With the onset of the summer rainy season, Adriana Cornejo moves her furniture upstairs in the blue-collar suburb of Nezahualcóyotl to the east of Mexico City. Here, the heavy precipitation often brings rising flood waters. “It’s like Christmas. You know it’s coming and you get ready,” Cornejo says.
Flooding dates back centuries in Mexico City and its environs, which were built on drained lakes in a high-altitude valley with no natural drainage outlet. But residents and experts say the situation is worsening as changing weather patterns, past political corruption and the pumping of water from aquifers to serve a regional population now topping 20 million causes areas to sink by up to 40 cm per year.
The National Water Commission has warned of the potential for catastrophic floods, which would cover the eastern half of the Mexico City area—turning it once again into a lake. But water-basin management consultant Valente Souza calls that kind of talk “irresponsible.” Still, he argues places like Nezahualcóyotl, which was built by squatters, are unable to drain themselves and will be plagued by worsening floods.
The most recent floods inundated Nezahualcóyotl last month as the Remedios River, a drainage canal carrying untreated sewage and rainwater, burst its banks, affecting some 60,000 residents. Many residents have horror stories from past floods, including police department secretary Veronica Martínez, who had a casket float down her street. And politics never seem distant from the flooding issue. Former Mexico City mayor Alejandro Encinas candidly said last month while successfully stumping for governor in the state of Mexico, which surrounds the capital like a horseshoe and contains Nezahualcóyotl, “These places shouldn’t have been built.”
Nezahualcóyotl—notorious for its crime problem and branded “Neza York” for the number of its emigrants living in New York—barely existed 100 years ago, but swelled to a population of more than one million in the last few decades as squatters from downtrodden southern states came to the capital in droves and Mexico City residents sought more spacious properties.
But the blame for the flooding goes beyond politics. Agustín Mendieta, who pulls everything from tires to dead dogs to cars out of the Remedios River and other drainage canals with a crane, blames the residents themselves. He recalls watching locals tossing waterlogged sofas into the river. Trash-clogged waterways, along with widespread deforestation in other parts of Mexico that has resulted in heavier precipitation in Mexico City, contribute to the flooding problem.
Still, Souza, who consults for the Mexico City government, sees solutions. The federal government is building a deep pipe for draining the eastern suburbs. The Mexico City government, meanwhile, crafted a master plan for restoring ravines and forests to better capture rainfall, allowing it to recharge aquifers and making the capital self-sufficient in water, preventing further sinking and keeping excess precipitation out of the storms sewers and drainage canals. Such measures, he says, “will guarantee [Mexico City’s] viability.”