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9 April 2009

A quarter million people, including myself, went without running water when — ironically enough — “The Great Flood of 1993” — took out the Des Moines, Iowa water pumping station, and it took eleven days (and a hell of a lot of sandbags, engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to overcome our perverse pride in suddenly being known as the stinkiest city in America.


Fisgon, in Jornada

There was flood water everywhere, as well as “Flood-weiser” (the breweries canned water and distributed it free everywhere… I spent more than one night on the sandbagging lines with a ball-park beer tray tossing out cans) as well as National Guard water distribution plants in all the parks, so it really was more an inconvenience than anything else.  Every day was “casual Friday” at work, and it took some ingenuity to stay clean, but people more or less got by.

This was national, and international news at the time.  Modern cities have gone without electricity for a time, or had other breakdowns in what are considered essential services, but not their water systems.  We assume the water is always there (and, in wet places like Iowa, it is), but water is just taken for granted.  Even in desert communities (like Los Angeles, or Phoenix), people don’t think about the water.  They better start.

The complete shutdown of the Cutzamala station for the next three days is going to leave 5,000,000 people with no running water.  There doesn’t seem to be much international coverage on either because we assume Mexican infrastructure will collapse or because we assume Mexicans can tolerate anything… or, most likely, we assume Mexico is a special case, and what happens there is uniquely Mexican.

Of course, “¡Como México no hay dos!” when it comes to geographic and geological challenges, and the strain on a water system in a city that’s grown exponentially over the last half century, coupled with what was considered good engineering practices for the last 500 years (draining Lake Tezcoco) made Mexico City’s water system more vulerable to dramatic problems than others.

And, of course, Mexicans are extremely tolerant and resourceful, having spent the last couple of milenia figuring out how to live in a challenging environment where the basics can’t always be counted on.

But, 5 million people shut off?  I think there’s an assumption that Mexicans go down to a  well, and fill up big clay pots that they load on the back of a burro… then, of course, take a siesta under a cactus (with a big sombrero to block out the sun).  Or people just don’t think of water as a limited resource.

It is.  What struck me in Des Moines was the panic over going without water in the taps… and how flummoxed everyone was by the idea of not having potable water… water you could drink.  Despite the stereotypes, people do drink Mexico City tapwater (though it tastes crappy, and nearly everyone has a garafon or two of ozonated water delivered every week for drinking water) and, in some ways, the only reason this is a huge story even in Mexico City is that for the first time, even wealthy and “first world” colonias are going to be shut off.

There will be plenty of finger-pointing  and attempts to spin the situation for political advantage (there already is), and I expect to hear more demands — especially from people who wouldn’t be affected by it — that water, like other natural resources — must be privatized, or that some magic economic solution will resolve the problems we can expect to have with water over the coming years, but right now, the infrastructe — pumping stations and pipelines — need urgent repairs.

This should be a wake-up call to start paying attention to the basics, but I expect we’ll wake up one morning in Chicago, or New York or London shocked, shocked that OUR systems have just stopped working and we won’t have a clue how it happened.  Same way it’s happening in Mexico City.  Just not paying attention to the basics of life.

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