"Large projects with large budgets haven't solved the problem of water availability and flood prevention"

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mexico City has historically suffered from what seems like a contradictory problem, facing a double nightmare of both severe flooding and chronic water shortages.

The federal and local governments have invested heavily to address both issues. In January, national water authority Conagua announced a 53bn-peso (US$4.41bn) sustainability program to improve drainage, wastewater treatment and aquifers.

Despite the government's best efforts, there are better ways to address the problem, according to Jorge Legorreta, a researcher with the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM).

BNamericas spoke with the urban development expert to find out how the situation is today and what can be done to address it.

BNamericas: Mexico City has a long history of floods and droughts, and corresponding efforts to prevent them. What's the situation like in the capital at the moment?

Legorreta: Mexico City has a particular characteristic which makes it possibly unique in the world; it has 45 rivers surrounding the valley, and 45 rivers that are still clean.

In Mexico City, like many cities in Latin America, urban architects and politicians who make decisions on city building have made a serious error. These rivers that bring an abundant amount of clean water into the city have been connected to drainage from urbanized areas, and we are making those clean rivers dirty.

BNamericas: How is that happening?

Legorreta: What we've seen in recent years is that because of climate change there's been an abundance of water that we weren't used to seeing. We're surprised when the city is flooded and it's flooded with clean water that we can't use. At the same time we have a large number of people in Mexico City who don't have access to water, the way that a normal person would, say 150 liters per day. So that's water that could be used.

BNamericas: Is the government doing enough to address these issues?

Legorreta: I think the big decisions made by local and federal governments that make up our water policies must be put up for public debate so that citizenry can understand them a bit better.

From my point of view, and with all due respect, the answer is no.

The large projects and large investments from the federal government, and even the local government, are to build drainage tunnels, but these remove a large volume of clean water mixed with wastewater. We've built five large tunnels, some of the largest in the world. Since the Spanish arrived here in the 16th century we have been insisting on using technology that involves removing water from the valley and transferring it to the ocean. This needs to be put up for debate.

BNamericas: What would be a better solution?

Legorreta: My point of view is that we do have to continue building tunnels, but not such large ones, and only if we are removing just the wastewater and not clean water mixed with wastewater.

Public investment should focus on major water storage projects within the city. We have rain seven months a year, a large quantity of water that could be used for people who don't have access to water, which would also prevent it from being a factor in flooding.

This is a debate that is just now opening up; to review this historic perspective that's driven by great visions of engineering, of large projects with large budgets that historically haven't solved the problem of water availability and flood prevention.

Water is a factor in inequality. We have a minimal percentage of residents with 800-850 liters of water a day and many people in the city that are living with 14 or 20 liters a day.

Federal and local governments should begin to take this into account and modify water infrastructure so that we have more egalitarian cities.

BNamericas: What needs to happen to make government take these ideas into consideration?

Legorreta: The existing legislatures in our countries are still quite weak in terms of being able to generate their own public policies. Public policies on water and many other problems shouldn't be created predominately by the executive. The legislature needs to play a knowledgeable, investigative role, which it doesn't at the moment.

We need to copy the democracies of England, France and the US, because those are the paradigms that allow for a democratic system where the legislature has predominance over the executive.

These are the democratic ideas that have made large North American, French and English cities more equal in terms of access to water.

BNamericas: What do you think of the proposal to make city water utility SACM independent from the city government?

Legorreta: The executive [DF mayor Marcelo Ebrard] has effectively proposed creating not a private entity, but a decentralized one, which for all extents and purposes is private, in that it would make decisions outside of government agencies. The big debate is that this will mean a major increase in rates. And that increase, from our point of view, because I agree with the legislature's criticism of the executive, will provoke a great dispute over water.

There are four large private firms in charge of metering and charging for service. Today, the issue is that the supply and distribution are also to become part of this privatization. We're against the impact that private companies have on rates.

BNamericas: The mayor has said that he is not looking to privatize water - how do you see that happening?

Legorreta: Because there is a provision, although they've said that it will be taken out, which allows this agency [SACM] to sell water in blocks directly to private firms. And facing a reduction of volume in certain sectors, they will provide water for those that have money and not provide it to those that don't have money.

The DF legislative assembly raised some serious questions on the creation of this agency. I can only assure you that the representatives are open to a critical discussion, especially in the light of what's happened in other part of the city, because in Mexico we already have some privatized systems. It's what’s happening in the world, including Latin America.

About Jorge Legorreta

Jorge Legorreta is an architect and urban development expert and author of the book "Ríos, lagos y manantiales del Valle de México" [Rivers, lakes and springs in the Mexico Valley"].