Mexico City is perhaps the world most improbable Megacity, established via a set of circumstances that involved Mesoamerican prophecy, epic colonial confrontations and massive efforts of hydrological engineering. Yet the city at the heart of the Valley of Mexico has a certain gravity that has attracted people for centuries, despite the enormous environmental challenges. As we outlined in the first part of this article, the Aztecs addressed these challenges by integrating their city with the lacustrine environment to build Tenochititlan, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the New World. After the conquest of Tenochititlan, Cortez made a contentious decision to establish Mexico City in the middle of the lake, where he believed the symbolic and psychological advantages of building on the ruins of Tenochititlan outstripped the obvious environmental limitations. Despite the initial trepidation, Mexico quickly became the most important city in the New World, as the center of Spain’s “empire of towns.”
For the first few decades, Mexico City physically existed much as Tenochititlan had, surrounded by Lake Texcoco, with smaller indigenous communities dotting the shores. Culturally, however, the two cities were vastly different. The economic ideology transformed from a relatively communal culture without the concept of private property, to a proto-capitalist society with the central goal of extracting and accumulating capital. This new economy led to an ambitious attempt to control nature in order to protect and enrich the interests of the elites, and at great cost to their environment and the indigenous people who depended on it.
Today, this attempt to control nature has led to compounding challenges regarding the city’s water supply, drainage and perhaps it’s very existence. These challenges weigh most heavily on the shoulders of the most vulnerable populations who live in the far reaches of the sprawling city. The North American Congress on Latin America recently reported that the official claim that 97% of the population is served potable water via central utilities is likely much lower considering the people who rely on expensive water deliveries in remote informal settlements. In these communities, water is the center of women’s lives, as they are the ones typically tasked with obtaining and transporting – often by foot – their family’s water supply. In general, water can consume 10-20 % of a poor family’s income, and countless hours of their time.
To understand how Mexico City came to such a serious situation, one must look at the recent history of Mexico City – from the colonial era to the contemporary – to reveal how broad attempts to control natural systems are not only unsustainable, but have created conditions that could lead to a disastrous collapse of the city’s brittle infrastructure and could even destabilize the region.
The city’s indigenous population was the first – and continues to be among the worst – affected by colonial interventions in the valley’s hydraulic systems. While flooding was always an issue for Tenochititlan, it was tolerated because the yearly inundations were vital for the Chinampa agricultural system. The lakes were managed communally, for the benefit of the entire valley, not just the city center. In contrast, the Spanish elite considered it vitally important to protect their new capital investments by preventing flooding at all costs. In the words of colonial historian Vera Candiani, “If, for villagers, hydraulic structures were supposed to support overwhelmingly communal property and production relations and the fluid interactions among water, land, and biota associated with daily sustenance, for Hispanics these structures had to be useful either to secure their capital or to ensure the daily production of things to sell.” Thus, the Spanish devised a gargantuan plan to drain the Valley of Mexico – which is an enclosed basin – through one the largest public works’ projects undertaken in colonial times.
The project, called The Desagüe de Huehuetoca, required the removal of sixteen million cubic meters of dirt over thirteen kilometers and included a seven kilometer tunnel. The premise was that in order to protect the city center from flooding, they would drain portions of the lake to free up space for runoff during the wet season. While the original Desagüe was completed in 1608, it was immediately apparent that sufficient drainage would require a much larger investment, thus expansions were ongoing throughout the colonial centuries.
In the late 1800’s, Porfirio Díaz directed the construction of a modern drainage system, called the Sistema de Desagüe del Valle de México (known today as the Grand Canal) to compliment the colonial Desagüe. The new system collected rainwater and sewage together from as far as the east part of the valley into a canal and tunnel system that drained out the west. As we will see later, the precedent set by mixing rainwater and sewage has resulted in enormous challenges to contemporary efforts to restore some of the natural systems.
The ecological results of the centuries-long effort to drain the Valley of Mexico is that most the lakes are dry and built over by Mexico City, or are fragmented and polluted. If the goal was to allow for Mexico City to grow and thrive as a center of capital accumulation, then the Desagüe could perhaps be considered a success. However, the Desagüe has come at enormous environmental, social, and spiritual costs, the full effects of which are now manifesting in contemporary Mexico City.
It is clear that the problems faced by contemporary Mexico City are almost entirely a result of the removal of natural systems. Rather than continuing to invest in megaprojects and grey infrastructure, any truly sustainable long-term solutions will have to be both regenerative and decentralized. The regenerative infrastructure should focus on restoring water bodies and stabilizing the city’s geology, while creating new environmental and social wealth for all of Mexico City’s inhabitants. In order for such a project to succeed, implementation measures should rely on the mobilization of grassroots efforts rather than relying on government intervention alone.
This type of project would represent a stark departure from water management policies in Mexico City over the past century. For instance, in order to meet water demand created by Mexico City’s explosive population growth in the 20th century, Mexican leaders doubled down on groundwater extraction, coupled with expanded drainage out of the basin. As it became apparent that the Valley of Mexico aquifer was being over-exploited, in 1942, the city initiated projects to channel water from the nearby Lerma Valley Aquifer. This project has been a source of much political conflict, as local residents who relied on the Lerma Valley Aquifer for irrigation have been forced to significantly change their lifestyle for the benefit of urban Mexico City. Following this project, in 1976, the city built the Cutzamala system, which pumps water uphill from the Cutzamala River to the west and into Mexico City, at enormous financial cost.
Today, groundwater extraction is over double the natural recharge rate of the Valley of Mexico aquifer, causing the clay soil to compact and subside. Over the past few centuries, the city center has sunk over 10 meters from historic levels, leaving the city fraught with infrastructure issues. In the case of drainage, it means even the relatively modern Grand Canal can no longer rely on gravity to drain the city’s waste and storm water, and is forced to rely on costly and inefficient pumps instead. Ironically, the Grand Canal and other drainage features that were initially created to alleviate flooding are now the source of it. Their new pumping systems cannot drain large inundations as quickly as the gravity based systems could, leading to overflow of the toxic flood waters in times of heavy rain. In response to soil subsidence and related decreases in efficient drainage, the city has constructed a vast network of so called “deep sewage” which, according to a UN report, are tunnels that are built up to “200 meters below the surface to ensure that they will not be effected by subsidence.” The cycle of doubling down on grey infrastructure must end before the subsidence causes serious structural failures or the valley’s resources are exhausted completely.
In the past 20 years, have city officials finally began to address these issues in a more progressive manner, principally through conservation efforts. Beginning in the 1990’s, ConAgua, the federal water management agency, began focusing on reducing non-revenue water through the fixing of leaks, removing illegal connections, and metering more homes. In 2007 the city launched The Plan Verde, the first of it’s kind in Latin America. While the plan has generally been a success, most notably reducing carbon emissions by 7.7 million tons, the efforts still fall short of a long term solution for Mexico City’s insatiable water metabolism.
An example of a long term solution can be found in the 2015 paper “Integrating resilience with urban sustainability in neglected neighborhoods: Challenges and opportunities of transitioning to decentralized water management in Mexico City.” In the paper, authors Chelleri, Schuetze, and Salvati describe their case study of potential implementation of Decentralized Water Management (DWM) in the rapidly urbanizing and flood-prone district of the Valle de Chalco (VDC). The district is built on the former bed of Lake Chalco, where it is poorly served by municipal water and sewage services. The ground is subsiding due to over pumping of groundwater for non-local use, while the local Acapol open air sewage canal is prone to flooding in the wet summer months.
The team’s proposal cites the fact that the Valle de Calcho yearly rainfall exceeds their current groundwater demand as reasoning that a DWM program could be deployed to make the region’s water supply completely self-sufficient. They write that the VDC is well situated for such a project because it has “…available open spaces outside and inside the urbanized areas… individual property ownership (90% of households hold tenure of their property), and social cohesion (which is important for building capacities on the individual and communal level).” These advantages would aid in the implementation of the proposed green roofs and street level interventions for water retainment, as well as the partial recreation of Lake Chalco as a rainwater collection basin and source of irrigation for Chinampa agriculture. All of these methods together could allow the VDC to disconnect from the municipal water supply, decommission the Acapol canal, and end ground subsidence while improving the local population’s living conditions, political agency and food security. However, in order to implement such a plan, the central water management agency must be willing to relinquish power to local leaders, while locals must mobilize to cooperatively maintain the system.
Another example of a regenerative design success story is The Xochimilco Ecological Park. Xochimilco opened in 1993 after a decade of restoration work by the city to remedy pollution and ecological degradation caused by 20th century urbanization. The park is in the south of the city and holds over 215 hectares of historic Chinampa farms and wetlands, which are among the last remnants of the original lake system still in existence. While environmental conditions are far from perfect, Xochimilco has become a major tourist attraction due to its lush canals and nature trails, and is an important home to wildlife like the rare Axolotl Salamander. Perhaps the Axolotl is a good mascot for regenerative design in Mexico City, as it possesses’ the ability to fully regenerate it’s limbs after an attack. Indeed, the community enthusiasm and commercial success of Xochimilco represent a giant missed opportunity where the rest of the historic waterways were destroyed.
What makes Xochimilco particularly unique is the continued cultivation of the Chinampa fields, despite economic pressure to move to modern agriculture. According to the 2013 paper “Environmental and socio-economic sustainability of Chinampas (raised beds) in Xochimilco, Mexico City,” Chinampas have proven to be economically viable and environmentally superior in comparison to modern agriculture. Rural farmers in the Valley of Mexico are faced with enormous pressure to make the switch from traditional Chinampa cultivation of food crops to greenhouse cultivation of flowers to sell in markets, which is more profitable and offers greater opportunity for social mobility. However, the externalities of greenhouse cultivation, which relies on external input of energy and agrochemical use, weigh heavily in the equation. Chinampas, on the other hand, are generally self-sufficient, while providing a variety of ecosystem services such as canopy cover, habitat creation, and food stability.
Looking forward, it will be important to educate and incentivize farmers to continue traditional Chinampa cultivation for the regenerative benefits it provides. Indeed, in order to maintain any regenerative ecological system, it is vital to include all of the local population as stakeholders in the system. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening in the case of Xochimilco. The ecological preserve is continually threatened by unauthorized slum development that is encroaching on it’s shores, often built at the benefit illegal developers and under the nose of corrupt local officials. When the government does intervene, they move swiftly to evict the slum dwellers, who are often naïve to their situation. The government conducts these evictions in the name of environmental protection, “but activists say the relocation alternatives have not been realistic or dignified, and that the government has not offered training or education programmes to teach residents how to decrease their ecological footprint,” according to The Guardian.
Instead of eviction, demolitions, and other authoritarian moves, the government should instead try to foster a sense of ownership in their environment and turn them into stakeholders rather than criminals. If relocation is absolutely necessary, it should be to a place nearby, with opportunities to invest in their environment. Unfortunately, because of the low political value of such projects, there is little incentive for political leaders to invest in these communities.
A similar and potentially game-changing project remains unbuilt for similar reasons, despite being supported by various urban leaders in Mexico City for decades. The vision to protect and restore Lake Texcoco as something resembling its natural state has been posited by architects and urbanists in various iterations for half a century. In the 1970’s, Civil Engineer and National Autonomous University (UNAM) rector Nabor Carrillo spearheaded the effort to protect what remained of Lake Texcoco from over exploitation and urban sprawl. While the majority of his efforts to preserve the lake failed, there is today a moderately sized reservoir within the Texcoco lakebed that bears his name.
In the 1990’s, architect Teodoro Gonzalez de León, who supported Carrillo’s efforts in the 1970’s, joined Alberto Kalach in the publication of their proposal titled “Vuelta a la Ciudad Lacustre,” or “The Return to the Lacustrine City.” Their proposal sought to combine the need for a new international airport with the opportunity to restore Lake Texcoco and reforest the valley. In their plan, the city would refill Lake Texcoco and reconnect the historic lakes via canals that crisscrossed the entire city. The proposal was meant to coincide with widespread regenerative adaptions to the Mexico City urban fabric such as planting bioswales and vertical gardens. The new International Airport would be built on an artificial island in the middle of the newly-filled Lake Texcoco, which would appease the central government and could give the project enough political capital to get off the ground. Additionally, development along the shores of the lake would bring private investment into the equation. Despite initial enthusiasm, this project, like Carrillo’s, has been brushed aside by unwilling and short-sighted policy makers in favor of more status quo drainage projects.
Almost certainly, one reason for the city’s unwillingness to invest in Lake Texcoco is that it is located in the poor, dry, and polluted eastern edge of the city. Alberto Kalach has mused that such projects would be taken more seriously if the richer western communities stood to directly benefit. Indeed, it is now apparent that the only project the city is willing to undertake in the bed of Lake Texcoco is the construction of their new international airport. While this airport location was initially proposed by Kalach, the airport was meant to be the centerpiece of a grand ecological park. Instead, it is slated to be constructed as a stand-alone piece of infrastructure, designed by international Architect Norman Foster. If constructed as planned, it would condemn any hope of ever restoring Lake Texcoco in the foreseeable future.
It seems that political short-sightedness and capitalism will once again work against Tlaloc’s life-giving waters in the Valley of Mexico. It is all too likely that without rebalancing the city, Tlaloc will continue to smite the people of Mexico City with ever worsening shortages and floods. If it is not out of spiritual reverence, or Ecological Citizenship, perhaps it will be financial and political upheaval that will finally catalyze a change in the trajectory of Mexico City’s water management.