RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The fourth World Water Forum begins today in Mexico City. Hundreds of water conservation groups, government representatives, and scientists will spend the next several days discussing the world's most precious resource. The irony is their gathering in a city that would flunk any test of good water management.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro reports on Mexico City's water woes.
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LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO reporting:
In the still waters of the canals in an area Xochimilco, Santos Contreras uses a long wooden pole to push his gondola along. As he propels himself, he explains that these present day canals are the last vestiges of the Aztec city called Tenochtitlán.
Mr. SANTOS CONTRERAS: (Through Translator) The Aztecs were once wanderers. Their religious leader told them when they saw the sign of an eagle eating a snake that would be the place where their city would be built. The problem was that the sign came on a lake.
NAVARRO: They settled there anyway, using mud from the lakebed to build islands. Slowly, but inexorably, the islands became city blocks; they in turn became the neighborhoods that now make up the megapolis that became the Mexican capitol.
Mr. CONTRERAS: (Through Translator) Mexico City was once all water, pure water. This is all that is left of that.
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NAVARRO: The heart of present day Mexico is Zócalo, a teeming, enormous square that has at one end the Municipal Palace, and at the other, the National Cathedral. Protestors, hawkers and tourists, all come together in this historic district under a veil of smog produced by the over 20 million people who now live here. All that remains of the lakes is a vast aquifer deep underground. And to supply the expanding population with water, enormous amounts have been pumped out over the years, which has led to a problem.
Mr. JAVIER CORTEZ ROCHAS (Government Architect): The center of the city is sinking. If the buildings sink evenly, there's no problem. The problem is when one part sinks more than others.
NAVARRO: Javier Cortez Rochas is an architect in the Mexican government. He says you only have to look at Mexico's cathedrals to see what has happened here. At one point, one side of the church has sunk almost eight feet, leaving the building badly lopsided. Mexican engineers had helped shore up the structure, they did such a good job, they've been advising preservationists at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
But the cathedral is not alone. Walk around the capitol and you'll see now exposed pipes sticking several feet above the ground, looking like installation art; cracked walls and warped sidewalks, too. Some neighborhoods have been sinking at a rate of a foot a year.
Mr. ÉLAN ADLER (Professor of water technology, Mexico City): With 22 million people nowadays, and growing and expanding population, we've slowly depleted our aquifers and most of the water we had below us. And since the 70s and 80s, we've been actually bringing water from other states.
NAVARRO: Élan Adler(ph) is a professor of water technology in Mexico City. He says despite that measure, people have less and less water here.
Mr. ADLER: In the 1950s in Mexico, we used to have approximately 12,000 liters per person per year, that's like a national average. Nowadays, Mexico, as a country, has 4,000 liters per person per year. So, we, as a country have three times less water today than what we had 50 years ago, per person.
NAVARRO: Another staggering statistic, 40 percent of Mexico City's water is lost due to bad pipes. And that means millions of people here don't have regular access to water.
Olga Hernandez desperately washes her clothes in a poor neighborhood in Mexico City. For the first time in five days, water is coming through the pipes and she's got to take advantage.
Ms. OLGA HERNANDEZ (Resident, Mexico City): (Through Translator) We'll hear the water suddenly turn on when we're sleeping. I leave my window open, and I tell my husband the water is on, and we get up and start collecting it.
NAVARRO: The courtyard is littered with buckets, barrels and basins filled to the brim, to hold her family through the days when the water is shutoff.
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NAVARRO: Back in Xochimilco, Santos Contreras says that these canals were almost lost six years ago, because people were draining the water here, too. But now, though polluted, these last vestiges of an ancient city are being enjoyed by visitors who come to see an older Mexico City. As he paddles on, a boat filled with musicians, who ply their trade along the waterways, pulls along side. They play a tune called The Boatman, written to honor the last canals here and the people who work on them.
(Soundbite of "The Boatman")
Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.
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