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Story Publication logo July 12, 2023

The Heroism of Local Climate Activists in Mexico City


Gumercinda Trejo

Mexico City was once the Venice of the Americas, but 400 years later its water crisis threatens its...


Liliana Espindola Ramirez prefers to introduce people rather than talk about herself, but she is a leader. Like most households in her neighborhood, she depends on deliveries from water trucks because her family does not have running water. Once when a water truck driver said that he could not fill her family’s tank, she suspected he was lying. Sometimes drivers will sell their excess water, she explained. She stepped into the driver’s seat and “kidnapped” him until her family got the water that they needed. She sells food in a street market in Iztapalapa, but she is better known as an elected community leader in her neighborhood. She worked with other women to organize about 500 families to streamline water deliveries. Families communicated to her and the other women how much water they needed and when. Then, the women communicated what they needed to the local government. Ramirez called repeatedly or turned up at municipal offices if the water did not come. Local government officials asked her to stop the program during the pandemic. Image by Claire Potter. Mexico, 2022.

In Mexico City, the day when water runs out looms, but “Day Zero” has sat on the horizon for so many years that for many it is too easy to ignore. Gardeners still water lawns at the main university’s campus, fountains flow outside shopping centers in the wealthy neighborhood of Polanco, and cranes strain their necks over already dense blocks as developers keep building in the resource-strained city.

Compared to the social and economic problems in Mexico, environmental disaster can seem like a distant threat.

Gabriel, my local reporting partner, had hours to chat as we sat in Mexico City’s traffic on our way to Iztapalapa, a sprawling neighborhood where clean water is scarce and thousands of homes have no running water. It was a break to help with “a nice story” for a change, he told me. I thought about the women I was going to interview who spent hours each day rationing water and fighting for their right to regular deliveries from water trucks. I thought about the existential threat the water crisis poses to the city. “Nice” wasn’t the word that came to mind.

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Yet, relative to Gabriel’s regular work, I understood his point. He and his partners work with foreign journalists who almost always want to cover narcos. Violence ensnares Mexico. The official count of missing people exceeds 100,000, a number that rivals a civil war. Violence and slow economic growth perpetuate the poverty of millions.

At times, reporting on the water crisis in Mexico was demoralizing. Innovative ideas to solve the problem are abundant, but the means to implement them are elusive. The problem is bigger than any one bad actor. People familiar with the crisis explained that corruption stymies infrastructure projects that could move the city towards a sustainable water system and endangers the conserved land that is so important for aquifer filtration and water storage. Neither does Mexico have the wealth of its northern neighbor to take on massive infrastructure projects. Yet again and again, I met people who decided to shoulder the responsibility for a problem far bigger than themselves.

Daniel Dultzin is a former ambassador who represented Mexico in Ireland and France. He reapplied his diplomatic know-how to environmental issues in retirement. Mexico has to prioritize the environment because it’s a question of survival, he argues.

Dultzin has a point; Mexico faces environmental challenges that put it at risk of extinction. I focused my reporting on Mexico City, a megacity of about over 22 million, but the water crisis is nationwide. To the north, the industrial city of Monterrey already ran out of water once in 2022. Decades of extraction compounded by climate change put water supplies at risk all over the country. Lax environmental laws and intermittent enforcement have left the majority of Mexico’s rivers contaminated. The most polluted stink of industrial waste and sewage.

Dultzin dedicates himself to spreading the ideas of Kongjian Yu, a Chinese landscape architect who strives to recover the natural movement of water through cities. He wants to heal China’s water systems, ungirding rivers from narrow concrete channels and incorporating wetlands and floodplains into urban planning.

Now, Dultzin is an ambassador for the possibilities of a “green and blue” city—an urban environment that integrates nature, clean waterways, and open space. He invited Yu to give a series of lectures in Mexico City to help his city envision solutions. He constantly tries to spread the gospel of ecological urbanism with events, lectures, and articles—anything to get more people to understand the urgency of the problem and see that there are solutions. Books on water management and the ecological history of Mexico line the walls of his airy apartment in Juarez, a fashionable neighborhood in Mexico City where he has lived longer than it has been fashionable. He recently hired an artist to paint a blue, watery mural in his courtyard.

“You have to understand,” he told me. “What sustains us, what keeps us living is nature.”

In the north of Mexico City, a dedicated group of scientists, urban planners, engineers, and biologists have donated millions of pesos worth of their time to gather the necessary data to apply for funding from the Green Climate Fund to clean up Laguna de la Piedad.

Gustavo Schinca, an environmental activist, stands in front of a water treatment plant near Laguna de la Piedad. Image by Claire Potter. Mexico, 2022.

Brown rivulets of untreated sewage trickle into Laguna de la Piedad. Fish in this shallow lake in the northern suburbs of Mexico City died because of high levels of pollution. Still, migratory birds and ducks touch down on the water, unbothered by the stench of human waste. The lake faces a more urgent threat than pollution. Banks of construction debris, shown above, pile on parts of the shore. They are evidence of a common pattern in Mexico City where garbage and construction waste are illegally dumped into a lake to increase land area. Then, the perpetrators typically sell the land and new houses are built. Image by Claire Potter. Mexico, 2022.

At Laguna de la Piedad, I also met Gustavo Schinca, an intense man who adopted the lake as his mission. The polluted lake stinks with the sewage of surrounding neighborhoods. He lives just a few miles away near another lake, Espejo de los Lirios, where the water is clean, feeds abundant wildlife, and attracts families and tourists. He wants Laguna de la Piedad to be another Espejo.

“It was an idea, something quixotic, like Don Quixote, of launching an impossible mission to save the world,” he told me.

Schinca is incredulous that large, and expensive, treatment plants were built near the lake, but languish in disuse because a simple water collector system has not been completed. Schinca pressures the government to treat the sewage so that the lake can transform into a haven for wildlife and a hub of ecotourism. He predicts that getting the system working may take 10 to 15 years, and he plans to keep fighting for it.

Schinca cut his work as a statistics researcher down to part-time so that he could focus on the environmental work he feels matters more. He and his wife agreed not to have children. Children, he explained, would distract them from the environmental cause and only contribute to the broader problems.

The native people of San Gregorio, a centuries-old town that was swallowed into the city, lost both their water and their heritage when they lost their relationship to water, said Lourdes Granado. Her family has farmed in San Gregio for generations. It is part of Xochimilco, a neighborhood that is home to both dense working-class urban blocks and a precious wetland preserve.

Mexico City’s natural wetlands struggle to survive. Xochimilco Ecological Park is a 213-hectare nationally protected wetland within Mexico City. Canals weave through tall, feathery ahuejote trees that secure the borders of rectangular farms interlaced with canals, called chinampas. Above, farmers ferry a tractor to their farm. Mexico City needs Xochimilco. Its underground water supplies the city, while the wetlands above ground provide food, offer refuge to native species, and regulate temperatures. Image by Claire Potter. Mexico, 2022.

“They (our ancestors) had water, they had earth, they had lush vegetation, a great amount of biodiversity, of fauna and flora. We have lost this,” Granado said. The city center extracted water from the abundant aquifers of Xochimilco and sucked water out of its springs. The damage was so severe that the preserved wetlands depend on filtered wastewater rather than the springs that once filled them.

Xochimilco was once a rural farming community where Mexican photographers went to capture a way of life that survived the modernization that rushed through the city center. Its chinampas, a form of agriculture where canals irrigate small plots of fertile land, have seen little change over the centuries. Now, much of the vast neighborhood is concrete and crowded. The Xochimilco wetlands preserve, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an abundant remnant of the canals and chinampas that once occupied far more land. It is also a valuable environmental resource for Mexico City as it moderates temperatures. Yet, the preserve is under threat from development and pollution.

A grassroots movement is trying to revive the chinampas. Humedalia, a nonprofit, maintains traditional, ecological farming methods and funds itself through ecotourism. Above, a canal flows through their chinampas. The organization has three chinampas, a fraction of the total wetlands area of Xochimilco. At Humedalia’s chinampas, a diverse set of crops work together to build soil quality. Bio-filters that cost a few hundred dollars clean the water that Humedalia uses to irrigate its crops. Image by Claire Potter. Mexico, 2022.

Granado’s grandfather died in 2008, and her family’s chinampas fell into disuse without his care. After generations of farming, her grandparents had urged their children to go to school and work for wages. Farming was suffering. They lived by the whims of lightning, storms, and drought. Now, her family boasts doctors, engineers, and teachers. Their family’s story is a common one in Xochimilco, and is part of why chinampas are disappearing, she explained.

But as the family gained social mobility, they lost some of their heritage, Granado said. And no one had the time or skill to cultivate the chinampas. She and her uncle, both retired from education, are resuscitating them. Reviving a chinampa is hard, manual labor, especially because they do not use any toxic fertilizers or pesticides. But it is important work not just for Granado’s family, but also for the city that depends on the wetlands’ ecological benefits and the abundant flora and fauna that rely on the habitat.

Granado invites families to bring their children to the chinampas to plant seeds. As they sew the seeds, she hopes they will grow up to fight for the wetlands that remain. The more I learned about Dultzin, Schinca, Granado, and many others I had the chance to speak to in Mexico, the more their resolve struck me. They were frustrated by government inaction and corruption, but that only pushed them to do more. They did not hesitate to work for free if that is what it would take to make progress. Their generosity toward me mirrored their dedication to their cause. They were patient with my imperfect Spanish, and they were eager to lend me books, connect me with more people, and give me their time.



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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change

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