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Photo curtsey of  Chloe Groenewegen

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31 March 2023

The Laboratory of the Extinction of the Species 

ZOLA ROWLATT

At the heart of Mexico lies the sprawling, whirring, megalopolis of Mexico City.

 

The fourth largest city in the world. In 1950 its population was a humble 3 million, but today it is home to almost 23 million people and churns out 23,200 gallons of raw sewage and industrial waste every second. One would think that the aquifer upon which Mexico City rests (what used to be 1880 square kilometres of Lake Texcoco) would serve as a reliable source of water. However, with twice as much water being pumped out of the dehydrated aquifer as that which naturally flows in, a long-standing water crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. This environmental emergency has been precipitated through Spanish colonisation, geographical obstacles, and murky political priorities. As the water table sinks further into the ground, the city sinks with it.

 

Left to its own devices, the land would absorb the rain and the aquifer would steadily be replenished. However the carpets of cement and concrete that now blanket the ground make the rain indigestible. The city is home to continual flooding yet is threatened by a depleting water supply. It is simply absurd.

 

Ironically, one of the largest cement companies is named Cemento Moctezuma, after the final emperor of the Aztec Empire. Emperor Moctezuma II ruled during the invasion of the Spaniards in 1519 and was wiped away along with his empire. The Spaniards drained Lake Texcoco, in which the Aztec’s comprehensive hydraulic systems had been employed. Back then humans and water lived together. Today, the water is undrinkable and sewage systems can’t even stomach toilet paper. Had the Spaniards found a way to work with the indigenous people, as was Moctezuma’s wish, and learned from their ability to live a life intertwined with the water that surrounded them, the city of today would perhaps stand a better chance of survival. The ancient Aztec philosophy of living with nature has been flushed down the loo. 

 

Beneath the city lies a jigsaw of volcanic soil and clay. Volcanic soil absorbs water, but clay does not and as water is depleted, the layers collapse in on themselves and overhead infrastructure follows suit. Throughout the city, buildings lean, slant, and dip. And every so often the ground opens wide and swallows buildings as well as a sprinkling of civilians. In 1996, when a rupture led to an abandoned septic tank being exposed, four civilians were killed after being sucked into the methane-filled belly of the earth. It is reminiscent of Lanark by Alasdair Gray, in which the author paints a frightening dystopian Glasgow on the brink of apocalypse, in which residents are swallowed into the ground by an incorporeal mouth. Mexico City’s cataclysmic reality transcends Gray’s fictional world. 

 

Mexico City is located on one of the highest plateaus in the country, at an elevation of  2,240 metres above sea level, and is surrounded by mountains. It is undoubtedly subject to various natural challenges, however three centuries of abuse at the hands of humans has left its hydrology permanently damaged. The environmental insecurity in which it now sits could have been mitigated through careful planning and organisation. Unfortunately these are not traits often associated with the Mexican government. 

 

The industrial engine of the capital city propelled the country forwards in the 1950s, during which time the government put the pedal to the metal and celebrated the unbridled growth as skyscrapers, statues, and subway systems blossomed among the concrete. Enormous public works, such as the Viaducto Bicentenario (22 km of road soaring over the city), are favoured over conservation as they strengthen the power of the central government and serve as sources of national pride. While the Mexican government has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure, it has been tightfisted in funding programs to protect that investment. They turned a blind eye to the water crisis and instead guzzled up nearby water sources and employed increasingly complex structures (at increasingly high costs) to extract and transport billions of gallons of the liquid gold from a distance. Joel Simon, in his book The Sinking City, remarks how ‘it is some of the most expensive water in the world’. The future of Mexico City glistened with opportunity; not even nature would bar the way. 

 

While the Spanish siege lies at the root of the crisis, the city has since been flushed down the path of extinction by a rotten political system with an unquenchable thirst.

 

Instead of implementing long-term solutions, the government has tackled the city’s environmental challenges ‘a la Mexicana’; quick-fixes to issues that require absolute attention. Moises, a student from Zacatecas, explained this phenomenon. ‘If your shower head is broken, to solve it “a la Mexicana” would be to fashion a temporary shower head out of a water bottle’. The problem is avoided for the time being, but the shower is still broken. 
 

If we don’t find a way to live within our means we will be swallowed too.

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Works Cited:

Micheal Kimmelman, 'Mexico City: Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis', (2017) 

Joel Simon, Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge, (1998)

United Nations, Data Portal, Population Divisions

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