artificial canals that leak and pollute the surrounding land and rivers. Consequently, they face the challenge of bringing clean water back to the city, consuming a tremendous amount of energy and capital required to pump the water towards the highland metropolis, opposing gravity the entire passage.
Once that water makes its way (back) to the city, one can imagine it is in high demand. Mexico City boasts a population of nine million; thus expectedly, just as there exist impoverished neighborhoods such as Iztapalapa, there are wealthy neighborhoods, such as Miguel Hidalgo and Cuajimalpa, located westward, closer to the water reservoirs. Here, the amenities include aesthetic golf courses and a water pressure of 14 kg/cm2, a rate 28 times that of Iztapalapa (Watts 2015). These districts also claim the lowest water prices in the city.
For those living in poor neighborhoods, but in particular Iztapalapa, local wells continually prove themselves to be unreliable. Most days, water will not even come out of the tap, and when it does, its yellow tint and smell of hydrogen sulfide are enough to dissuade even the most dehydrated people from quenching their thirst with its almost certain disease-ridden water. Additionally, what cannot be seen or smelled also pose dangers. The local water is known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals – such as magnesium, nitrogen, and sodium – which can only be removed at prices which the town struggles to afford. Consumption of such water could lead to diarrheal diseases, chronic kidney disease, intestinal infectious diseases, and lower respiratory infections, responsible for approximately 8% of Mexico’s total burden of disease, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME 2015). Furthermore, these contaminants make their way to the food supply through irrigation, thereby increasing the occurrence of disease and leading to crop kills. In fact, in the town of Endhó, farmers are no longer able to grow tomatoes due to the high concentration of heavy metals (Watts 2015).
As a result of its contaminated wells, Iztapalapa is forced to bring in water from the dam in the wealthy city of Cutzamala, located 150km away, through a series of pipelines. Nevertheless, the water they receive from these pipes can be thought of as nothing more than the leftovers of the wealthy neighborhoods. The little water that enters Iztapalapa only does so after flowing through fissured, eroded pipes that cause leaks and add heavy metals and other contaminants to the water. Thus, the most populated borough of one of the most populated cities in the world is left with a shortage of dirty water.
Other than leaks and a small supply to begin with, there are a number of confounding factors affecting the diminished water supply of Iztapalapa. First of all, Mexico City lacks large-scale wastewater reclamation and rainwater collection processes, forcing it to drill into aquifers to meet the high water demand. This is important because Mexico City is located upon clay beds, and when drillers break through the clay, the ground is susceptible to fissures. In fact, the fissures and fragments have become such a pervasive problem that Mexico City is sinking up to nine inches per year in some regions. Even worse, it is sinking unevenly due to the composition of volcanic soil within the ground. Therefore, the pipelines that rely on gravity to bring water to towns like Iztapalapa become greatly imbalanced and cannot transport water as efficiently.
Human-caused climate change is also exacerbating these issues by simultaneously increasing the demand for water and decreasing its supply. Through the burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Iztapalapa is experiencing aridification, which makes raises the heat and incidents of drought. Thus, in the midst of desert-like conditions, when the citizens need water most, more water is being stolen away through evaporation. To compound the problem, the dam in Cutzamala that brings water to Iztapalapa is on its way towards drying up. This leads to an increased need for digging to tap aquifers, which in turn leads to more land sinking. The impact of this subsidence cannot be overstated. There have been 15 elementary schools recorded to have crumbled or caved in as a result of the cracks in the ground. It follows that experts predict that ten percent of Mexicans ages 15-65 could try to emigrate north in response to the subsidence, unpredictability of floods, and the recurrence of droughts (Kimmelman 2017).
If ten percent of citizens do become climate refugees, what becomes of the other ninety percent who remain in their homes? How does their future look? Unfortunately, it appears bleak. Mexico has already seen tensions rise through several protests, including the hijacking of water delivery trucks led by citizens claiming their pipes have not brought them water for weeks at a time. Moreover, all signs point to this water disparity growing as a result human-induced climate change, increased water demand, decreased water supply, and Iztapalapa’s increasing population growth. One environmental scientist, Juan Jose Santibanez, has already made a bold prediction for the city’s bleak future in an interview with PBS: “There is a very high probability that, by 2020, there will be a mini-revolution, at least in Mexico City”. At stake is the health of citizens without access to clean water as well as those with access as violent conflict may occur to end this disparity once and for all. Consequently, a bigger picture shows us that what is really at stake is the health of Mexico City’s civilization and environment, especially considering that in perhaps every war, it is both the social institutions and physical environment that become ravaged.
There are ongoing debates as to how Mexico City’s dangerous future can be avoided. One in particular is over the importance of rainwater collection. Systems for effective rainwater collection can be very expensive for impoverished areas. Of course, the Mexican government could fund such systems; however, there are many complications. First of all, the government is not incredibly liquid, as it is dealing with a current account deficit that is 2.7% of its GDP. Secondly, the effectiveness of rainwater collection is still under large scrutiny in part due to climate change. As stated earlier, climate change is causing desertification, but also unpredictable flooding. It is not known whether rainwater would be a reliable, consistent source of hydration. Scientists predict that rainwater could provide anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the city’s water needs, a range that is supposedly too wide for politicians to confidently invest in rainwater collection systems.
Other proposed solutions have been to repair leaks in the poorly constructed pipelines and increase the use of recycled water. Nevertheless, such projects would be devastating to Mexico’s budget. This raises perhaps the most crucial debate centered around the water crisis of Mexico City: is clean water a basic right to all people regardless of socioeconomic background? If so, the Mexican government needs to ensure access to clean water to every citizen. Whether through out-of-pocket funding or foreign aid, the water crisis must be resolved. On the other hand, if accessible clean water is not deemed a basic right, then Mexico can continue on the track it follows today: the privatization of water. One of the leading political ideologies pertaining to water comes from Mexico’s center-left political group which proposed the General Water Act that allows private firms to control the water supply system (Watts 2015). This proposal quickly led to massive demonstrations across Mexico this past January, particularly in Tijuana. Citizens fear that privatization would increase the price of water and further the disparity of water accessibility that exists between the upper and lower classes. As the water crisis and ensuing violence continue to grow each day, somebody – whether it be a public or private organization – must write the checks and bring water to Mexico City before supplies completely run out.
Of course, it would be wonderful if the Mexican government would declare clean water a basic right and could deliver it to all its people. Though this appears highly improbable today as the government moves towards privatization, such a declaration is not entirely out of reach. By applying the ecological humanities, strides can be made in this direction. By daring to ask questions related to ethics and human nature, going against the status quo, this area of study brings to the table discussions that have not otherwise been had. The ecological humanities would explore the golden question of who should have access to clean water, provide an understanding as to why this water disparity exists today, and through the application of persuasive, honest literature, it could reshape perceptions of accessibility to a more equitable, healthy form. The Mexico City water crisis is an extremely complex issue with no simple solution. In order to understand the full scope of the problem and thus respond accordingly, its analysis cannot be limited to just an economic or empirical approach. The social circumstances that developed this disparity must also be explored, and this starts by gaining an understanding of the human to human interactions and attitudes that allowed this conflict to occur in the first place.
Throughout this paper, the term “crisis” was used to describe the water disparity of Mexico City, highlighted by the town of Iztapalapa. This term is fitting in the present as low-income citizens suffer diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, and decreased productivity as a result of their dehydration and the contaminants in the little water they have. Nevertheless, this term is on the verge of being replaced. If the Mexican government does not provide its citizens with one of their most basic rights in the access to clean water, then a new term could arise, and the “Mexican Water Crisis” could become the “Mexican Water Wars.”
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). GBDCompareDataVisualization. Seattle, WA: IHME, University of Washington, 2016. Available from http:// vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare. (Accessed March 2nd, 2017).
Kimmelman, Michael. “Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
“Mexico City faces growing water crisis.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
“Mexico Current Account to GDP | 1980-2017 | Data | Chart | Calendar.” Mexico Current Account to GDP | 1980-2017 | Data | Chart | Calendar. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
Watts, Jonathan. “Mexico City’s water crisis – from source to sewer.” Mexico City live. Guardian News and Media, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.