The push for better water management in Mexico City – One rainwater capture system at a time

An interview with Enrique Lomnitz, General Director of Isla Urbana


Last year, I had the privilege of gaining insights from industry experts about what the new planning institute in Mexico City should look like (which is in the process of legislation). I met and interviewed architects, civil society organizations, developers, planning entities, academics, and many others. Their invaluable feedback informed two manuals my team and I created for World Resources Institute, Mexico City, which you can read more about in this blog post: A new planning paradigm for Mexico City: Opportunities for meaningful public participation.

So much content was developed in the making of the manuals, including several interview transcriptions, that I decided to post them and share them with you all. Now that I have graduated and took some time for myself (traveling home to California, reading for pleasure, enjoying NYC over the holidays), I finally have the time to clean up and share some of the ones I found to be most fascinating. I wound it down to three interviews, and this post is the pilot of a 3-part mini-series about issues of urban planning and equitable development in Mexico City.


lomnitzI decided to kick-start this mini-series with perhaps my most invigorating interview. Enrique Lomnitz is the General Director and Founder of Isla Urbana, a not-for-profit based out of Coyacan, a colorful town in Mexico City, that builds rainwater capture systems for households that are disconnected from the city’s main water network. I have done my best to fact-check claims in the transcription where I could; however, due to the richness of Enrique’s expertise of integrated water management and the water crisis in Mexico City, he didn’t leave me with much to do. I mainly focused on the flow of the content.

By pure stream of consciousness Enrique imparted profound knowledge and information about the water crisis in Mexico City in our interview. His passion was infectious, as is expected from someone who dedicates their entire life’s work to a higher cause.

After a couple hours of talking with Enrique, it became abundantly clear to me that water is a multi-faceted and complicated issue for Mexico City, and the country of Mexico at large. It was a lot to absorb, but I hope the transcription resonates with you as much as it did for me.

I hope you enjoy reading this post almost as much as I enjoyed learning from Enrique and assembling all the pieces. Wherever you are in world, as always, happy reading!noun_766494-1

Why is Mexico City in a water crisis?

The water crisis in Mexico City is characterized by multiple factors. There is a huge water deficit between recharge and use, even if there is no deficit of precipitation and use. Furthermore, solutions proposed by the Water Commission, such as digging deep wells and building more sewage canals, are inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable.

Over 250 thousand people lack access to running water in Mexico City. Why are so many people disconnected from the main water network?

Mexico City experienced exponential urbanization and population growth over the course of the 20th Century. Within the century, the population rose from 1.5 million to over 20 million. One of the main ways Mexico City absorbed this growth was through informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios or “townies.” Title transfers were hand-written on sheets of paper, and often-times townies wouldn’t extend resources and infrastructure to “newcomers.” In the case of Xochimilco and Ajusco – towns, or delegations as they are called in Mexico City – the Ejiditarios still have a pretty significant amount of control over things like water management. No government authority can legally mandate that they extend this infrastructure to newcomers.

Many people have settled on conservation land, too. It’s problematic granting them access to running water because that land is protected and cannot be developed, including the necessary piping for fresh water.

Rapid population growth and the lack of formal planning has resulted in development occurring organically, and has cultivated a self-building culture that has resulted in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing developments in areas that should never have been developed.

“In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together, and people are left without necessary resources, like water.”

What entity is in charge of water management and coordination in Mexico City?

No commission has overall jurisdiction of water in the city. So, water management is very fragmented.

Here are the players:

Federal level water management – The trans-watershed system supplies the bulk of water resources from other basins in the State of Mexico and Michoacan through the National Water Commission Conagua. This system accounts for about 30-35% of the water demand in Mexico City.

Mexico City water management –  The municipal water utility of Mexico City is Sistema de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (SACM, or SacMEX), and is responsible for water supply and sanitation in the Federal District. Its head is appointed by the government of the District.

Delegation-level water management – Occurs on a project-by-project basis, and are not connected to the larger system of water management in the City. They coordinate Pipa subsidies and fleets.

Los Pipas (water trucks) – Deliver water to some of the delegations. Many are private companies or people who own trucks. Local governments pay the delegations, the delegations pay the Pipas who deliver the water to people. People pay the Pipas for the service, as well. There is no fixed tariff for this. In short, this system is very corrupt.

Considering so many different entities are involved in water management provision in Mexico City, I presume the situation is politically charged and there are several complications and inequities. Is that right? 

Yes, that is right. There are major divisions between the local delegations, the Mexico City government, and the central government, especially given the competition between political parties. Polarizing politics have impacted the water situation because the city has, in some cases, resorted to sabotage, granting budgets to delegations within their political party, while withholding budgets from delegations of opposing parties. 

It used to be (for the last 18 years or so) that the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) controlled all the layers of government. Now there is a blood bath between PRD and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). MORENA took over a big swath of delegations, and PRD still has a stronghold on the central government and several delegations. This has led to a lot of sabotage over the past 2-3 years. For instance, delegations like Xochimilco and Tlalpan are not receiving their budgets from the central authority in order to stop the growth of this competing political party.

instalation school_puebla_ mexico_2017_credit nabani vera

Isla Urbana has supplied nearly 10,000 families in Mexico City with running water by building and installing rain water capture systems in individual homes. Where in the City does Isla Urbana work? In which delegations? And how difficult is it to perform the work given the political and financial challenges you’ve mentioned?

Isla Urbana’s main client is local government because our organization provides a solution that makes a lot of sense for them. Local governments are able to get around water infrastructure limitations and it saves them – and households – money. Due to institutional red-tape, most of the funding Isla Urbana receives from local governments has nothing to do with water. Resources come from some other obscure line items in the delegation’s budget, like social development funds. By paying for rain water capture systems through these obscure funds, delegations avoid directly competing with any other authority – Conagua at the national level and SacMEX at the Federal District level – for water development funds. In turn, investments in rainwater capture systems don’t appear directly on their books.

We predominantly work in the two delegations I mentioned: Tlalpan and Xochimilco. It is difficult to work in these areas because we have to contend with a lot of challenges: the lack of urban planning, no direct water management funding, geographical obstacles (i.e. high elevation), informal settlements and poverty, as well as competing authorities. Tlalpan in particular is a challenge because service provision is obfuscated by the Ejidos.

isla urbana

You mentioned the Ejiditarios and the Ejidos earlier. Could you explain what those are and how they are involved?

Most of Mexico is either arranged in Ejidos or Comunas, which are big territories mainly consisting of farmland that belong to the town or community itself. The Ejiditarios is the name for the owner of that land.

The Ejidos became the main land reform system as a direct result of the Mexican Revolution (in the early 20th century). After the Revolution, land was expropriated from the plantations, from the church, and from the federal government and given directly to the communities. These territories can be allotted and inherited, but not bought or sold (the law changed in 1991, but there are a lot of limitations and restrictions). However, rights can be ceded by the Ejidos.

Over time, they have produced very low-income and/or indigenous communities because they disrupt the social function of land. Ultimately, they reduce the capacity of the city to provide public services since the city has little jurisdiction over these areas. The government doesn’t really expropriate Ejido land.

Could you explain further about how did Ejidos contribute to the rise in informal settlements in Mexico City?

Ejidos take up a significant amount of land in Mexico City, or at least they did. Most of the problem was in the 1980s and 1990s when populated explosion came into conflict with this system. The Ejido system was established in the early 1920s when the population was much lower, around 1-2 million. When population increased, there was all this land that wasn’t private property so you couldn’t buy or sell it, yet there was a need to buy and sell the land. As a result, there were informal settlements.

One of the main ways Mexico City grew was through these informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios. Property deeds were hand-written on note paper, that’s how bad it was. When a big enough chunk of the property was developed, the community would vote for the re-designation of land and attempt to obtain legal property rights.

Essentially, in the case of Mexico City, and all over Mexico, urbanization was happening before planning. In general, land is not slated for development before anything is built. Normally, the state has control over zoning, density, etc., such as in the United States. But this process is backwards here. Development happens organically and maintains a self-building culture, which I support. But this results in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing in areas that should not have been developed. In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together.

So, you think the Ejido system is bad for residents of the city.

The Comuna and Ejido systems are outdated, but have their positive sides that a lot of people like. But reality speaks for itself. These systems create towns where a very small percentage of the population have rights and authority to make decisions, and the rest of the population does not. There is nothing good about that.

When the Ejidos have control, there are massive amounts of people not connected to the grid. Tlalpan has the largest number of people not connected to the grid, or about 80,000-85,000 people, yet it is the most water-rich part of the city. The situation is similar for Xochimilco. Xochimilco and Tlalpan are the most water-rich areas of the city naturally, but they suffer from water scarcity due to these political and jurisdictional management problems, as well as the property rights issues already mentioned.

To further complicate things, there are a lot of micro-cultural differences in Mexico City, which can be quite pronounced, even between neighborhoods. For instance, Xochimilco and Ajusco, which are right next to each other, are very different culturally. Major cultural differences within and between these different neighborhoods prevent coexistence and cohesion.

You mentioned earlier about people settling on conservation land. How do they get access to water if government programs refuse to establish the necessary infrastructure? Are there larger legal implications for not providing them with water? How is the city being held accountable?

Refusing to supply water to citizens comes into conflict with the constitutional right to water. As a compromise, the government subsidizes (at both the local delegation and city levels) water trucks – Pipas – to deliver water to the people settling in conservation areas and other informal settlements.

“There is no real way to realize the human right to water in Mexico City. Not really. The forces that have the authority to build the infrastructure – SEDUVI, SacMEX, Medio Ambiente – won’t. But the delegations face a tighter bind. They have to deal with these places in a much more direct way. If it were up to the delegations, they would probably give settlers access to water infrastructure, but they don’t typically build this type of infrastructure. So, the delegation in some cases will subsidize the cost of the water delivered from the Pipas. So, all these people are reliant on water trucks and extractive forms of water supply.”

Could you explain more about how the Pipas work? Who are driving the trucks?

There are three general schemes: delegation-owned fleet, private contractors who are on permanent contract with the delegation, or ad hoc truck owners. Some are large companies (10-20 trucks), but many have one. The Pipa system is massively corrupt. No one will give you good information on the Pipas.

But that’s just how it is. Just because something is written into Mexican law, doesn’t mean there are mechanisms to enforce it. Mexico is a really weak state, and it is a very non-monolithic state. Branches of government are sometimes actively trying to undermine or sabotage each other. This results in a very absurd situation.

Tlalpan, for example, spent about $100,000,000 Mexican pesos (approximately $5.3 million USD) subsidizing Pipas, which is an insane amount of money.

How expensive would it be to formalize the water supply?

Depends over what time period. You could probably connect everyone to the water grid for the same cost as subsiding the Pipas over a two year period, and then it would cost very little from then onward.

Is Isla Urbana in direct competition with the Pipas in providing water at the household level?

Because we operate at a more gradual, incremental process, it really helps. The Pipa drivers and proponents don’t react the same way as they would if we operated at a much larger scale.  

Let’s get back to the water crisis itself. Is there simply enough water for everyone in Mexico City?

At the macro level, the amount of water exceeds consumption. Rainwater is more than replenishing the watershed than the amount consumed. The design of the watershed is the issue; the vast majority of the water leaves the watershed. About 10-11 percent of rainwater goes into the aquifer, the rest either evaporates or goes into the sewage system. The sewage system pumps the water out of the aquifer.

The biggest problem is that recharge areas have been severely reduced. Recharge happens in the south of the city, but that area has been urbanized informally, and no one was able to stop it. So, you have reduced recharge areas and damages to forests, which causes more inefficient recharge.

Also, the initial decision to drain the valley is perhaps the main factor to the problem of water scarcity because all of the water that falls into the valley goes straight into the sewage system.

There is a huge water deficit between recharge and use, even if there is no deficit of precipitation and use. There needs to be a better balance between recharge and use. It would be ideal if recharge could exceed extraction, even if by a little bit. If there is a 50 percent loss in the grid, then you would need a 150 percent recharge rate to sufficiently supply water and the watershed level can be maintained. We are very far from that balance.

I imagine Isla Urbana helps restore that balance between recharge and use. 

Yes, Isla Urbana slowly shifts the city to a system that is more balanced because it reduces the need to extract water and helps households live self-sufficiently.

The vision is if you start layering sustainable practices onto the city, including rainwater capture systems, you slowly begin to achieve a bunch of things:

  • Reduce the need for extraction to supply a certain area
  • Increase resilience so families/neighborhoods are less dependent on Pipas and extraction systems to supply water
  • Reduce the severity of episodic water stress
  • Start to make fundamental changes to the vision of water use within the city, and transition away from a fully centralized system where people are passive consumers to a vision that is more decentralized, provides more agency on part of the population, and begins to break the monopoly of the conventional water system, which fails a huge portion of the population

Is the city making strides towards more sustainable practices of water management systems? 

Today, water management is very reactive. Even in planning, the current system resorts to building more sewage lines that drain the water out of Mexico City. They drain groundwater, as well. They build these sewage lines due to issues with flooding. There are parts of the city (i.e. downtown) that sink 40 cm per year.

How would you plan the water management system if you worked for the government?

There needs to be an integration of projects, which are not taken seriously by the water commission. Solutions like rainwater harvesting systems for specific parts of the city (like Tlalpan) would cost half of what it costs to deliver water through the Pipas.

Some are talking about refilling the Texcoco Lake to use it as a new watershed, but the water commission isn’t considering this project. Civil society takes this project seriously, but not the government. There is this guy who has plans for protecting the forests, others are wanting to clean the water. Currently, rainwater harvesting is still very much a private endeavor at the household level. These projects need to be scaled up.

Yet, the Water Commission is always working on relic, grandiose engineering projects, such as building additional, deeper sewers. They are hard to move. The big projects for the water commission right now are the deep wells and new sewage canal. The water commission found fossil water 2,000 m below ground of very poor quality and with no recharge value (it fell millions of years ago). The government wants to pump this water from 2,000 m below ground and proposes this as a viable solution to the water problem in Mexico City. But eventually you run out of this water, and you’ve spent billions of pesos over several decades. This type of water infrastructure project just kicks the can down the road, it doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems of water scarcity.

The last major drainage tunnel the water commission installed is Grand Canal Profundo (or the Grand Canal), which is a sewage canal 80 meters below ground. The geography allowed for a 0.5 percent grade, which is not enough for a wastewater system – it should have a 4 percent grade at least. The last stage of the project, which took place before inauguration, was to build these four big pumping stations so the water could be pumped out of the watershed. But by the time the project finished, the city had sunk below the drainage canal, which caused a reverse grade inside the tunnel. This is the fourth time this has happened – when a huge drainage canal ends up higher than the city. And it will happen again.

“If I worked for the government, I would integrate these projects, take them seriously, and move towards a more sustainable system. I would build-up these programs. But I wouldn’t shut down the current system. The Systema Cutzamala cannot be shut down; it provides 30 percent of the city’s water. People are too reliant on it. I would build up these parallel systems that help keep water in the watershed to reduce dependence. I would focus on harvesting water, increasing recharge areas, and reforestation, and I would implement projects that would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the sewer.”

Change will have to be a multi-generational effort – 50 to 70 years. I would do everything I could do to increase the retention of rainwater within the watershed, decrease how much is expelled, and close loops – treat water and put it back in. Less than 10 percent of the rainwater is treated and put back into the system. None of these things are particularly complicated, they just need to be taken seriously.

What about at the policy level. Is the issue more with policy development or implementation of water policy?

I lack faith in the legal process. The process of writing water laws into the Constitution have involved a lot of civil society. I have been involved in writing them. However, the city’s water problems aren’t due to bad policy or bad laws. They are pretty good. The problem in Mexico City is implementing them and turning them into action. The machine is broken there: executing laws.

Examples of policy inaction:

  • Water should be returned to the environment in the same or better condition than when you got it, yet the city pours all of its raw sewage into a river.
  • People have a universal right to water, yet 12 million people in the country have no access to water systems.

It’s not that there isn’t money to do these things. Mexico has plenty of money to implement public projects. There is a lack of respect for the law. Mexico City is a weak state. We don’t have a functioning government.

We should replace people in government and have independent people – not career, party politicians – run for office. There is no excuse for that in this city. There is a monopoly.

Civil society should take over delegations directly, that’s where this road ends.

There a lot of autonomy movements – Michoacan has a lot of these areas where the government isn’t welcome, and they run the regions themselves. Some of these are run well, but some are not. Even still, they are no worse off than they were before.

There is a real possibility that Mexico might have a lot of autonomous regions, which might be a logical move. Mexico consists of regions of people that have nothing to do with one another.

Mexico won’t be a strong country for a long time. Meanwhile, it has an enormous capacity to absorb crises and it is very resilient.

If you could envision a sustainable model for water management in Mexico City, what would that model look like?

Envisioning a more sustainable and resilient water management model for Mexico City means pushing the envelope of water management practices today. Moving towards water sustainability includes solutions that reduce the need for extraction, increase the resilience of neighborhoods and families, so they are less dependent on extraction systems to supply water, and reduce the severity of episodic water stress.

milpa alta conalep_mexico city_ credit_isla urbana(8)

I really wanted to get into the people’s role in all of this. Do citizens have access to formal channels for verbalizing their concerns about their living conditions and lack of access to water?

I believe in returning agency to citizens in a very direct, local way, which is why I install rainwater capture systems at the local household level.

Amongst the people, there is a strong sense of not having that much power as citizens. It’s a weird duality. Citizenry of Mexico have a certain level of power that citizenry of the United States don’t have. For instance, the ability to build their own land and lay the streets themselves, deciding where schools will go, etc.

On very local levels, people display a tremendous amount of agency and power. But on these large things that require coordination and organization, there are few mechanisms for citizens to get involved.

“People have a high tolerance for the desmadre (chaos). Oftentimes, I feel like rather than standing up and yelling, “This is crazy! Let’s form a citizen’s committee and solve this!’ People laugh in this crazy, uncomfortable way, recognizing they are in this absurd theater. We laugh about it, kind of. In many ways Mexico City is a theater of the absurd, but with tremendous grit, tremendous resilience, and tremendous beauty, and tremendous capacity to laugh, which is really great. There is this capacity to be alright.”

Also, an important factor is that education levels are low amongst the population of Mexico City – most people are fairly illiterate. There are people working 12 hours a day just to get by. People are capable of living with things they shouldn’t, but they do.

hidalgo_mexico_credit_camaroni producciones

In conclusion, what would you say is the way forward?

Collectively, civil society has done a lot to move opinion about water management practices. Isla Urbana has gained traction because we work incrementally, and generate impact with very little resources and support. We have installed 7,000 rainwater harvesting systems in the city, and plan to hit our target of 10,000 systems soon.

After the earthquake in September 2017, there was a boom in demand for rainwater capture systems, and Isla Urbana gained attention of the delegations. Even still, it’s a slow, gradual process.

“It’s hard to do something quickly when it comes to changing huge systems like water management in a city like Mexico City. It requires a lot of money, there are a lot of mafias and corruption. So, change is slow in Silicon Valley terms, but it’s not so slow in terms of cities. Mexico City has been in this mess for 400 years, it won’t be able to get out of it in 10 years. We need to dig ourselves out of this hole by building acceptance of viable alternatives. It starts with changing who is in office and implementing small-scale projects run by CSOs.”

Isla Urbana has a good relationship with the delegate from Tlaplan, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, who is running for mayor.* She has worked with Isla Urbana for three years on rainwater capture systems in the delegation. If  Sheinbaum wins, she wants us on her Water Advisory Board. It could happen, it could not.

So, it could be that a new mayor wants 100,000 rainwater harvesting systems in Mexico City, but it could also be that this doesn’t happen. At the end of the day, I remain optimistic. noun_766494-1

*Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo won the mayorship and was sworn into office in November 2018

Additional resources:

Feature image credit: Community Hands, World Design Organization, 2018

Image credit in order of appearance: Enrique Lomnitz, MIT Technology Review; Installation School, Nabani Vera, Mexico, 2017; Isla Urbana House Installation, World Design Organization, 2018; CONALEP, Mexico City, Isla Urbana; Isla Urbana House Installation, Hidalgo, Mexico, Camaroni Producciones

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