REUTERS/Edgardo Garrido

Congested Mexico City must look skyward to grow

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Once the heart of the vast Aztec empire, Mexico’s pulsing capital is now a megacity that dominates the country’s economy, politics and culture, but it must take drastic steps to tackle its dwindling water supply and crippling transport problems, said the official charged with making the city resilient.

Megacities like Tokyo should be a development model for earthquake-prone Mexico City, which needs to grow upwards rather than continue its urban sprawl, said Arnoldo Matus Kramer, chief resilience officer for the city that is home to nearly 9 million people, with over 21 million in its greater metropolitan area.

“Tokyo has had incredible growth vertically and accommodates 30 million people – they don’t suffer the type of pollution and traffic we do,” said Matus Kramer in an interview.

According to the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which Mexico City joined in 2013, social inequality, a huge informal economy, inadequate investment in infrastructure and severe weather events make the city’s population vulnerable to disasters.

Of the myriad challenges facing the city, Matus Kramer singled out safeguarding its future water supply and urban mobility as among the most pressing. His role largely involves putting a “resilience lens” on major projects already underway in the city, which issued its resilience strategy in September.

Although the Aztecs chose to build their capital on a lake, crushing population pressure and under-investment now mean Mexico City faces acute water shortages and loses over 40 percent of its potable water through leaks in its poorly maintained water network.

Water inequality is also an issue for the city, where around 30 percent of residents live in poverty. People living in slums and other areas not reached by water pipelines pay the highest rates per litre to have water delivered by truck.

“We’re over-exploiting by two times the sustainable water aquifer. We could lose half of our supply of water in the next 30 to 40 years if we continue business as usual,” warned Matus Kramer. “The problem is so huge we can’t rely on just government to solve it.”

Water Fund

A pilot water fund scheme to help bolster the city’s shallow aquifer is due to be trialled soon, ahead of a full roll-out later in the year. It will address problems around recharge, promote conservation, and invest in areas like agriculture to make the water supply more secure.

Led by The Nature Conservancy, the fund will include major water consumers along with a handful of private companies, which will sink an initial $20 million into the project, said Matus Kramer. Citigroup’s Mexican unit Banamex and bottler and retailer Fomento Economico Mexicano (FEMSA) are among those signed up.

Water “needs to be on the political agenda as a priority”, said Matus Kramer.

Mexico City would be at serious risk if it faced a drought on the scale seen in recent years in California or Sao Paulo, he added. “At some point it will happen with climate change, and we need to be prepared for that.”

Driving Change

With the high-altitude city plagued by chronic air pollution and people spending an average of three hours a day commuting, cutting private car transport and better integrating the public transport network are also crucial, said Matus Kramer.

“We are still generally a country focused on investing in private car and vehicle infrastructure rather than public transport,” he said.

Around 70 percent of journeys are made on public transport in the capital, which ranks as one of the world’s most congested cities. According to the city’s resilience strategy, the state of the transport network has a negative impact on competitiveness, health and social cohesion.

In the short-term, a new subway line, the introduction of electric buses, greater use of Uber taxis and the city’s bike-sharing scheme will help mobility in the city, where half of commutes are less than 8 km (5 miles) long, said Matus Kramer.

One of the biggest challenges he faces in locking down a legal and institutional framework for resilience is to ensure it can weather political change.

“It takes time to embed the resilience agenda within the government,” he said. “That’s a big concern – in 2018 we have the next election. We don’t know who will be elected and whether the (new) mayor will be interested in resilience or not.”