Mexico City’s Last Living River

An offering of fruit and flowers sits on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Such offerings are typically made only near clean water, a resource in short supply in Mexico City.

An offering of fruit and flowers sits on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Such offerings are typically made only near clean water, a resource in short supply in Mexico City.

For the last year and a half I have spent a great deal of time looking at the chronic water shortages in Mexico City and how it affects people living in North America’s biggest city. In the course of this work I discovered the tragic story of the Rio Magdalena and what it represents for the future of Mexico’s water woes.

Once a city lined with so many canals that it was often compared to Venice, any contemporary visitor to the Mexican capital will notice a conspicuous absence of water. There are no rivers flowing anywhere in the immense urban sprawl because they are all dead — which is to say they are too polluted to support life. All but the Rio Magdalena.

So when Foreign Policy reached out to me looking for ideas for their issue on climate change and the environment, the story of Mexico City’s last living river was a perfect match. For a week I walked the length of this river from its source to the urban sprawl at its terminus. What I found was deeply unsettling: a beautiful river supporting all manner of flora and fauna turned into a tepid trickle of sludge more or less as soon as it made contact with ‘civilization’.

Horses drink from the Rio Magdalena and graze on the grass that grows on its banks. As the last living river in Mexico City, the micro climate around the river is rare for the area.

Horses drink from the Rio Magdalena and graze on the grass that grows on its banks. As the last living river in Mexico City, the micro climate around the river is rare for the area.

A father and son cross the Rio Magdalena, a popular weekend destination for Mexico City urbanites.

A father and son cross the Rio Magdalena, a popular weekend destination for Mexico City urbanites.

A pair of old running shoes hang from the trees along the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Though the natural environment is far cleaner in the surrounding hills than in the city itself, human waste and interference is the greatest threat to the river.

A pair of old running shoes hang from the trees along the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Though the natural environment is far cleaner in the surrounding hills than in the city itself, human waste and interference is the greatest threat to the river.

A tree's eroded roots are covered in plastic that has washed ashore along the banks of the Rio Magdalena.

A tree’s eroded roots are covered in plastic that has washed ashore along the banks of the Rio Magdalena.

The Rio Magdalena passes under a series of bridges in the Fuentes del Pedregal neighbourhood of Mexico City. The deeper into the city the river goes, the more heavily polluted it becomes.

The Rio Magdalena passes under a series of bridges in the Fuentes del Pedregal neighbourhood of Mexico City. The deeper into the city the river goes, the more heavily polluted it becomes.

This entry was posted in Blog, Central America, Environmental, Mexico, Water.

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