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A Sinking, Thirsty City: The Water Crisis in Mexico City


The United Nations recognizesThe right to safe and clean drinking waters and sanitation is an essential human right for full enjoyment of life and all rights. However, weak infrastructure and climate change are challenging Mexico City’s ability to provide clean and adequate water to residents. Mexico City’s water is quite literally disappearing. “I have no doubt that in 2022 there will be a crisis, the reservoirs are completely depleted,” says water expert Rafael Sanchez Bravo.

What is the situation?

The original origins of Mexico City were designed by the Aztecs, who built it on top Lake Texcoco. However, the surrounding natural freshwater lake systems were left intact for future use. The lakes were eventually drained as the city grew to accommodate infrastructure, homes, and an increasing population. The city’s expansion brought with it a growing problem of water security. Much of the city’s water supply comes from an underground aquifer that is being drained at an irreplaceable rate. Mexico City is rapidly sinking down as the aquifer gets drained. twenty inches per year. 

Despite heavy rainfall and flooding, the city is experiencing a water shortage. In fact, more than 20 million residents don’t have enough water to drinkFor nearly half of the year. According to the BBCOne in five people has access to running water for only a few hours a week. 20% have access to running water for part the day. Many people are unable to count on clean water. 

Current projections predict that the global demand for freshwater will outstrip supply. by 40% in 2030. Mexico City, one the largest cities in the globe, has a population close to 22 million people and is growing steadily with the population growth expected to hit 30 millionBy 2030 

Mexico City is one 11 cities that are predicted to reach the so-called “The World” Day Zero, or the day that the water runs dry. This is a true crisis. “Each drop of water that passes through the Mexican capital tells a heroic, tragic, unfinished story of urban growth and human development,” writes Jonathan Watts for The Guardian

Where is the water? 

There are several reasons why a city that is located on top an aquifer but has a very dry season can’t provide potable water to its residents. The following are the main reasons. challenges Water security is a complex issue that urban planners, environmentalists, politicians, and others face. 

Lack of sanitary wastewater treatment in the city makes it difficult to collect water and makes it difficult for existing water to be clean. Additionally, Mexico City’s pipes are old and leaking. According to the University of Pittsburgh Mexico City is losing a lot of money. 1,000 liters of water per secondBecause of an outdated water system, which is being crushed by the falling cities and punctuated with thousands of small leaks. Although rainwater collection is available, no city-wide system exists. Rainwater is often collected when it rains. mixes with sewageThese cannot be used. 

Why is the city sinking

Mexico City stopped all groundwater drilling in Mexico City central in 1950s. However, water is still pumped up from the bottom in the surrounding area. GPS data has foundThe city is continuing its decline. Water extraction has driven groundwater deeper and further underground, so the clay lake bed is now completely dried and the tightly packed mineral soil is gone. causing irreversible compaction. Subsistence is a slow-moving phenomenon.

Furthermore, rainwater cannot penetrate concrete-covered cities and replenish the aquifer. A 2021 study found that there is no hope for significant elevation and storage capacity recovery. Many of the water must then be transported to the city by hydro engineering, which is a technique that uses water from reservoirs located thousands of kilometers away. 

Image courtesy of Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

Climate change is a threat multiplier

Mexico continues to be one of the most populous countries in the world. most widespread droughts in decades. Unusually low rainfall has already reduced water access in the capital. The reservoirs in Cutzamala outside the city provide a quarter of the city’s water but in 2020 the reservoirs were nearly 18 percentage points below normal levels.The city authorities have been reducing the flow from reservoirs as precious reservoir levels fall, which has caused problems with tap water access. Some residents depend on water delivery trucks and even the government for their water supply. donkeys.

This is a likely occurrence. “Climate change has definitely changed rainfall patterns,” Rafael Carmona Paredes, director of the Water System of Mexico City (SACMEX) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We have to prepare ourselves in lots of ways to be able to cope with these variations in climate conditions.” Researchers have estimatedAs temperatures rise, the city’s natural water supply could drop by as much as 17% by 2050. 

“More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city’s collapse,” writes Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times.

Researchers have identified potential future problems in water supply. Global warming could exacerbateMexico City’s water crisis is caused by less rainfall, algal blooms in warm reservoirs and an increased demand for water due to a warmer planet.

What have we done? 

Mexico recognizes the urgent need for water in their largest city. Mexico City initiated the Green Plan projectThe program will last until 2022 and has goals such as reducing groundwater loss and repairing water infrastructure. 

Former president Enrique Peña Nieto signed a series of presidential decreesIn 2018, nearly 300 river basins across the country will be created with water reserves. $7.4 billion has been dedicated to mitigatingClaudia Sheinbaum Pardo, Mexico City Mayor, addresses the water crisis in 2019.

Experts can offer a solution

The current state and local laws are a significant step towards achieving this goal, according to Harvard-educated Water Sensitive Urban Design expert and architect. Loreta Castro RegueraThe best approach is one that is decentralized, sustainable, and accessible to all cities. 

WSUD (Watershed-based Urban Development) is an emerging approach for urban development aimedat minimizing hydrological impacts of urbanization on the environment. Latin America ReportsRequera spoke with Requera about her Mexico City-based team and their mission to design the city through infrastructure public spaces that promote access for impacted populations and understand different strategies for managing water. 

“It’s a paradox. It’s a catastrophe. We have a city that’s sinking and an infrastructure that’s literally falling apart. We don’t have a way to filter the water. [into the aquifer] naturally,” says Reguera. “And you can imagine how expensive it is to change the entire piping system.”

Loreta Castro Reguera. Image Courtesy of Holcim Foundation

Her projects prove that public spaces can also serve as a place for reflection. parallel water management infrastructures. Reguera and her partner Jose have coined the term “retroactive infrastructure.” This refers to non-traditional infrastructure that can solve rather than exacerbate the water issues. Some projects include water filters and the use of open spaces to capture and save rainwater in larger containers than would be possible in buildings. “We want these spaces to become decentralized infrastructure,” she says. 

“For example, we completely transformed the landscape of a park in a very poor community. It was located on a hillside. We terraced the slope and filled it with volcanic gravel, which is highly permeable. We made filtration terrasses and made it a sponge for rainwater collection and filtering into the aquifer. We removed the fences, opened the entrances, and kept all the trees.”

“It is not like we will solve the water crisis with rainwater collection but it could help a lot if we start making reservoirs all around the city,” she says. “So the question is how we can start transforming these reservoirs into open and public spaces. They can provide enough water for the entire city.”

Reguera is optimistic. Reguera is optimistic. “It is really great to see how the city is making an effort,” she says. “They are experimenting to see how much open spaces can work. It is something that only started three or four years ago so we won’t see a transformation immediately. But there is a lot of consciousness right now.”

Reguera describes the work of parallel infrastructure as “stitching together the city with open spaces.” There is no easy solution to Mexico City’s water crisis, but perhaps it lies in communal, accessible spaces above ground instead of below.


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