Since leaving Cambodia to base myself in Mexico City last spring, I have been asked the same two questions repeatedly — why Mexico, and what are you working on there? Conveniently, the answers to both are more or less the same: water. Of course there are many other reasons for changing continents, and I am doing a variety of non-water related photojournalism and videography, but my primary focus for the last six months has been on the city’s water starved low income neighbourhoods.
The second largest city in the world, no one is exactly sure exactly how many people actually live in Mexico City, but a good guess for the greater metropolitan area is somewhere around 24 million. Only Tokyo is home to more, and its high-tech, hyper-efficient organization makes it an entirely different experience to the functional chaos of Mexico City. With such a staggering population and its under-funded and aging infrastructure, it is in some ways unsurprising that the city is running out of water. Al Jazeera, quoting author Jose Estiban Castro, reported that the city’s water usage average per capita is around 300 litres per day, which is around double what many European cities use (but less still than the American average), and when multiplied across the tens of millions of citizens the total quantity of water needed every day is mind boggling. With this figure in mind it is actually quite impressive that they are able come close to meeting their water needs, especially considering that a devastating earthquake in 1985 caused extensive damage to the underground water infrastructure — much of which still hasn’t been fully repaired.
In fact, if you were to pay a visit to Mexico City and head to some of the trendier colonias, defined by coffee shops, bars, and beautiful parks, you might not notice that there was a water shortage at all. It is only when you venture into some of the sprawling low income suburbs that encircle the city that you realize just how scarce water can be for working class chilangos, as residents of the capital are referred to in the rest of the country.
Iztapalapa, the city’s most populous borough, is such a place. Home to nearly 2 million and possessing a reputation for high crime rates, Iztapalapa is a different beast than the downtown core that helped earn Mexico City the top spot on The New York Times’ list of cities to visit in 2016. During one visit to the extreme edge of the borough, I was warned by a man I was interviewing not to enter certain vacant buildings because there were often gang-related kidnap victims held inside. In many such neighbourhoods, to have running household water is considered a luxury. In the community of Mixcoatl, for example, the only thing that comes out of the taps with any regularity is a kind of empty gurgling sound. Residents consider themselves lucky if it is followed by actual water more than a few times per month.
The first time I went to Iztapalapa it was on the roof of a government water tanker, known as a pipa. From my high vantage point I watched as people ran out of their houses at the sound of the truck’s roaring engine. The pipa would then reverse as close as possible to the person’s house and a crew member would drag a heavy rubber hose inside to fill up whatever kind of vessels they had. More prosperous residents (or those lucky enough to have skilled construction workers in the family) built high capacity underground cisterns to store the delivered water in. When coupled with a small electric pump, these cisterns allow people to have functioning taps in their kitchens, giving the illusion of a functioning public water service.
Those without cisterns relied on a hodgepodge collection of plastic barrels and buckets. Once I even saw someone using a baby’s bathtub as a container of last resort, so desperate were they to make sure they secured every drop of water possible. When I asked why they didn’t just fill up the biggest containers they had and then flag down another truck when they were empty, I was told it might be as much as three weeks before another pipa passed. A family of four, even if each person was using just half of the citywide average, would need more than 4000 litres of water per week. Looking at the size of the vessels some of the people were using, it was clear that they were not even close to being able to store weeks worth of water at, even at one quarter the normal rations.
One woman I spoke to told me that she hadn’t been able to do a load of laundry for almost a month because her cistern was dry. Bucket showers had to be taken sparingly and the bather often had to stand inside a plastic tub so that the water could be saved and used to either flush the toilet or wash the floor. Dishes were piled high in many homes until a sufficient quantity had built up to justify filling the sink.
The problem was not limited to Iztapalapa, nor just to Mexico City for that matter. In the Ecatepec, a 30 minute drive out of the city into Mexico State, I met Yolonda Carillo, who told me that at one point she had gotten so desperate for water that she and her neighbours had essentially kidnapped a pipa crew after being told they would not be receiving a delivery that day. They then called the supervisor at the water depot and demanded that another pipa be dispatched to them or they would not let the crew leave. A stout, motherly woman who fed me tacos and homemade guacamole me after having spoken to me for less than an hour, she was not what I thought a kidnapper would look like. But as she said, water is life, and the lack of it makes people unpredictable.
I realized these shortages affected nearly every aspect of people’s lives, and provided a frightening example of what an increasingly waterless future could look like. Mexico City has already depleted the vast majority of its underground aquifers and has to pipe most its water from river and lake systems, some of which are hundreds of kilometres away. The fact that the city is located on top of a 2,200 meter plateau makes the process of pumping water from so far away an engineering marvel in itself. But with roughly 40% of this water being wasted due to leakages in the pipes, the city’s high usage rates, and the unfortunate reality that the needs of poor citizens are a lower priority than those of the rich, the current system is a temporary fix, not a long term solution.
As the world continues to urbanize at an irreversible pace and as freshwater supplies dwindle globally, the looming danger for the world’s megacities can be seen in Mexico. This is only an overview of the situation and it is far from complete. It represents just the beginning of what will be a three year investigation into water, which, when finished, will include photography, short videos, and essays. The more time I spend in these communities, the more I am coming to realize how terrible it is to live in an urban environment without water. Yet when I’m done I hope to provide insights into possible solutions to this problem, and not only draw attention to the problem itself.
The future of humanity is in our cities, but as I have learned in Mexico City, without water urban life is untenable.
If anyone knows of innovative urban water programs or solution based initiatives, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.