Mexico City

Defending Life and Water

The struggle over clean drinking water taps into a conflict at the heart of life in Mexico City

It’s a Friday evening in Coyoacán, Mexico City, and on the busy thoroughfare of Avenida Aztecas, a dozen neighbors mill around a tent erected just off the curb. They crowd around plastic chairs and mustard-colored couches. The back third of the tent has been turned into a makeshift kitchen, where a few people have prepared food for anyone who wants it: red rice, hard-boiled eggs, beans, sausage, sharply spicy red salsa. A spattering of university students and tattooed twenty- and thirty-somethings mingle with their elders, who they refer to with the honorifics don or doña. Commanding a particular degree of respect is Doña Fili, a tiny, gray-haired woman in her mid-eighties. She can’t be more than five feet tall, but her presence commands immediate respect, and people jump up to greet her.

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The tent’s walls flap as cars speed by. In large hand lettering, the street-facing wall reads: “PLANTÓN EN DEFENSA DEL AGUA”—“Sit-in in defense of water.” It’s April, and the sit-in is in its seventh month. The Asamblea General de los Pueblos, Barrios, Colonias y Pedregales de Coyoacán has been occupying the space in protest at what they believe is an environmental atrocity. A tall metal barrier separates the sidewalk from the adjacent property, Avenida Aztecas 215. On the site, the developer Quiero Casa is constructing a new building: a condominium with 377 apartments, meant to house over 1,700 inhabitants. According to the members of the Asamblea General, though, Quiero Casa has been systematically draining millions of gallons of water, flowing from a natural spring, into the sewer every day for over two years.

A hammering starts on the other side of the barrier, and Doña Fili launches into a chant: “Va a caer, va a caer, Quiero Casa va a caer”—“It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall, Quiero Casa is going to fall.” The others join in. Above them, hand-painted banners and protest signs hang from the tent’s walls. A spray-painted poster of Emiliano Zapata, the iconic Mexican Revolution-era figure who’s come to symbolize solidarity with peasants, indigenous people and the poor, stares out from the wall: “Aquí el pueblo manda, y el gobierno obedece”—“Here the people give orders, and the government obeys.” A painting of a brown-skinned woman cupping a plume of water proclaims, “No secarán el río de lucha que nace en los Pedregales”—“They will not dry up the river of struggle that is born in the Pedregales.”

As in most neighborhoods in Mexico City, residents of the Pedregales—or rock fields, as these neighborhoods built over lava rock refer to themselves—suffer from lack of water access. They turn on the taps, and nothing comes out. The Pedregales suspect foul play: a combination of corruption, racism and institutional ineptitude that diverts water to wealthy neighborhoods and luxury developments. But unlike in most other neighborhoods, those in the Pedregales believe they have liquid evidence.

Two years ago, construction workers on the site of Aztecas 215 excavated a previously unknown natural spring as they dug out the building’s parking garage. Clear water flooded the site and it flowed down the street like a river. The spring released 76 liters of water per second, and a study by geologists from the National Autonomous University (UNAM) found that the water came from an aquifer and could be easily purified for drinking.

It arrived in torrents. First, the construction workers let it flow freely into the street. Aztecas 215 sits on a hill, and soon the water rushed down the street in a river. A photo of the spring’s early days shows water gushing down the street, uncontained by the several industrial-sized hoses snaking out of the construction site.

Of course, the neighbors noticed. They filed complaints with the city. Geologist Oscar Escolero Fuentes, from UNAM’s Institute of Geology, conducted studies on the water to determine its source. In one he found that the water came from a previously unknown underground aquifer, not, as the developer Quiero Casa and the city had variously claimed, from wastewater drains or septic tanks.

Despite this, the developer started draining the water into the sewage system. So the neighbors decided to form an assembly to formalize their strategy and demands. Several dozen residents—young and old, laborers and students, shopowners and professors—formed the Asamblea General. They came primarily from the neighborhoods of Santo Domingo, Pueblo de los Reyes and Ajusco, all sharing Avenida Aztecas as a border.

On April 29, 2016, the Asamblea installed their first sit-in outside Aztecas 215. Quiero Casa stopped construction on the site because, it said, the sit-in posed a security risk. In that time, the water continued to flow, and the excavation flooded with water. On a Monday morning in April 2018, Don Vicente, another elder member of the Asamblea, spends part of his shift at the tent showing me photos of the result. Behind the barrier from the street, just feet from where we’re seated, the site is filled with a deep green pond. All manner of flora and fauna had sprung up. Swallows and cardinals made it their home. Two ducks swim in the water. In that time, Doña Fili tells me, the high walls had a tiny window that the neighborhood’s children stopped to look through. “They saw a paradise being born,” she says.

In late September, the Secretary of Water (SACMEX) and the Environmental and Zoning Authority (PAOT) come to an agreement with Quiero Casa conceding them control over the water, provided that they construct a structure beneath the building that would allow the water to continue its natural course through the aquifer undisrupted. Documents on the PAOT’s website detail the plans for the system. That December, construction began again.

Oscar Escolero Fuentes, the professor in UNAM’s geology department who conducted the initial study of the spring, says that this kind of structure is fairly common in buildings with deep excavations, particularly those with below-ground parking garages. The report calls it an “insulating belt.” Its purposes are two-fold, Escolero says: to manipulate the course of the water and to provide the security needed to build aboveground. Usually, of course, these structures are built before the building itself is constructed.

On December 5, 2016, between 3:30 and 4:00 in the morning, riot police came to evict the Asamblea from their sit-in. The next day, Quiero Casa resumed construction at Aztecas 215 once again. The Asamblea continued with their regular activities—protests and actions at various governmental offices. Around March or April, they noticed that workers from the Aztecas 215 site had opened up the street to install tubing connecting to the sewage. According to the Asamblea, they’d opened up the drainage system and expanded it from 14 to 22 inches. Quiero Casa claimed this was to accommodate the increased waste that the hundreds of condominium residents would eventually produce. When the workers installed that, though, they also installed two new manholes in the street, through which is visible a rush of clear water. Nearly every day, someone broadcasts a video on Facebook Live filming the water rushing through the channel. They claim that the water is coming from the site, and that the workers in Aztecas 215 can reduce the water flow when functionaries visit to check the site.

Members of the Asamblea insist that there’s no way Quiero Casa could have properly installed the isolating belt to return the water to its natural course. To install such a structure beneath the foundations, they would have had to stop all construction on the condos, which, the Asamblea says, they didn’t do. Rather, they insist that the developer simply installed pipes to drain the spring water directly into the sewage, with pumps to control the flow of the water. Without properly installing the isolating belt, Escolero says, this would be the only option to control its flow beneath the building: to constantly pump it out of the earth around the foundation and drain it

The dingy white tent has become a de facto community center, public kitchen and living room of the community. Two or three people keep guard at all times. They sleep on the dingy mustard-colored couches, cook over the makeshift range and thumb through books from the small library they’ve accumulated. The Asamblea’s weekly Friday-night meetings take place in the tent, rain or shine. Visitors from across the city and country stop by several times a week, too, often activists involved in similar struggles or students learning about water in the city.

Santo Domingo, Pueblo de los Reyes and Ajusco lie in Delegation Coyoacán, towards the southeast of the city, about a forty-minute metro ride from the city’s Historic Center, tucked just behind UNAM, the National Autonomous University. They consist of low-roofed and brightly painted cinderblock homes, interspersed with small produce stores and corner tienditas. Their residents are predominantly working-class, and many are descended from those who originally built the area in the ‘60s. These neighborhoods’ water access tends to be spotty. A friend of mine who recently moved to Ajusco estimates that the taps in his house produce water maybe twenty percent of the time. The rest of the time, he and his neighbors rely on water from their tinacos—the massive water jugs most residents have on their roofs, which they refill every so often when water trucks, or pipas, pass by.

In the Pedregales, Aztecas 215 makes residents’ water struggle particularly visible, but it is far from unique. Across all of Mexico City, water shortages are a feature of everyday life. In the city of nearly 22 million, 70% of residents have water for only twelve hours a day. Much of the city was built upon a lakebed, and the water system pumps water from beneath the city, causing areas over the former lake to sink and buildings to warp. The plumbing system is old and poorly maintained, and around 800 gallons per second leak out of the pipes—leading to a total water loss of between 30 to 40 percent. In 50 years from now, some experts say, the city may no longer have water from its current sources.

Of course, not everyone bears equally the brunt of water scarcity. Mexico City is a metropolis of vast inequality, and access to water reflects that. Water flows from west to east, thirty percent of it starting its journey at the Cutzamala reservoir system on the western fringes of the city. In the western delegation of Cuajimalpa, whose vast mansions and highly secured private developments shelter celebrities, politicians and CEOs with teams of domestic workers, water pressure reaches 14 kilograms per square centimeter. Residents have swimming pools and well-sprinkled lawns. Not twenty miles to the east, in the densely populated delegation of Iztapalapa, water pressure is around 500 grams per square centimeter.

With water access, the same issue arises the world over: is it a problem of supply or of distribution? Delfín Montañana would say that it’s both. Delfín works for the NGO Isla Urbana, which installs rainwater recycling systems in homes with poor water access across Mexico City. He’s in charge of Isla Urbana’s education initiatives, and he argues that Mexico City’s water crisis is a man-made problem. The problem is not water, he says, but the city’s paradigm for it. Mexico City, after all, was once a flourishing mountain lake with rich, diverse crops. “We live in a place of abundance,” Delfín says, “but we have a paradigm of scarcity. We design scarcity.”

He traces that scarcity back to the conquest. When the Spanish first came to the Valle de México, they broke the dams that the Aztecas had built to prevent floods. They destroyed the channel that funneled drinking water into the heart of the city. They covered the lake. Over the centuries, the watershed became less and less absorbent. The rivers beneath the city were entombed. Today, the city faces a fundamental imbalance: far more water leaves Mexico City’s water system than enters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It rains six months a year here, all summer, every day at five p.m. like clockwork. That rain, Delfín says, could easily replenish the city’s water supply and then some. But the rainfall doesn’t absorb into the intake system: where it does infiltrate into the ground, it flows into the wastewater system. The city has no functioning wastewater treatment plants. The water that people use to wash, cook and, with precautions, drink, comes either from mountains far to the west or from aquifers deep beneath the city.

The 70 percent of water that doesn’t come from the Cutzamala reservoir, including most of the water towards the northern, southern and eastern fringes of the city, comes from wells dug deep below the city’s soil. These wells are getting deeper and deeper all the time: each year, the level of the water beneath the city sinks by a meter. Many wells, Delfín says, now reach hundreds of meters deep. In the eastern delegation of Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s mayor recently inaugurated a well that’s more than two kilometers deep. In other words, this thin-aired city high in the mountains now draws water from wells at sea level. The depletion of these wells, among other things, has caused the city to sink slowly but perceptibly.

Once used, water takes another kilometers-long journey to leave the city. Mexico City sits within a closed basin. It’s surrounded by mountains, and water has no natural point of escape. So Mexico City’s wastewater is artificially pumped out, to the state of Hidalgo’s Mezquital Valley in the northeast. There, it becomes the most reliable source of crop irrigation anywhere in Mexico. Farmers in the Mezquital Valley are the only ones in the country that enjoy a reliable, nutrient-rich, consistent water source year-round. Their fate is bound to the water consumption of the largest city in North America, so as long as Mexico City has water, so will they.

This is one of many reasons why Mexico City’s water supply has national ramifications. Mexico is a deeply centralized country: the capital is not only the country’s political hub, but also its economic, cultural and educational center. Nearly every government entity has its headquarters there. “If Mexico City runs out of water,” Delfín says, “it’s a matter of national security.”

Delfín proposes a number of concrete steps: harvest the rainwater; allow it to infiltrate into the system. Repair the water system’s leaks. Build functioning treatment plants. Most of all, change the culture of water. Move away from thinking of water in terms of tubes and pipes. Understand the water. Know the land.

Many residents of the Pedregales pride themselves on just this sort of deep ancestral knowledge. Santo Domingo has a rich history of collective resistance to outside forces—governmental and otherwise. Doña Fili embodies this: she was part of the founding of Santo Domingo, and she is practiced at sharing the neighborhood’s story. On a Monday morning in the sit-in, she perches on one of the couches and launches into her storytelling. Whenever a new member passes by, she waves them over: “I’m telling her about what we’re doing here, don’t you want to say something?” Each one defers to her: “No, Doña Fili, better you explain it, you’re the expert!” So Doña Fili crosses her legs and begins telling the history of the Pedregales.

“The settlements of Coyoacán are of water,” she says, since pre-Hispanic times. When Hernán Cortés arrived, he put his first settlement in Coyoacán, because here, he found water. Even before him, inhabitants grew gardens and farms. They planted spinach, squash, beans and corn; they fed themselves with their crops. Cuauhtémoc, the last native ruler of Tenochtitlán, was from Coyoacán, Doña Fili tells me. But in this particular region of the borough, the land wasn’t so easy to inhabit. When the volcano Xitle erupted, around the fourth century CE, the lava dried over the southernmost part of Coyoacán and left the region covered in a layer of rigid volcanic rock. These came to be known as the pedregales: the rock fields.

In the centuries after Hernán Cortés’s first settlement, Tenochtitlán urbanized into the Mexico City of today, slowly and then quickly. UNAM built its campus in Coyoacán in the ‘50s. When rural-urban migration began to speed up in the ‘60s, demand for housing ballooned. In 1971, residents of the neighborhoods Ajusco and Pueblo de los Reyes orchestrated a land invasion—essentially a massive, overnight coordination of squatters claiming a new site, common in peripheral urban communities across Latin America—to form what would become Santo Domingo.

Doña Fili was there. “No one ever imagined that the Pedregales could become a neighborhood,” she says. “What the government couldn’t do, we did with our own hands. It was collective work.” They built houses from piled rocks with roofs of cardboard or tin. They built their own schools. With their own hands, Doña Fili tells me, they carved out the volcanic rock to build roads. As she tells her story, she pauses to emphasize: “This is historical memory.” Resistance runs through Santo Domingo’s DNA. “We never asked the government for anything,” Doña Fili says. “We always struggled with the government, because they came in and made us pay high taxes on the roads that we built.”

In the beginning, Santo Domingo had no water. Residents drew it from wells in other neighborhoods and carried it to their homes. Doña Fili laughs as she remembers: “Imagine, you have a stick with two buckets, and you carry it over your shoulders, a long way, over all that rough volcanic rock, and you spill your water and have to go all the way back.” She shows me the scars on her knees: “That’s why we have our legs all torn up!”

Before Quiero Casa, Aztecas 215 was home to a school. Quiero Casa’s plan for their development was approved in 2014. For Doña Fili, Quiero Casa’s nature as a for-profit developer was enough of a red flag. “The housing is not of a social character,” she says. “It is for whoever can pay, whoever can buy, whoever has the money and can acquire it.” In a neighborhood built by the hands of collective community effort, the invasion of an outside, for-profit presence raised suspicions. And then they discovered the water.

The Asamblea frames their battle—their lucha—as most specifically them versus the government and Quiero Casa. They’ve zeroed in on Quiero Casa’s founder and president, José Shabot Cherem. Shabot Cherem is a 30-something entrepreneur, educated at the expensive private school Universidad Iberoamericana and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He frequently speaks about his commitment to public service. A blurb from the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka describes him as “empowering Mexico’s construction workers to achieve higher levels of education and certification … so that they can take control of their lives and break the cycle of illiteracy within their families.”

Despite Shabot Cherem’s social impact rhetoric, Quiero Casa has received a spattering of accusations of corruption from residents in neighborhoods around their properties. After the September 2017 earthquake, residents accused Quiero Casa of corrupt practices that allow them to build large developments in areas where zoning laws prohibit them, using falsified licenses or incorrect papers. In October, residents of another neighborhood in Coyoacán demanded an end to a different Quiero Casa construction project, a tower with 32 planned stories in an area zoned for four-story homes.

Whether or not the Quiero Casa accusations are substantiated, they’re part of a city-wide pattern of accusations against developers for irregular construction. Of course, irregularity is nearly a defining feature of Mexico City’s landscape. But when the actors are developers building condos for millions of residents rather than, say, a family adding an extra bedroom to the top of their two-story house, the consequences can be serious. The September 2017 earthquake, which left hundreds of people trapped in dozens of collapsed buildings, brought to the forefront talk of the “real estate cartel,” that is, the corruption that allows developers to build without regard for safety codes. This could mean building on land that can’t handle the weight or simply using sub-par materials. One residential building that collapsed in the earthquake had been finished just nine months prior, and engineers noted that the structure lacked essential resistance columns.

The Asamblea General’s accusations that the water is rushing into the sewer, not back on its natural course, taps into a deep struggle at the heart of life in Mexico City. Corruption and irregularity is a part of daily life, and sometimes, it can cost lives. This time, the face of the enemy may be Quiero Casa, but the enemy is various. Most immediately, the Asamblea wants an end to the Aztecas 215 project. They want water. They want their community back. They want, too, autonomy and freedom; they want an end to the many kinds of corruption that keep the city, and the country, running.

Solidarity with the Pedregales runs deep and wide. Each week, they receive visitors from other collectives of activists and organizers from around the city and country. One week, it’s the collective of residents of Atenco, the municipality in Mexico State where residents have spent years fighting against the erection of a new airport whose construction would have devastating consequences for the water table. (“We really need to ally ourselves with the Atenco struggle,” one Asamblea member tells another over cups of horchata. “If they drain that basin, it’s going to screw over all of us.”) Later that day, two visitors from the Las Abejas collective in Acteal, Chiapas, where police massacred 45 indigenous Zapatista sympathizers in December 1997, share stories of their community’s current struggles.

One Friday in mid-May, Doña Fili arrives at the sit-in with a single long-stemmed red rose and a laminated photo of Javier Valdez, the Sinaloan journalist famed for writing about the drug war and government corruption. He had been killed one year and one day ago. She goes about making a humble shrine on the plastic table at the front of the tent: she props up the photo on some volcanic rocks from the Pedregales, lights a candle, places the rose on top and places a jar of spring water next to the arrangement.

This week, their guests are a group of farmers from Sinaloa who are fighting for access to water to irrigate their crops. Doña Fili begins the meeting welcoming the compañeros. Today, too, they welcome “a guest who accompanies us spiritually.” They dedicate the meeting to Javier Valdez, who they explain was a part of the Pedregales community when he studied at UNAM in the 80s. Doña Fili recounts how he always helped them carry water, how despite his university education he remained humble, how he marched with them for disappeared people, how he became a part of the community.

Moments like these evoke the expansiveness of the struggle in the Pedregales. Though Valdez became known for writing about the drug war, his life’s work overlaps the Asamblea’s. Narco violence, disappearances, corruption, privation of land and water rights—they’re all facets of what the Asamblea, and leftists of their ilk, simply call el mal gobierno. This is about more than water. The struggle stretches from indigenous communities in Chiapas to campesinos in Sinaloa and beyond. It stretches back centuries. It is about dignity; it is about self-determination. It is about, as Doña Fili so often repeats, historical memory. This spring is a symbol: of colonization; centuries of robbery; erasure of an entire continent’s people and memory. As the Sinaloan farmers end their presentation, the whole tent erupts in yet another practiced chant: “El agua es vida, y la vida se defiende”—“Water is life, and life is to be defended.”


Madeleine Wattenbarger

Madeleine Wattenbarger is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. Her work, which focuses on immigration and politics, has been featured in VicePacific Standard and n+1.

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