Story Publication logo March 26, 2020

Where Water Used to Be


Children play in a public fountain near Mexico City's Monumento a la Revolucion. Image by Javier Garcia / Shutterstock. Mexico, undated.

As an increasingly severe water crisis grips Mexico City, what will the future look like in a world...

Mexico City. Image by Creative Commons. Mexico, 2016.
Mexico City. Image by Creative Commons. Mexico, 2016.

On​ the second to last day of last year, I got on a flight to Mexico City. Four hours in, we were told we needed to make an emergency landing in Houston. The captain had noticed an oil leak shortly after we left New York. The air hostess made her announcement first in English, then in Spanish, and told us that we shouldn't be alarmed if we saw a lot of fire engines on the runway as we landed – they were waiting for us. Part of me wondered why she thought anyone would be soothed by this explanation. The other part was so scared my teeth were hurting.

The man sitting on my left swallowed six or seven times, and then stared hard at his legs. The man on my right took out his Sudoku book and started doing puzzles at a clip that suggested he was either a savant or not giving them his full attention. He ended one with a flourish that made his pen tear through the page, and then looked at me and said: 'Sorry.' Crunched up in the middle seat, I thought it bizarre and possibly cruel to tell us straight like that, to keep us abreast of developments, even though those developments were so bad.

I've had an aversion to being told the truth about bad situations since 2018, when Cape Town city officials first told us we were running out of water. The taps, they said, would be turned off when the six reservoirs that collectively supply the city's water dropped to 13 per cent of capacity. They were already down to 21 per cent. We didn't have to take the officials' word for it – we could drive past the Steenbras or the Theewaterskloof dam and see for ourselves that there was hardly anything in them. The newspapers made a point of saying that we were going to win the worst race in the world and be 'the first major city to run out of water'. The phrase terrified me not only because of what it meant for Cape Town but because it implied a second city, and a third, and a fourth, were about to loom into view. When the rains came, the fact that we hadn't run out of water seemed merely a temporary respite, an unearned reprieve that someone else would have to pay for. We had moved to the front of the queue, and then we were shuffled back a bit. Before we were at the front, it was São Paulo. After us, it was Chennai. Always threatening to push in front, Mexico City.

Cape Town's water crisis was complicated, but in one sense all too easy to grasp: we could see just by looking that we didn't have enough water. Mexico City is different. A few years ago, I heard a scientist at a conference say that Mexico City was 'drinking itself to death', and while I have often thought of that description since then, I didn't really understand what she meant. It's difficult to picture an aquifer, even when it's described as a 'vast underground lake'. I went to Mexico City to understand how a city could be drinking itself to death. When I got there I wanted instead to be lied to, not to see the cathedral lowering itself into the ground and the sinkholes opening up in the street, the ankle-deep trickle where a river used to be, or the trucks toiling up a hillside to deliver water to neighbourhoods that haven't had a regular supply in a decade. I didn't want to have to stop myself crying when a man began a description of his childhood in Michoacán with the words, 'I always thought that the rain was splendid,' as if he was talking about something extinct.

I went with my translator, Ulises, to Ecatepec, the sprawling municipality on the hills outside Mexico City that is believed to have the highest rate of femicide in the country. A few years ago, it was reported that the bodies of 21 women had been found in the black canal that crawls through the city. Officials denied these reports, although they bowed to public pressure and issued a 'gender alert': a warning, or an acknowledgment, that women and girls were being systematically targeted and murdered. We could just about see the canal, whose name means 'river of remedies', from where we stood. It felt as though we were in the mountains: thin air, navy blue sky. We were walking towards the last houses high up the hill, watching the water trucks make the almost vertical climb, and listening to the dogs barking and the brakes screeching. The women who live on the street were standing outside their gates, as they do every morning when the municipal water supply is unavailable or unreliable, which in Ecatepec is most mornings. On that street, nothing had come out of the taps in five months. The women were telling the drivers what to do with cheery impatience, nudging dogs away from children, buying bread from a man on a motorbike – coping, the way it's said that women in places like that do.

I'd met one of them before, a woman in her sixties called Yolanda who'd moved to Ecatepec thirty years ago, on the advice of a doctor who'd told her the air was better there. She'd come from Iztapalapa, another sprawling municipality on the periphery of the city, also notoriously dangerous, also a bad place to be a woman or a girl. The air in Iztapalapa had made her husband sick, and the water was full of worms, or was slimy and black. Sometimes it was red. She told me this while wrestling an array of small but insistent challenges into submission: phones ringing, old men in hats who wanted her to listen to them complain, my failure to bring a jumper with me, dogs barking, children needing breakfast, people at the gate, my failure to wrap the scarf she had found for me tightly enough for her liking. I could see exactly what she'd be like in a crisis. Her great-granddaughter, Aimee, a tiny girl of six, sat on her lap and submitted to having her plaits undone, while performing a short monologue called 'I Hate it When I Have to Get My Plaits Undone'.

As she brushed out her great-granddaughter's hair, Yolanda said that sometimes the pipas didn't bring enough water for the street, so she and some of the other women would bring the driver into the house and hold him there until SACMEX, the federal water operator, sent another truck. She pointed to the table where they sat him, not with a gun actually held to his head – no need, they all knew the gun was in the room – and gave him coffee and pastries while they waited for the second truck to arrive. Ulises mentioned this thing with the gun, which some people would describe as kidnapping, as we walked up the hill. I said something pathetic about adapting to difficult circumstances, getting used to things you'd never imagine you could get used to. Some rubbish about frogs in boiling water. He said that was one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it was that we were talking about a situation in which one person has the water, and the other has the gun.

That Cape Town didn't run out of water in 2018 is now being framed as a story of resilience and adaptability. When tourists arrive at the airport, one of the first things they see is a big sign exhorting them to Save Water Like a Local. The suggestion is that we did something special and a bit mysterious. A lot of us did 'change our relationship with water'. It's difficult not to respond with alarm when you see a councillor describing the situation as 'utterly catastrophic', or when you hear about engineers crying in meetings. There were a few people who refused to be swayed from their conviction that this was one of those scams the government pulls from time to time in order to hike up water tariffs. Some of those people, among them a member of the provincial legislature, found a way to turn it into a conspiracy involving the 'Jewish mafia'. That really did happen. Alongside the barking mad, there were those who were just a bit bored and irritated by the whole business. Wouldn't it be fine? Weren't we more or less OK?

Mostly, we did our bit. We stuck to the limit of fifty litres a day, and those of us who weren't used to spending our days thinking about water learned exactly how far that amount will get you, as well as how to get it, how to carry it, and how to reuse it without making anyone sick. We learned how much time you spend worrying about water when the prospect of its running out altogether is weeks away: hours and hours, days and days. All the time. We talked about toilets at every opportunity, long, animated, genuinely disgusting conversations about the disposal of human waste. We tried hard because we were scared, and that effort could be described as special and exemplary, especially if you were short of feelgood stories about climate change, but it's not what saved us. What saved us was that it rained, after four years of not raining. There's not a great deal of evidence to suggest that we can rely on this happening again, let alone every year. It just doesn't seem realistic. At the time of writing, I haven't heard of a single convincing plan to prevent a recurrence of the crisis, in Cape Town or anywhere else. This isn't to suggest that I would like people to stop trying to find one. It's more that the only solution I'd find reassuring would be the repeated and emphatic use of the words: We are fine, we are fine, we are fine.

We aren't fine. In five years' time, two-thirds of the world's population is going to be living in a state of 'water stress', according to the UN. Either we won't have enough or it will be dirty or we won't be able to access it without difficulty. Thirty-three cities are currently suffering 'extremely high' water stress, according to the World Resources Institute, which is another way of saying that they are using most of the water they have. This will only get worse as the effects of climate change intensify. Rising temperatures will encourage the flourishing of bacteria and other pathogens. Rising sea levels will salinate freshwater sources, rendering them unusable. More drought means more hunger, but it also means more violence, according to the growing body of research that indicates an 'overt' correlation between acute water stress and violent conflict (recent studies have also pointed to the strong connection between resource depletion and violence against women). More flooding means more damage to already compromised sanitation infrastructure, as well as contamination of the remaining supply. In ten years' time, India will have half the water it needs, as will Zimbabwe, although in its case ten years is an optimistic timeframe, given the unwavering severity of the drought there. Forty per cent of Beijing's water supply is currently too polluted to use, and Mexico City is draining its aquifers 50 per cent faster than they can be replenished.

I'd always thought people were being metaphorical when they said that Mexico City was sinking, or at least that the evidence of it would be invisible to anyone other than a hydrologist or an engineer. But no: the city is subsiding as it draws more and more water from further and further below the surface, collapsing into the clay lake-beds on which it was built, and even someone who doesn't know what an aquifer is can see it. In the Metropolitan Cathedral, you can feel it: the floor tilts unevenly, the columns list and if you close your eyes while you're walking, it's like being on a boat. In 2016, Pope Francis addressed his bishops there. He urged them to denounce the drug trade and to help their congregations 'escape the raging waters that drown so many'. Violence is often described this way – the wave of killings, the rising tide of crime – but it's easy to imagine the words echoing around a building that is slowly being submerged in a city that is drinking itself to death. There are streets and streets of undulating buildings, stories of collapsing primary schools, a sinkhole in Iztapalapa that swallowed up a child. This shouldn't be happening anywhere – a sinkhole is a dead giveaway that something has gone badly wrong – but it really shouldn't be happening in Mexico City, which gets more rainy days than London. The original Aztec city, Tenochtitlan, was built on an island in the middle of a lake, surrounded by other lakes. Before Cortés began the process of draining them, turning the city into a place that had nothing in common with what had been there before, it used to be a freshwater Venice. Climate change will make this harder to say with confidence, but Mexico City is not Cape Town. It still rains there, a lot, and all that rain is channelled straight into the sewage system. The problem is not water scarcity, although it now presents itself as that. It's a problem of water management, and infrastructure, and inequality.

Because Mexico City sits in a lake basin surrounded by mountain ranges, more than two kilometres above sea level, and because there's no river or ocean that would serve as a natural drainage outlet, which makes it prone to flooding, the challenge for most of the modern city's history always has been getting waste water and rainwater out. The second challenge was getting enough drinking water in, which involved digging vast wells to tap into the Valley of Mexico aquifer, and creating bewilderingly complicated hydroengineering systems to bring water from the Lerma and the Cutzamala rivers, 60 km and 150 km away respectively, and pump it up a thousand metres to the city's reservoirs. People talk about the Cutzamala System with a respect that borders on the reverential. In 1951 Diego Rivera painted a mural inside a tunnel that would be used to channel water from the Lerma into the city's reservoirs. It shows engineers wearing short colourful jackets and pointing at maps, people swimming, labourers digging tunnels with pickaxes, a child watering a garden, axolotls and a small boy in pink shorts holding hands with a monkey. Although Rivera used a special kind of paint intended to prevent erosion, the mural started deteriorating almost as soon as the water from the Lerma flooded into the tank and, in 1990, the supply was redirected. After careful restoration, it was reopened in 2015; now visitors come to look at a place where water used to be, which feels very much in keeping with the mural's didactic spirit. The new museum does an excellent job of hammering home Rivera's point: water is political and access to it determines the course of one's life. It also makes a distinction between 'giving water to the people' (represented in the mural by an indigenous mother) and 'quenching the thirst of the bourgeoisie' (represented by a pious lady).

In Mexico City, everywhere is a place where water used to be. Almost nothing remains of the five lakes the original city was built on, although the memory of water is there in the names of the streets and the highways that were once canals. Twenty-two million people need a lot of water, but the other reason the aquifer is draining is that 40 per cent of the water in the system is lost through leaks in earthquake-damaged pipes. As the city sinks deeper, it damages the pipes even more, compromising an already profoundly compromised system. The water in places like Ecatepec and Iztapalapa will get dirtier, and there will be less and less of it, which means more reliance on the pipas, and more situations where one person has the water and the other person has the gun. Of course this isn't the only possible outcome. There are many people trying to ensure it doesn't come to that. But most projections indicate that the Valley of Mexico aquifer will be entirely depleted within forty years, and there doesn't seem to be the political will to address this situation. I want to keep saying to myself: We are fine, we are fine, we are fine.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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Water and Sanitation

Water and Sanitation

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