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Wasteful, thirsty Mexico City holds conference on better use of water

Monday, March 13, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico City is plagued by an almost diabolical combination of floods and water shortages, rising sewage and sinking water tables. What better place for world leaders to come together to discuss how to better manage water?

Many of the 20 million people of this metropolis get by on as little as one hour of running water per week, while almost all the copious rainfall is flushed unused down the sewers, creating a gargantuan flow of wastewater that the city's few treatment plants can't handle.

As with New Orleans, Mexico City is on life support, but on a much larger scale.

Huge pumps work day and night to suck sewage-laced water out of the rapidly sinking, mountain-ringed bowl in which the city lies. Some areas suffer floods of sewage. Around seven in every eight toilet flushes goes untreated.

Mexico City has paved over its rivers and made them into underground sewers or expressways while pumping so much water from underground aquifers that some neighborhoods sink by up to a foot a year.

The city would probably flunk in all the five topics to be discussed at the 4th World Water Forum starting Thursday: how water can be harnessed for growth, be provided more efficiently, better benefit the poor, be used environmentally, and be prevented from causing natural disasters.

Mexico City's system serves no one very well. Almost everyone buys bottled water or expensive home water systems. But it serves the poor worst. For many, bad water or none at all is just another fact of life.

"We don't want to ask for the impossible, but it would be nice if the water could come twice a week," said Juan Maria Bautista Ortiz, 42, whose family of four gets as little as one hour of running water per week at their tarpaper shack.

Plastic drums in their dirt yard to catch the precious liquid when it comes and store about 400 gallons for an entire week of toilet use, sponge baths, washing clothes and dishes.

The city water system isn't bad because it's cheap. Because it's bad, it's terribly expensive.

City water pipes are leaky, low-pressure and often dry, so every home must have an underground storage tank, as well as a system to pump the water up to a rooftop storage tank from which to flow down.

"It costs more than it would to build a well-made water system," said Jesus Campos, the assistant director of Mexico's National Water Commission.

Officials occasionally launch halfhearted campaigns to get people to drink tap water, but while they swear it's safe when it leaves treatment plants, they say it's often contaminated in aging, ill-maintained home tanks and plumbing.

In fact, Mexico City is sinking in an accelerating spiral of water problems.

As aquifers are depleted, the ground subsides and breaks underground pipes, causing more of the leaks that already waste about 40 percent of drinking water. Sewage pipes also fracture, releasing sewage that contaminates the aquifers.

As the sewer-rivers, the population, and water wastefulness all multiply, the city must spend even more -- about $2 billion over the next five years -- not to fix the system or create separate storm drains, but simply to build larger pipes out of the valley.

Built on what was once a lake, Mexico City now wallows in waste and struggles to get rid of the water it has while greedily eyeing the rivers and watersheds of surrounding states. Each proposed diversion prompts angry protests.

Where is it all heading? The director of the city's water system, German Martinez, doesn't expect the city's aquifers to last longer than about 50 years. Urban planner Jorge Legoretta says the city has been hit by big floods 25 times in its 700-year history, most recently in the 1950s, and expects "catastrophe no. 26" within 15 years.

Officials aren't proud of Mexico City's water record, but say they're not embarrassed to host the forum.

"I don't like to look at this as a crisis situation," said city water chief Martinez. "Every city in the world has problems with water. Mexico City is no exception." He prefers the term "pooling" to "flooding," sees deeper wells as the answer, and also boils his tap water.

Jesus Campos, assistant director of Mexico's National Water Commission, tries to put the best face on hosting the water confab.

"Perhaps even negative examples can be of use," he said. "This example can be very illustrative, and might even serve to tell people, 'Don't grow this fast."'


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