mexico city -- it sounds like science fiction, but this parched, land-locked megalopolis, home to a fifth of the nation's populace, was once an island anchored in the midst of the great lake system that covered the floor of the Valley of Mexico.
Today, although streets in whole neighbourhoods are named after rivers, lakes and even gulfs, water is a premium item in Mexico City. It's never more so than during the dog days of May before the rains break, when the sun is at high broil and it's not only canines that walk around with their tongues hanging out.
The poorest of the poor encamp on the dry, cracked lake beds east of the capital in million-hovel, misery-belt cities like Chalco and Texcoco, where there is no water at all save for the "pipas" (tanker trucks) that sell the vital liquid to the colonos at an elevated cost. The pipa industry has traditionally been controlled by the former ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which dispensed favours such as water in exchange for the votes that kept the party in power for 71 years.
No other urban area on the planet pays a higher price for its water than Mexico City. About a fifth of the 23 billion cubic metres of water that barely slakes the capital's thirst each year is pumped uphill from the Lerma and Cutzamala river systems 100 and 150 kilometers away.
Many of the central Mexican aquifers that provide water for 50 per cent of the country's population are putting out more water than is going back in. Sucking out the ground water in such prodigious quantities is also sinking the city and making it more vulnerable to frequent earthquakes.
Despite future cataclysms, Chilangos (Mexico City residents), a strangely nonchalant breed, waste more water than the citizens of any other metropolis in the known universe. A third of the inflow is lost to leaks in the infrastructure, and what does get used is not recycled. Per capita water consumption here is Guinness Book Of Records-size -- 324 litres a day. (New York, Paris and Tokyo are all below 200.) All the water reaching Mexico City is unchlorinated and undrinkable.
Thirty-five of Mexico's most important cities are facing imminent water shortfalls. Clear-cut logging is drying up streams and creating social tensions in remote sierras like the one on the Guerrero coast where the "campesino ecologista" (ecologist-farmer) movement is under the military's guns.
Desertification is creeping south from the northern badlands. In some rural communities in Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi, it has not rained in 10 years. Over 6 million Mexicans now live in zones designated arid and semi-arid, where only 1 per cent of the nation's annual rainfall ever moistens the hardscrabble ground.
National water distribution by use is seriously skewed: 3 per cent goes to industry and another 12 is dedicated to human consumption. A whopping 83 per cent is lost to (mostly export) agricultural irrigation, virtually all of which runs off before ever being used a second time.
Out in the parched Mexican countryside, water is often the source of homicidal conflict. Last July, on the lake beds just outside Mexico City in the slum city of Chimalhuacan, two PRI factions fought a furious battle over control of the local water authority -- 14 were beaten to death.
In Tepotzlan, Morelos, a few years back, when land speculators tried to build a golf course whose shining greens would have left local campesinos high and dry, the farmers rose up to protect their aquifer. One leader was killed and many jailed before the golf course builders threw in the towel.
With the precious liquid at such a premium, privatization must be the wave of the future. The "pipas" already ply the dry lands, selling off the dubious contents of their tanker trucks. Three thousand "purificadoras"now vend purportedly purified water in 20-litre jugs (much of which is thought to come straight out of the tap).
Bad water also means stupendous profits for soft drink manufacturers. Indeed, per capita Coca-Cola consumption now exceeds the U.S.'s. President Vicente Fox was once the company president. The designer-bottled-water boom is also in full bloom here: 305 distinct labels are now available, according to industry handouts, including brands marketed by Coke, Pepsi and other transnational bottlers.
Cristobal Jaimes, one of Mexico's most successful designer-water magnates ("Electropura"), has been designated national water commissioner by President Fox. Jaimes also heads the Lala milk processing corporation, one of the nation's major industrial consumers of water. To conserve the nation's shrinking water supply, Jaimes advocates a 50-per-cent increase in water rates -- with the appropriate industrial exemptions, of course.
Jaimes's appointment suggests that a For Sale sign will soon be hung out on the nation's waterworks. Already, a combine of four European corporations is re-metering Mexico City (where 60 per cent of consumers do not pay their water bills). The prospective globalization of Mexican water would not be the first foisted on Latin America.
Last year, a consortium involving the Bechtel Corporation tried to buy up Cochabamba, Bolivia's, water system but was forced to flee the country when local farmers blocked roads and threatened to march on the capital.
President Fox, his environmental minister, Victor Lichtinger, and even national security adviser Adolfo Aguilar Zinser have each made it clear that Mexico's water supply is a matter of national security. In typical Fox style, the president, a master of marketing and ballyhoo, has called for a national crusade in defence of water.
The crusade was kicked off in early March here on the shores of the increasingly distant Lake Patzcuaro, a body so imperilled that its famous fishermen are no longer allowed to cast their nets. On hand to underscore the seriousness of the president's campaign were a pop singer (Emanuel), an aging rock idol (Alex Lora) and Adel Ramones, a goofy television comedian.