Mexico’s Plagues

Mexico City.

Mexico has been swamped by a wave of serial plagues of biblical proportions.  First, it was the blood-curdling violence of President Felipe Calderon’s ill-conceived and macabre war on the drug cartels that has taken the lives of 12,000 citizens in the past three years.  Then the economy collapsed in a calamitous whoosh plunging the country into the deepest slide since the Great Depression.  Last spring’s swine flu panic garnished the fear and loathing.

Now add drought and famine to the list of catastrophes.

One day last week (Aug. 16-23), housewives from Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s poorest and most populous delegation or borough, lined up dozens of empty plastic pails in front of the National Palace, the seat of the Calderon government, to underscore their demand for water.  On any given day this summer, 1.5 million “chilangos” (Mexico City residents) have been denied the precious liquid due to the National Water Commission (CONAGUA)’s shut down of the Cutzamala river system that supplies about a third of the capital’s needs.

The water crisis has been exacerbated by near-zero rainfall in the Valley of Mexico that surrounds the city due, meteorologists avow, to the every-nine-year weather phenomenon known as El Nino.  Whoever’s to blame, Mexico City is in the claws of the worst drought here in 60 years.  Day after day this summer, chilangos have risen to cloudless skies – the July-August-September rainy season cycle accounts for 70 of the megalopolis’s rainfall totals in an average year.

The absence of precipitation that is drying up all of Mexico has the National Weather Service praying for Atlantic hurricanes that are worrisomely late in coming – the delay is the longest in 18 years.  By the third week of August, the storms were only at “B” for “Bill” level.  “Bill” disappeared into the North Atlantic without spilling a drop on Mexico.

The weathermen and women are not the only Mexicans praying for rain. In Jalisco where cornfields are blasted by the “Sequia” (drought), true believers parade the Virgin of Zapopan from one country town to the next in the unrequited hopes She will bring on the rains, and in Mexico City’s great Zocalo plaza, concheros – Aztec dancers – pound drums and blow copal incense to the four cardinal corners of the universe in choreographed appeals to Tlaloc, the Mexica rain deity to whom Aztec priests once sacrificed young babies in order to insure his watery largesse and a bumper corn crop.

Tlaloc’s unresponsiveness to the chilangos’ entreaties is already triggering tensions.  Out in Iztapalapa in the east of the city, colonos from parched neighborhoods are blocking avenues and have broken into locked water deposits.  In August, they hijacked several “pipas” or cistern trucks used to deliver water to bone-dry colonies.

The pipa business has boomed all summer, enraging the Iztapalapans.  Private contractors charge the neighbors a fee for services the government should be providing and the dubious quality of the water the pipas deliver is a flashpoint for outrage.  Neighbors display bottles of viscid, smelly liquid that they jocularly refer to as “Aguas de Tamarindo” – tamarind-flavored drinks.

The scarcity of potable water in marginated zones like Iztapalapa has converted Mexicans into the Numero Uno per capita consumers of Coca Cola in the known universe.  The Coca Cola Corporation is also Mexico’s top purveyor of purportedly purified bottled water.

Iztapalapa is a barometer of social conflict.  If and when trouble boils over in this megalopolis, it will most likely happen there first.

Out in the countryside, the drought is raking the land.  Dams are at perilously low levels in a season when they are usually filled to the brim – this time last year, dam capacity was at 95 per cent.  But in 2009, 57 of the 177 dams in the federal system are below 50% due to the lack of sufficient rainfall.  Half of Mexico’s 21 million corn farmers depend on rainfall to irrigate their fields and all across the fertile breadbasket of central Mexico – the “Bajio” – crops are shriveling up.

This July was the driest July in 68 years in 11 states that account for 84 per cent of Mexican corn production.  Farmers in Jalisco, the leading white corn producer, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Queretero, and Aguascalientes have already lost up to 75 per cent of their harvests.  At opposite ends of the republic, Yucatan and Sonora have been devastated by the Sequia.  Cattle ranchers report catastrophic losses – 50,000 head have already died and the price of milk has soared by 20 per cent.  Cruz Lopez, director of the National Farmers Confederation (CNC), the nation’s largest campesino federation, estimates that 20,000,000 tons of basic grains have been wiped out and fears an “historic food crisis” that will stir up conflicts between farming communities over increasingly shrinking resources.

To fend off famine, the Calderon government will be forced to up NAFTA corn imports from the U.S., already at $25,000,000,000 USD annually – about 60 per cent of the imported corn is thought to be genetically modified. Sitting in boxcars in northern Mexican rail yards, the NAFTA corn is an inviting target for nearby colonies of unemployed workers who force doors and cart off the grain.  Newspaper photographs of housewives gleaning loose corn along the tracks are reminiscent of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, the first great uprising of the landless in Latin America, whose 100th anniversary will be marked next year.  Some observers are already predicting that social upheaval will accompany the centennial.

Drought is relentlessly cyclical in central Mexico.  Rainfall diminishes, underground springs dry up, and the sequias collapse whole civilizations.  Teotihuacan, the first city in the Americas to be founded on a corn economy, disappeared into dust in the Second Century AD.  Today, its justly celebrated pyramids on the sun-scorched plains 45 kilometers north of Mexico City are all that remain.  Half a millennium later, the same fate befell the Toltec civilization at the north end of the valley.

The Aztec-Mexicas inherited a flourishing lake system.  Tenochtitlan, the seat of their empire founded in 1325 (now Mexico City’s old quarter), was a prosperous island when the Spanish invaded in 1521.  But a century after the Conquest, the lakes had dried up, the bitter fruit of massive deforestation on surrounding hillsides. In the four centuries since, Mexico City’s water quandary has perplexed presidents and generals and even emperors.  Overpopulation has exhausted aquifers and the inadequate solution has been to suck water from river systems a hundred miles away like the Cutzamala whose bounty has to be pumped a mile uphill to satisfy the thirst of the chilangos.

‘FEBRUARY 2010 – A CITY WITHOUT WATER!” read the doomsday ads leftist mayor Marcelo Ebrard is running every day in the capital’s dozen newspapers.  Jose Ibarreche, an independent engineer who contracts with the Mexico state water commission, thinks the situation is much worse.  “If the people really knew what’s going on, it would cause a panic,” he calmly posited over café con leche at the downtown Café La Blanca one rainless night last week.  Reflecting this dire prognosis, Mayor Marcelo has installed a color-coded warning system that replicates U.S. terrorist alerts – red, orange, yellow, and green.  Last week, the neon warning strung between the two City Hall buildings in the Zocalo was at red.

With the city suffering a daily 71 million cubic meter shortfall, the in-flow has been reduced to just 4.4 meters a second, cutting water pressure in half.  Water tanks on the roofs of luxury skyscrapers along the city’s most exclusive boulevard, the Paseo de Reforma, are compromised.

The flow from the Cutzamala, which accounts for 30 per cent of the city’s water, has itself been cut by 30 per cent – the seven dams that fill the system have recorded zero rainfall thus far in 2009 and levels are shrinking below 32 per cent.  Water accumulated in the dam system during the once-upon-a-time rainy season is earmarked for delivery to the capital in February, March, and April 2010, the hottest, driest months of the year in a city already anticipated to be boiling over with swine flu panic and insurrectionary fever.

Some of the customers clustered around the counter at La Blanca are convinced that politics have trumped nature in the water war.  Cutzamala water is the domain of CONAGUA under the direction of Calderon’s water czar Luis Luege Tamargo, the ex-chieftain of the president’s right-wing PAN party in the capital and a likely candidate for mayor in the next election.  Berta Robledo, a retired nurse and fierce partisan of the formerly wildly popular ex-mayor of Mexico City Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) suspect that the PANista is denying needed water to this left-run city to exploit an issue that could propel the rightists into City Hall in 2012.  Others speculate that Marcelo Ebrard has exaggerated the city’s water problems to pressure the Calderon government into forking over fresh funding to revitalize the capital’s decrepit water system.  Ebrard himself is a likely presidential candidate in 2012.

Ibarreche explains that contrary to popular mythology most of the Capital’s water – 71 per cent  – comes from the city itself via a network of deep and diminishing wells that are putting out twice as much water than the aquifers can take in. According to CONAGUA, Mexico City is extracting 1.2 billion cubic meters a year from its well system and incorporating less than half that, 512 million cubic meters in the aquifers.

This summer, El Nino, the acute lack of rainfall, and climate change (the Mexican capital has warmed one degree in the past 10 years), have brought the wells to the brink of apocalypse.

But the big problem is not the missing rain so much as what happens when it does. In an average year, Jose Ibarreche insists, enough rain falls (600 to a 1000 millimeters) to provide the city with five years of water – if the run-off can be captured, a feat the city is not now equipped to handle.  Currently, rainwater is swallowed up by Mexico City’s vaunted Deep Drainage System (“Drenaje Profundo”), a miracle of engineering malfeasance that mixes clean water with the megalopolis’s sewage (“aguas negras”) and sweeps them both through mountains into Hidalgo state where they eventually find a path to the Gulf of Mexico.

To trap the run-off, Ibarreche has been working on a series of collectors and artificial lakes in the forested highlands of the Valley of Mexico and rural areas of the capital such as the Ajusco and Cuajimalpa to capture rain when it drills down from the heavens.  The rainwater will then be treated and injected into aquifers to recharge them, a process that can take a year.  But this year there has been no rain and no run-off.

Water distribution in Mexico City reflects the class divide.  According to city water commission stats, 1000 liters a day are delivered to every man, woman, and child in upscale neighborhoods like Bosques de Lomas and Lomas de Chapultepec in the west of the city to water their lawns and fill their swimming pools and wash their classic cars. Working class citizens in the east and north of the city such as out in Iztapalapa are allotted 200.  To ameliorate the inequity, Mexico City’s left government threatens to raise rates substantially for each 100 liters delivered above the city average of 300 per capita – Ebrard’s Water Secretary Ruben Aguirre wants to knock the average down to 150 liters a day.  The howls of PANistas concerned for their Jacuzzis echo in the Mexico City Legislative Assembly where Ebrard’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) owns the majority.

To tamp down the ire of working class chilangos (80 per cent of the capital’s population), water is super subsidized, selling for 15 to 35 cents USD per cubic meter (1000 liters) when the actual cost is 20 pesos ($1.80 USD.)  The PAN’s plan is to eliminate subsidies and privatize services, arguing that raising rates will conserve water by punishing the wasters.  Such a platform could also incite riot in poorer neighborhoods.

So ominous is the situation that Mexico City’s 12 year-old leftist government is resorting to neo-liberal anathema by privatizing services.  About 16 per cent of the water distribution system has been contracted out to four national and transnational corporations who now determine and measure usage and rates, bill customers, and are responsible for treatment and maintenance.

Maintenance is a big money item.  About a quarter to a third of the city’s water is being lost to leaks in ancient pipelines, about 12,000 liters a minute Aguirre calculates, and city workers have never been quick to staunch them.

Ebrard’s efforts to privatize water services in the largest city in the Americas follows the takeover of systems in Mexican cities like Cancun, Saltillo, and Aguascalientes where water rates have risen alarmingly commensurate with the projections of the privatizers.  In the mix are such transnationals as Suez-Lyonnaise (French), Aguas de Barcelona, Vivendi Water, and Azturix (formerly Enron, now Suez.)

One alternative to leaping on the neo-liberal bandwagon: la Brigada de Las Mujeres Plomeras or the Women Plumbers’ Brigade which trains housewives in the city’s housing projects in plumbing and water conservation arts.  Promoted by Clara Brugada, an Iztapalapa-based organizer and Lopez Obrador’s candidate to head that downtrodden delegation, the Women Plumbers Brigade is modeled on the brigades of “Adelitas” or women soldiers assembled by AMLO to stop the privatization of the Mexican state petroleum corporation PEMEX under the slogan “El Petroleo Es Nuestro” (“The oil is ours.”)  “Well, so is the water” Brugada urges.

JOHN ROSS’s monstrous “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” (Nation Books, 500 pages) will be published this November – he is looking for local venues to introduce the Monstruo to the North American public.  His “Iraqigirl”, the tale of a teenager coming of age under U.S. occupation (Haymarket) is already in the stores.  If you have further info write








JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to