Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis

Posted on by Jeremy Daggett

The harrowing tale by Michael Kimmelman at the NYT:

When the Grand Canal was completed, at the end of the 1800s, it was Mexico City’s Brooklyn Bridge, a major feat of engineering and a symbol of civic pride: 29 miles long, with the ability to move tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per second. It promised to solve the flooding and sewage problems that had plagued the city for centuries.

Only it didn’t, pretty much from the start. The canal was based on gravity. And Mexico City, a mile and a half above sea level, was sinking, collapsing in on itself.

It still is, faster and faster, and the canal is just one victim of what has become a vicious cycle. Always short of water, Mexico City keeps drilling deeper for more, weakening the ancient clay lake beds on which the Aztecs first built much of the city, causing it to crumble even further.

When he says faster and faster, he means it. Some parts of the city are sinking at a rate of 9 inches/year. And this is what happens over time:

An element of magical realism plays into Mexico City’s sinking. At a roundabout along the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s wide downtown boulevard, the gilded Angel of Independence, a symbol of Mexican pride, looks over a sea of traffic from the top of a tall Corinthian column.

Tourists snap pictures without realizing that when Mexico’s president cut the ribbon for the column in 1910, the monument sat on a sculptured base reached by climbing nine shallow steps. But over the decades, the whole neighborhood around the monument sank, like a receding ocean at low tide, gradually marooning the Angel. Fourteen large steps eventually had to be added to the base so that the monument still connected to the street.

The city’s sinking is connected to an ongoing water emergency. How Mexico City residents get clean water is an engineering marvel. But any given day there is 20% of the population that can’t count on it. And when the city’s population is over 20 million, 20% is immense.

We’re only starting to see the effects of the last several decades of urbanization. There are bound to be many more stories like this in the near future. This is a new type of water crisis. I can’t help but wonder what role non-profits like Charity: Water, who have made it their mission to give access to clean water to rural populations, will play in addressing it.

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