On a mild winter day in Mixcoatl, Gumercinda Trejo is getting ready to serve lunch to her family of six and, like most people accustomed to the chemical nature of food in the 21st century, she is careful to wash all her fruits and vegetables. But unlike the average grandmother, she is doing so with bottled water, of which her family consumes around 50 litres per day. She doesn’t do this because she is abundantly wealthy; as a retired housekeeper with a disabled son to support and whose husband is unable to work due to the loss of a leg, the cost of this water represents a significant expense. She does it because she has no other choice.
In Mixcoatl, a suburb of Mexico City’s sprawling Iztapalapa borough, when Gumercinda turns on the taps connected to the public water grid, nothing happens. The water that does flow into her kitchen sink is pumped from an underground cistern, buried under the foundations of her house, which can only be refilled by 10 000 litre water tankers, known as pipas, that represent Mixcoatl’s liquid lifeline. But this water is hardly potable, and depending on the day it smells like sulphur, is tinted a dark mustard-yellow, or contains writhing masses of red aquatic worms — all three at once on a bad day. Most people will not even bathe their children in the water let alone allow them to drink it. So how did this happen?
To understand how the situation in Mixcoatl got so bad, one must understand something of the foundation of Iztapalapa and of Mexico City in general.
Home to nearly 2 million people and with a population density 45% higher than New York City, Iztapalapa is Mexico City’s most populous borough. In fact, if considered as a city itself, Iztapalapa would be the second largest in the country — second only to the capital that it is a part of. Just 40 year ago, however, this vast urban sprawl was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were mostly farmer’s fields and livestock with the only defining terrain feature being the isolated mountain of rock known as Cerro de la Estrella that dominates the horizon. Nowadays the 735-foot formation is rarely glimpsed from street level, obscured by the dense concentration of concrete low-rises.
Iztapalapa, and much of the rest of Mexico City, has been built on Texcoco’s dried up floor.
Rewind a few hundred years more to the days of the Aztec empire and all 117 square kilometres of what is now Iztapalapa were submerged deep beneath the surface of Lake Texcoco. Now the world’s second largest city (after Tokyo) with a greater metropolitan population of around 24 million, the Mexico City of that era was relegated to a small island in the middle of the lake.
It wasn’t until the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, when repeated flooding jeopardized the expansion of colonial empire that much of the lake was drained. In kind of dominance-over-nature thinking that has led to many of humanity’s current environmental predicaments, the Spanish decided that instead of moving the city to a less flood-prone area, they would simply remove the lake itself. Of course such a massive feat of engineering took time, and as recently as the early 20th century steam ships plied its waters. Now, however, the only traces of Texcoco are a series of brownish salty marshes on the eastern edges of the city. The changing of the environment has been so complete that the Wikipedia entry for the lake begins with the firmly past tense “Lake Texcoco was…”.
The Iztapalapa that Gumercinda now lives in reveals no hint of its lacustrine past. To walk out her front door is to be surrounded by an urban jungle that possesses one of the highest crime rates in the city. There are bars on her kitchen window, despite the fact that it looks out to an enclosed courtyard that is itself protected by a thick steel gate. There are three dogs that live on her roof, trained to bark ferociously at any stranger, and a thicket of barbed wire overhangs her gutters. These are not overly zealous measures: Iztapalapa has the highest rates of rape, violence against women, and domestic violence in Mexico City, and some of the highest instances of taxi and public bus robberies.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the city’s water shortages are most acutely felt in communities like Mixcoatl. Far from the glittering high rises, artisanal coffee houses, and bespoke bicycle shops popping up all over the city’s downtown core, luxury business in Iztapalapa are scarce. It is the definition of a marginalized community and therefore all too easy for politicians to ignore. As Gumercinda said on the first day we met, “I don’t believe that there is no more water. If this is true, why is it only Iztapalapa (that there are shortages)? Water is a form of political control.”
It needs to be noted that not all of Iztapalapa lacks water completely. Though almost no one in the delegation enjoys full time running water, an estimated 95% of the delegation is supplied with an irregular - and not particularly clean - household service. It is not a reliable or efficient service by any definition, but it exists. However, even 5% of Iztapalapa’s swollen population means there are around 100,000 people living in the heart of a megacity without easy access to water.
Since Mexico City’s aquifers have been exhausted and the water it now uses has to be piped in from distant reservoirs, themselves overtaxed, it is more than likely that water shortages are only going to increase. Communities like Mixcoatl are, therefore, like canaries in a coal mine, giving us a glimpse into what it is like to live in an urban environment without water. As the world continues to urbanize at an exponentially faster pace, while fresh water resources simultaneously dwindle, finding oneself with similar water woes like those facing Mixcoatl residents might not be as far fetched as it may now seem.
As Gumercinda puts the finishing touches on a pot of tomato flavoured rice (dry fried, not boiled), she looks to her garfones, as the large jugs of water present in every household are known, to see how much is left for the rest of the day. Before the day is done she still needs to wash a dinner-for-six’s worth of vegetables, rinse a load of white clothing, and bathe her grand daughter (the water from the pipas is irritating to most adult skin, and intolerable for a baby’s). In her head she is doing mental math, measuring the garafones with a practiced eye. “Gabriel!”, she calls to her son, “go to the store and get more water.”
When Jose talks about having guns pointed at him, he does so with a sense of calm that borders on unbelievable. It’s all just part of the job and it doesn’t happen that often, he says, as though this makes having a pistol in his face less frightening. Clad in an Oakland Raiders hat and with tattooed forearms poking out of a worn sweatshirt, people aren’t pulling guns on Jose because he seems like a cash-laden easy mark. He grew up in a rough neighbourhood of Iztapalapa and knows these streets well. They are holding him up for a commodity that many people in the world take for granted: water.
He is a pipa driver, part of an understaffed fleet of water tankers that serve a small piece of eastern Iztapalapa — the largest, most populous, and one of the poorest of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs. Jose explains these risky aspects of his job while he refills the 10,000 litre tank on the back of his pipa from a steel pipe connected to the mammoth above ground tanks stored inside the municipality’s central water depot.
All around him are other pipa crews, swapping stories and waiting for their respective trucks to be filled.
With two to three men per crew and a line up of four pipas waiting their turn at the tap, the street in front of the depot office is busy in the way of the back entrance at a rebellious high school — full of bad language, personalized handshakes, and cigarette smoke.
Once full, Jose and his crew mount up, which is to say Jose drives while the other two sit on the roof for the 30 minute ride from the depot to the neighbourhoods they are delivering to. As soon as the truck is out of sight of the office, the smell of marijua- na wafts into the cab from the roof as Jose’s crew capitalize on the long drive. Jose stays sober, however, staying focused on the task of maneuvering the huge vehicle through impossibly narrow gaps on small streets lined with parked cars and a steady stream of pedestrian traffic.
Growing up he knew what it was to live without a reliable water source, and it has only been recently that his home taps have started discharg- ing water at all.
“It’s not all the time,” he says, “but it’s better than before. It used to only come out once a week.” These past experiences allow him to empathize with the people he is delivering to. For him, this is not just a job but an important community service. If people are so desperate for water that they pull a gun on him, then he is willing to forgive them. He also understands power dynamics and that this situation is not shared by all of Mexico City’s residents.
“Water is a political tool,” he says in the same calm tone that he uses to talk about the threats of violence directed at him. “This year isn’t so bad, but I think that’s because it’s an election year. Whenever there is an election things get better, but I know that once they are over things will go back to the way they were.” Jose’s perceptions of what “isn’t so bad” are relative; some residents of the neighbourhood he is delivering to say they haven’t had a water delivery in more than two weeks. Nevertheless, he knows that not all citizens in the city are equal in the eyes of those in power.
According to academic Gian Delgado-Ramos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, cities are usually defined by “intense privatization of common goods and state properties,” including basic infrastructure such as water. This allows the segregation of certain neighbourhoods (typically the poorest ones) away from the others (the rich ones) and leads to an erosion of public services. “The rise of gated communities can be seen as the asymmetrical appropriation of the positive aspects of life in the city by the middle and upper classes,” Delgado-Ramos says. “Materials are controlled by the elite at the expense of marginalized populations.” That is to say that the rich are able to more fully enjoy the conveniences of living in a modern city, while the negatives — such as living in an urban environment without water — are exported to the poor. Jose uses different vocabulary, but his point is the same.
As his pipa pulls into the community of Mixcoatl, one of Iztapalapa’s most water starved colonias, people respond to the sound of the truck’s roaring engine and dash from their homes to flag Jose down.
Everyone is used to the routine and the process unfolds with familiarity. Their down time at an end, Jose’s crew mates climb off the roof and unhook thick rubber hoses from the truck’s sides, dragging them to wherever the family’s water storage system is located.
Everyone in Mixcoatl has a slightly different method of storing water. Those who can afford it build underground cisterns of varying capacity, sometimes capable of storing thousands of litres to share among multiple families. A cistern of this size could drain an entire 10,000 litre pipa in a matter of minutes. Less prosperous families use plastic tanks, often referred to as Rotoplas after one of the most popular manufacturers. They are so common that the black tanks have become a generic household name, like the Kleenex or Xerox of water storage.
Rotoplas can be stored almost anywhere. From rooftops to central courtyards, the tanks are a part of the skyline in places like Iztapalapa. Recently they have come under criticism for being breeding grounds for dangerous bacterias and moulds, as once filled they are nearly impossible to clean, but most families would prefer one to using tambos.
Tambos, or barrels, are a step down in convenience simply because it is difficult for a family to store enough water using this method. One barrel can only hold 200 litres, and with a national daily average of 300 litres per person, a Mexican family needs to own a lot of tambos to wait out the dry periods between deliveries. The most hard pressed families have no such vessels for storage and instead rely on a hodgepodge of containers, ranging from industrial sized jam buckets to empty sinks that have been blocked up and repurposed. Jose and his crew show no surprise, no matter what they are asked to fill. After years on the job they have seen everything, and coming from a nearby neighbourhood they are all too familiar with the struggles of growing up wanting.
While it may seem logical for those relying on bucket systems to aspire to own a cistern of their own, heavily investing in water storage methods are symbolic of the tightening of the poverty trap. It is a Faustian Bargain, says Hallie Eakin in the Journal of Environmental Science and Policy:
“By investing in strategies to manage daily risks in order to guarantee survivability, they are unable to make strategic investments in the social and political capital necessary for improving their future.” That is, a family might go deeply into debt for the short term payoff of a cistern, which will prevent them from spending money on education or health care — things that might actually help to lift them out of poverty. The more they struggle, the tighter trap becomes.
Jose doesn’t read the Journal of Environmental Science and Policy, but this is a reality that he is no less aware of. He doesn’t need academic papers to tell him that the people he serves are being ignored largely because they are poor and it is easier to ignore poor people than the rich. In the course of a day, Jose and his crew can do about seven to ten trips between the municipal water depot and the colonias before running out of daylight.
While 70,000-100,000 litres of water may sound like a lot, it barely scratches the surface of what is needed — and Jose knows it. His job is to be a bandaid, a temporary and ultimately ineffective solution to a problem rooted in inequality. All of Mexico City faces a water shortage, one which will only become more acute as time passes and reservoirs continue to be overexploited. But not all citizens feel the scarcities equally. It is in places like Iztapalapa where that shortage is manifested most directly, stretching people to the point where they might just resort to pulling a gun.
With her yellow and black spotted acrylic nails and her vibrantly dyed red hair, Liliana doesn’t look like the average president. Just over five feet tall and sporting a blindingly pink fanny-pack holding her smartphone and box of extra long cigarettes, she might seem more at home in a smokey bingo hall. But instead she spends three days a week at a plastic table in Iztapalapa, under the shade of a fading patio umbrella eating sugary concha buns and drinking Mexican-style coffee — black, but sickeningly sweet. With her are five other women; her vice president and four secretaries, though they admit that there is no virtually difference in job description between secretaries number one and four. In reality the president, vice president, and secretaries all do the same thing: they gather every day to make sure that the residents of Mixcoatl have water.
In Mixcoatl, shortages of many types are commonplace. A 2016 article in the Journal of Environmental Science and Policy might have been writing specifically about Mixcoatl when it stated, “Income poverty and asset deficiencies are strongly associated with vulnerability to environmental stress. Not only are the poor more likely to reside and work in areas of high exposure to risk, but also the poor tend to have fewer savings and assets at their disposal with which to cope and adapt to stress.”
But unlike the more dramatic type of environmental threats such as typhoons, wildfires, or earthquakes, the problems in Mixcoatl are not likely to make the evening news. Chief among them is the chronic shortage of water and the inadequate and inefficient delivery systems that are in place to deal with it. The article goes on to say that, “households that lack access to safety nets and formal institutional risk-mitigating support programs must address their risk autonomously, or, where collective action is possible, at the level of local communities.”
And this is exactly what Liliana and her team have decided to do. The six women sitting around the table represent the longwindedly named Mujeres Unidas Trabajando por Mixcoatl y Para Ti (Women United Working for Mixcoatl and For You, or M.U.T. for short), a citizen’s action group dedicated to making up for the failings of local infrastructure. And while water is one of the foremost problems they deal with, the group also monitors street light maintenance, sewer repairs, and delivering mobility aids to disabled neighbours.
The women all come from Mixcoatl, and apart from a handful of transplants, for the most part their families still live there. They grew up on the same streets that they have now taken responsibility for, and though no one has asked them to do it they are nevertheless committed.
Liliana has been volunteering her time to community service for the last 15 years, while Marisol, Carolina, Guadalupe, and Olga joined the team three years ago. Gumercinda, who’s patio umbrella the women sit under three days per week is the oldest of the group and was already in her 20’s when the rest were children. After having watched them grow into women, she now supports the group by keeping the all important supply of coffee flowing.
It is barely 10 a.m. on an average Thursday morning, yet at least 15 people have already stopped by the makeshift curb side office to request a water resupply.
“It’s been more than a week since a pipa came to my house on Moctezuma Street.”
“The primary school hasn’t had water in three days and they’ve had to cancel classes.”
“The water that came last time smelled like sulphur and was full of worms.”
After so many years of coping with chronic water shortages, residents of Mixcoatl don’t bother to talk to the local government anymore. Instead they go to where Liliana and her team gather every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and add their names to the list — a piece of white bristle board taped to a steel door.
Liliana and her team keep a careful eye on the list, and group names together according to street. When a sufficient number of households on the same street have built up, Liliana picks up the phone and starts making calls. She speaks in a commanding tone that is certain to communicate to the low-level bureaucrats at the local water depot that it is in their best interests to do what she says. And after years of dealing with her, they know it is better to send the trucks than to argue.
When they arrive in Mixcoatl many pipas don’t bother to pre-plan their routes anymore. Instead they drive directly to the women’s makeshift office in front of Gumercinda’s house and wait for instructions. After carefully writing down the unit number of each truck to ensure that each requested delivery has in fact been sent (in the past supposedly the water depot would agree to send trucks that never arrived), one M.U.T. member jumps in the cab with the driver and guides the crew to whichever street is the current highest priority.
It is not uncommon for the women to co-ordinate between 30 and 40 of these deliveries in a day (representing 300-400,000 litres of water), a task that often sees them sitting on the side of the street from morning until well after dark. They receive no pay for this work, though occasionally grateful neighbours give a few pesos or a plate of food as a token of appreciation.
“Before the group existed,” recalls Marisol, one of the first to join Liliana, “we had to wake up at 4am to wait for the water trucks. That was not so easy.” With no central organization, fights would often break out between neighbours who knew that if they didn’t secure the delivery for themselves it could be weeks before they got another. Marisol remembers how one day Liliana decided something had to change and asked for volunteers to help her take over the task. At that point they didn’t know exactly how they were going to coordinate such a complex process, but it seemed that everyone was eager for something to change.
But tangible rewards are clearly not the priority as any one of them, all within working age, could make more money as a toilet cleaner or domestic helper or any number of bottom of the barrel jobs. Yet since the government seems unable, and the rest of the citizenry unwilling, someone has to take responsibility for the task. Before M.U.T. existed life was considerably harder in Mixcoatl.
The social dynamic the developed is what you might expect from a group of similarly aged women who have known each other from childhood. If you didn’t know what they were doing the atmosphere could be easily mistaken for that of a book club rather than a band of socially minded volunteers.
They take selfies, buy each other snacks, and share new beauty tips and products they’ve discovered. Yet while they seem like friends first and colleagues second, when they switch into business mode, everything changes. They are no longer friends but neighbours united in solving a problem - and they almost always manage to do so.
It would be overly dramatic to paint a portrait of these women as anything other than concerned citizens who had stepped up to do a job that needed to be done. They are not chronic do-gooders or wealthy housewives looking to fill their idle days with some arbitrary activity. They come from working class families who often struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis, and their volunteer obligations prevent them from working a full time job.
While it is certainly admirable that they have decided to make such sacrifices, the fact that they are needed at all should serve as a warning to other cities around the world. For the moment it is the poor and marginalized communities such as Mixcoatl that suffer from water shortages, and such places are all too easily ignored. But what happens as water becomes increasingly scarce in cities like Los Angeles, Madrid, or Sydney?
That the global supply of fresh water is dwindling at an alarming pace is not a subplot from the pages of a dystopian science fiction novel, it is fact. As time passes and water becomes increasingly scarce, the number of communities that are considered a low priority for water service will grow. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which only the wealthiest of citizens enjoy clean water on demand while the rest of the population faces a situation more and more like Mixcoatl’s.
The efforts of Liliana, Marisol, and the other members of M.U.T., therefore, should be seen as warning about the dangers facing our urbanized planet. The best possible scenario for these women is not to receive praise or compensation for their hard work, but rather to be made unnecessary. For now, however, they are very much needed.
Pulling her smartphone from her fanny pack, somehow managing to dial numbers with her impossibly long nails, Liliana continues making the calls that represent the neighbourhood’s lifeline to water. It is barely noon and another 20 pipas are expected to be needed before the day is done. Before then a lot of coffee will be needed — extra sweet.
As far as rivers go, there is nothing visibly aquatic about Rio de la Piedad. Translated as The River of Piety, it is just one of 45 waterways in Mexico City that have been paved over and turned into highways and drainage canals. While urban rivers are typically used around the world to irrigate land, preserve biodiversity, and generally improve the environment, in the Mexican capital they are used as sewers, hidden from view under asphalt and encased in metal pipes. And were Rio de la Piedad still exposed to the open air, the smell would likely drive any pedestrian far away.
During the 20th century, Mexico City’s rivers became so polluted that there was a saying: let the river take it. “Everyone threw in all kinds of things,” says urban biologist Delfín Montañana. “That’s why (the rivers) were enclosed in pipes.” This solution went a long way to reliving the sewage problem that had plagued the city, and at the time it made sense to build roads on top of them to increase the city’s traffic capacity. But as the city grew to its current supercity size of around 24 million people and more and more rivers disappeared underground, a new hydrological problem emerged — the concrete umbrella.
With no remaining flowing rivers in the city, save one on its Southwestern edge, the abundant rainwater that falls on Mexico City during parts of the year cannot be absorbed by any natural system. In a water-starved city, rain water should be collected in as high volumes as possible so that it could be cheaply or freely distributed to communities that most need it. Instead it falls on a solid plane of concrete and is forced underground into the often overloaded drainage network, resulting in regular flooding across the city. It is a cruel irony that families in Iztapalapa can be so short of clean water that they bathe their babies in bottled water, and at the same time face floods so severe that their homes are submerged in up to five feet of rain.
An increasingly outspoken group of architects and environmental advocates has been pushing to bring the rivers back to the surface, and inso doing create green public spaces, but so far they have not been supported by local government. “Where there is space available, they see two-story highways and big avenues,” says researcher Luis Zambrano at the Autonomous National University of Mexico. “They are not thinking about green. There must be a more modern view of society.”
Whether motivated by the desire for green spaces or the reversing of the concrete umbrella effect, cleaning Mexico City’s invisible rivers and brining them back into the light of day would be a wise move environmentally speaking. But historically economic interests and quick fixes have trumped environmental concerns, and despite success stories after recovering rivers in cities like Singapore, Madrid, Caracas, and Seoul, there are no plans to revive the capital’s waterways.
For now the only signs of the city’s once abundant rivers are on the street signs: Rio de la Piedad, Rio Churubusco, Rio de La Compañia, and Rio Tiber just to name a few. Yet seen from the air, Mexico City is entirely devoid of water. Instead there are highways, packed with cars and stretching endlessly to the horizon.