Mexico City’s problem is political

Photo by: Jose Francisco Del Valle Mojica

Cecilia Tortajada

UBM’s FUTURE CITIES | October 31, 2012

Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, faces surmounting challenges to provide clean water, wastewater, and sanitation services to its population.

Until December 2005, Mexico City was part of the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City, which also included 18 municipalities of the neighbouring state of Mexico. However, the region has grown so much that it is now part of the Metropolitan Area of the Mexico Valley, a much larger region that includes all 58 municipalities of the state of Mexico and one municipality of the state of Hidalgo. This region has a total of 29 million people, roughly 26 percent of the population at the national level.

The situation is very serious in the overall Mexico Valley. Problems include increasing population growths; areas that are subsiding; aquifers that are depleting; inadequate, insufficient, and badly maintained water and wastewater infrastructures; almost inexistent treatment of wastewater; increasingly severe floods; and wasteful use of the resource by all social and economic sectors in the Valley. The list can continue on and on.

One would wonder if institutions are not capable of improving the situation, if there are no solutions at all, or if the city and its population have been left to their fate?

As you may guess, the multiple water and land use-related problems were not addressed on time and they have become too complex to be solved in the short-term or even in the medium- or long-term. Both Federal and Mexico City level Institutions mostly react, and then act very slowly.

An unacceptable example is the recurrent serious floods in certain parts of the Valley with storms, and increasingly more frequently, with wastewater, due to very poor maintenance of wastewater infrastructure and also to the cleaning of water bodies. The net result is the deterioration in the quality of life of the population. Politicians continue neglecting the extent of the problems, with some of them blaming these increasingly serious floods on climate change rather than on poor planning, management, and governance.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure is so old, and has been maintained so badly, that it is actually an achievement that it is still working at all. For those of us who have visited the facilities of the offices directly responsible for the humongous task of managing drainage and sewage in the city (known as kilómetro zero, or zero kilometre), it is truly surprising to realise that an office that holds such importance for the city’s survival is basically neglected by the government. The only explanation as to why the drainage and sewage systems work, at whatever level they work, is because of the will and the spirit of the individuals, not the institution.

Despite the serious water-related problems facing the city and its population, Mexico City is the capital of the country and its most important economic centre. As such, it will not run out of water because resources will be provided at whatever cost. It will also not disappear beneath rain and wastewater, because of its size and topography. Water transfers from farther distances have been in the pipeline for years in order to provide more clean water to a system that is still inefficient. Examples include the implementation of the Stage IV of the Cutzamala System or water transfers from the Amacuzac, Tecolutla, and Atoyac rivers.

In this case, it is calculated that water would have to be pumped to a height of 1,825 m, requiring a generating capacity of 4,000 MW. The annual electric power consumption for this system is estimated to be 5 percent of the annual national electric power production, representing 16.5 million barrels of oil per year. One wonders what would be the debt of the local government and its population if such projects were implemented.

Nevertheless, for a city of such importance and with a population of so many millions of people, policy and management decisions should be more pragmatic and less politicised. Institutions should be working with the full backing of the three layers of government. People deserve a good quality of life, and this requires efficient provision of good services. At this moment, services in Mexico City leave much to be desired.

Cecilia Tortajada, President, Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico.