Water management is one of the most serious problems that Mexico City faces today. Flooding, water pollution, and lack of potablity affect not only the inhabitants of the Distrito Federal, but also those in surrounding regions. RaĂșl Totolero, winner of the United Nationâs National Journalism Prize, gives us a grim yet hopeful look at this grey valley that was once green.
Photos by Janet Jarman, Text by RaĂșl Tortolero
Facing the bathroom mirror, my mouth filled with toothpaste, hands damp, I read a text message on my cell phone. âWhatâs up? Flooded again? You chilangos and your sewage, not very state of the art! Haha,â jokes my friend CĂ©sar. CĂ©sar is an economist from Monterrey, an enclave in the north of Mexico that treats nearly 100 percent of its residential wastewater. CĂ©sar alludes to the devastating floods that occurred in the east zone of the capital in the beginning of February 2010. He knows, moreover, that we chilangosâresidents of Mexico Cityâare behind the times when it comes to waste treatment. Currently, just ten percent of sewage is treated. But the government of the capital is making important changes.
I spit out the white toothpaste bubbles. Every time I see those suds flee down the drain, I remember seeing the mountain-like formations of oily foam, more than ten meters high, that bathe the corn, alfalfa, and beans in the fields in the Valle de Mezquital in Hidalgo state, 60 kilometers north of my city.
For more than a hundred years, the weathered campesinos of Mezquital have lived with the shit of the residents of Mexico City. For them, sewage is everything. The organic matter has fertilized their lands. However, despite suffering from frequent infections, they donât realize that the water carries a frightening load of bacteria and heavy metals, or that it erodes their communal farms.
Teeth brushed, I urinate. I activate the first valve on my toilet (the second is for poop), and I feel guilty. I do not know what Freud or Jung would think of this but I want to shout out the window, in the name of all chilangos, asking the people of Valle del Mezquital for their forgiveness. Several weeks have passed since I visited the valley and smelled the air there. It made me feel sick to see what we have done to the EndhĂł Reservoir: a black mirror of death that has been rotting since 1975, when the Central Outlet Tunnel began to discharge its sewage there.
That pipeline, also called the âdeep sewerâof the city, is now half-blocked with garbage and decayed from lack of maintenance. At present, its drainage capacity is unreliable and occasionally insufficient; this is what causes sewage to back up and flood the barrios. Marcelo Ebrard, the Mayor of Mexico City, has begun repairs on the sewer, which before his tenure had been neglected for years.
I text a response to my friend CĂ©sar. âHere 18 mil people spat out their suds, and we flooded ourselves, and in Mezkital everything is eroding, dudeâŠâ
Now that this disaster has overwhelmed us, we allâcitizens and governmentsâmust work together to correct it. We must reprogram our brains. Bathing and washing everything the old-fashioned way, without polluting, would have its benefits: we could use lechuguilla, a type of agave that produces suds, or wash ourselves with the amole tuber. The latter was shown to me in the red mountains of Zacatecas by my uncle Panchito, a 76-year-old-campesino. After digging them up, I used the amoles to bathe and wash my clothing. It made me itch, but I didnât contaminate so much as an ant.
Pre-Columbian Legacy. The Aztecs, the residents of the Valle de MĂ©xico before the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, were excellent stewards of the land.
The creators of the warrior orders of Jaguars and Eaglesâwho used to prepare themselves for battle with long fasts and by piercing the ears, tongue, and penisâlived together with their watery blue-turquoise environment without destroying it. For hundreds of years they farmed on their chinampas, small man-made rectangles of fertile soil raised above the shallow lakes. âBeing over the water, the humidity impregnated the chinampas, which facilitated irrigation and resulted in enormous yields of squash, beans, corn, other vegetables and flowers,â explains Doctor NicolĂĄs SĂĄnchez. Such practices made agriculture, and life, more sustainable.
In Aztec times the rainy seasons would create a 2,000 square kilometer expanse of water that united five lakes: Xochimilco, Chalco, Xaltocan, and Zumpango, and TexcocoâTexcoco the largest, the only one with brackish water, and home to the islet where the capitol city of TenochtitlĂĄn was located. There they lived, fished and traded from narrow canoes, and apparently coexisted with their environment without depleting it.
Then, as now, floods were a part of life. In order to manage flooding and keep the Texcocoâs brackish waters from mixing with the freshwater lakes, in 1450 the inhabitants of TenochtitlĂĄn constructed the NezahualcĂłyotl Levee, a 22-km long dike that controlled the waters of Texcoco.
When the Spanish arrived, they found it more expedient to turn the watery expanse into desert, in order to facilitate political control. The Spaniards began to look for ways to drain the lakes. Thanks to their successful efforts (and a monstrous centralism), of the original five lakes only parts of Xochimilco and Zumpango remain. The scraps of Texcoco that survive are maintained, in part, with treated water. Although there is a project to restore the lake and build a park around it, the majority of the lakebed has been drained and built over.
Seen from Google Earth, the region is now covered by a scab of concrete that prevents water from recharging the overtapped aquifers below. Instead, in a departure from the ancient hydrologic cycle, the water rolls through the streets and out of the city, gathering speed and contaminants as it goes.
During the 20th century, a variety of drainage mechanisms were constructed to deal with this run-off. President Porfirio DĂaz oversaw the construction of the enormous Gran Canal de DesagĂŒe, which began operating in 1900. It was eventually joined by the West Outlet Tunnel, in 1962, and the 50-km long Central Outlet Tunnel, in 1975.
While these were important in their time, all of these major drainage tunnels have been overwhelmed by the consequences of population growth. In 1975, 8 million people lived in the valley; in 2010 this figure reached 18 million. The quantity of wastewater is much higher today than when the drainage tunnels were built, and garbage and neglect have clogged the sewer system. No one wants to think about what would happen if the Central Outlet Tunnel, a sort of central nervous system for the city, were to fail. Current reports from the Universidad Nacional AutĂłnoma de MĂ©xico warn that problems with the tunnel could cause sewage to flood the headquarters of the national government, the national palace, the legislative seat, San LĂĄzaro, the courts, the financial district, the city government building, the international airport, innumerable temples, colonial jewels and museums, and large-scale housing in the historic city center, AragĂłn, Iztacalco, Ciudad Deportiva, Ciudad NezahualcĂłyotl, and Ciudad Axteca.
To prevent this nightmare scenario, the government is building the East Outlet Tunnelâwhich some call the most important construction project in Mexicoâs history. Seven meters in diameter and 62 kilometers long, the sewage tunnel would connect to the waste treatment mega-plant in Atotonilco de Tula, in Hidalgo, due to open in 2012. While there is general consensus that this huge new sewer will prevent catastrophic floods, the project has its critics. The Secretary of Water and Public Works for MĂ©xico State, David Korenfeld Federman, has said that âthe East Outlet is another point of exit that will reduce the possibility of flooding, but it does not solve certain root problems that cause sewage issues in the metropolitan zone.â On the other end of the spectrum, President Felipe CalderĂłn has said that the tunnel will end all floods in 2012.
What exactly is wastewater? Every day, each of 18,000,000 inhabitants of Mexico City and the neighboring municipalities in MĂ©xico State use more than 300 liters of potable water for drinking, washing, and evacuating organic waste. All this solid wasteâ725 million cubic meters annuallyâwashes into Hidalgo in wastewater that has been polluted with nitrogen, phosphorus, fats, oils, fecal coliform bacteria, parasitic worm eggs, and heavy metals.
Research at the Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn has detailed the harmful effects of heavy metals on the human organism. Prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause skin and lung cancer. Cadmium interferes with the endocrine system and damages the kidneys and key enzymes. Lead affects the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, and high concentrations of lead damage sperm. Mercury is highly neurotoxic and can easily cross biological membranes, including skin.
As the wastewater flows along or in the ground, heavy metals may collect in the soil or be absorbed by plants, where they are incorporated into food webs and eventually pass into the atmosphere through volatilization. They can also move through surface and ground water.
Which brings us back to the Valle de Mezquital. For at least the last century, these wastewaters have been used to irrigate crops in the Valle de Mezquital, home to twenty-six municipalities and 700,000 people, most of whom are farmers. It is there that the hydrological apocalypse takes its most appalling form. Once beautiful rivers are now filled with mountains of foam containing soap, grease, oil, heavy metals, and harmful bacteria. Lakes and reservoirs rot. Cattle graze amongst the hairy, greenish blowflies and fetid odors to which their owners have become accustomed. Because of all this, current laws forbid farming here, with exceptions for corn (which does not grow at ground level) and alfalfa (which is not for human consumption). The Hidalgo campesinos, however, grow contraband cabbage, beets, broccoli, and flowers and sell this produce back to the Distrito Federal, where families and restaurants consume it in vast quantities.
Meanwhile, Hidalgo is left with severely eroded soil and high rates of skin, eye, and gastrointestinal disorders. According to specialized studies from the Universidad de Navarra about pathogenic agents in the Hidalgo water, the polluted water can cause cholera, typhus, dysentery, amoebic dysentery, gastroenteritis, hepatitis, and polio.
Between 1989 and 1977, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Mexicoâs National Institute of Nutrition conducted epidemiological studies in the Valle de Mezquital to assess current World Health Organization regulations regarding the safe use of wastewater in agriculture. They found that residents who ate onions, tomatoes, and green chilies that had been irrigated with wastewater had higher rates of diarrhea and Ascaris (giant intestinal roundworm) infestations.
The Valle de Mezquitalâ just steps from the Toltec ruins at Tulaâis further polluted by cement factories, lime kilns, and an oil refinery.
The positive side of this story, if one exists, is that the organic material in the wastewater has fertilized the valley. There are even those that defend the wastewaterâfor them, the role of sewage in turning a semi-desert into a vegetable garden outweighs its unhealthy and unsustainable side. We have forgotten that in pre-Hispanic times water was treated as a âbeingâ because of the benefits that it provided. (See, for example, the worship of TlĂĄloc, the Aztec god of rain and fertility.) These days, thanks to predatory capitalism, water is seen merely as a commodity to be consumed and discarded.
Megasolutions to megaproblems
The government of the Distrito Federal has made efforts to improve environmental quality. They promote âgreen roofsâ and environmentally friendly means of transportation like bicycles and buses. But when it comes to wastewater management, they have a ways to go. In order to accelerate progress, federal, state, and local governments have created the Water Sustainability Program of the Valle de MĂ©xico.
The water sustainability program aims to reduce the overexploitation of aquifers, promote conservation and rational use of drinking water, guarantee potable water, facilitate prompt evacuation of rainwater in order to prevent flooding, and construct the aforementioned East Outlet Tunnel and the Atotonilco wastewater treatment plant in Hidalgo. These two monumental facilities, both scheduled to open in 2012, will be among the largest of their kinds in the world.
The plan, coordinated by the National Water Commission (Conagua), also considers the possibility of constructing other, smaller treatment plants elsewhere in the State of MĂ©xico. By itself, the Atotonilco plant will treat 60 percent of the waters of Valle de MĂ©xico; adding the other waste treatment facilities would create enough capacity to clean 100 percent of wastewater.
It is a huge step forward, a step as big as the progression from bicycle to airplane, in its way, and indispensable, if late in coming. Close to $4.23 billion will be invested in the project. Dr. Ernesto Espino, one of the countryâs foremost water sanitation experts, a member of the National Water Commission, and the manager of these treatment plants projects, explains that the 158-hectare Atotonilco Plant will be one of the largest in the world. âIt will deal with in a comprehensive way the problems associated with the management of limited water resources in the Valle de MĂ©xico,â he assures me, adding that the plant will benefit the 700,000 inhabitants and 83,000 hectares of irrigated land of the Valle de Mezquital.
Of course, the project raises doubts. Wouldnât it be better to treat sewage in each municipality? Why pump the wastewater from Mexico City to Hidalgo, 62-km away? Dr. Espino responds that, because the wastewater will primarily be reused in the Mezquital Valley, it is better to collect and treat it there. âIn fact, the size and location of the Atotonilco Plant was selected for its optimal location for construction, its distance from urban areas that could be affected by environmental problems, its railroad access for the supply of chlorine, and its proximity to banks of limestone and gullies for sludge disposal,â he argues.
While it seems logical to treat wastewater before it leaves each municipality, constructing a sanitation plant in each location would present disadvantages, Espino explains.Â Barriers include the high cost of land, odor pollution, the risks associated with chlorine use in urban areas, the greater costs of treatment while the small plants are constructed, and the limited possibilities for disposing of treated water without the risk of later recontamination.
VĂctor Diaz, a citizen who lives near Tula, Hidalgo, believes that the Atotonilco treatment plant project will benefit his region. At a forum convened by the Tolteca Citizensâ Committee about the benefits of the treatment plant, Diaz called on fellow participants not to forget the valleyâs history as a sewage dump. Although local agriculture benefited during the decades the valley was used as Mexico Cityâs septic tank, their health paid the price. For that reason, he called for the clean up of EndhĂł Reservoir,Â âa hell of pollution.â Diaz also asked for proper management of the sludge and requested that the treated water be given to local farms and industry rather than carried back to the Distrito Federal as is presumably planned.
Although sustainable wastewater management solutions are still a long way off, the city has finally begun to move in the right direction. Perhaps when I use the bathroom in 2012, I will no longer want to climb to the rooftop and shout my apologies.