Slamming the glass of fermented agave pulque drink onto his wooden bar, 56-year-old Wenceslao Vasquez laughed as I pointed at his crumbling ceiling.
“The water has been up to half a meter high when the flooding comes,” said the barman of La Gallina de los Huevos de Oro, or The Hen With The Golden Eggs, a neighborhood pulquería. “Although it doesn’t stop the customers, some of this bar’s best parties have been held in two feet of water.”
Wenceslao’s bar is in Iztapalapa, the largest and most populated borough of Mexico City. As a result of inadequate drainage in his neighborhood, his business is regularly flooded during the country’s intense rainy season.
Wenceslao is stoic about his situation.
“The building itself has been so weakened by regular flooding that it’ll only last a few more years,” he told VICE News as he served pulque, an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave that has been enjoyed in Mexico for centuries. “But the repairs are so costly it would cost me less to tear it down and build it over again.”
Mexico City’s population exploded from 3 million to 20 million over the course of 60 years.
This out-of-control growth made it the first “megacity” of the 20th Century, and that meant much of the city’s urban planning was left to the residents themselves.
In poorer areas such as Iztapalapa, the rudimentary drainage systems are simply no match for the rainy season. So, every summer, Iztapalapa expects extreme floods. And this year’s rainy season has only just begun.
Some of the worst flooding faced by Mexico City in recent memory hit in September 2013. Over the course of the month, 22 gallons of water per square feet fell on the city. Flooding in Iztapalapa reached more than 5.2 feet at its worst, flooding 3,700 homes.
Although the flooding in Iztapalapa was extreme, the federal government spent most of its relief effort on the country’s southern and western Pacific coasts, which was being hammered that September by Manuel, the devastating tropical storm and brief hurricane.
Manuel left tens of thousands of tourists stranded in flooded Acapulco and destroyed parts of the main federal highway to Mexico City. At least 56 people died in mudslides and flooding across the country during Manuel.
At the same time, in Iztapalapa, the worst impacted parts of the borough were declared "disaster zones" by Mexico City’s government. At the height of the natural disaster, boats were the only way to navigate the inundated neighborhoods.
Intestinal infections in September rose by 300 percent city-wide, and 10 cases of cholera were reported, according to reports at the time.
While drainage and sewer lines do run throughout the borough, the haphazard nature of its development means that many houses were built without prior connection to the drainage network.
Communities that don’t have direct connections to the sewer system dump their waste in the main sewer entrances, clogging the water’s access points to the central drainage network when the heavy rains arrive.
During September 2013’s flooding, 58 tons of waste were removed from the drainage networks of Iztapalapa’s "disaster zones."
Fighting the Flooding
One businessman who doesn’t let the flooding get in the way of work is Roman Iniesta.
He owns a garage next to one of Iztapalapa’s main artery, a speedy boulevard known as Eje 8 that turns into a river when the rains come.
“After all these years I’ve learned to deal with the water,” Iniesta said. “I stack sandbags around my entrance and put one of my staff on bucket duty. He bails water out of the window while we carry on as usual.”
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera announced last year an ambitious investment of $15.5 million in projects to resolve the drainage problems that plague the entire capital.
While plans are underway in City Hall to improve the drainage systems and install better waterworks to manage the inundations, richer urbanizations such as the international business satellite city of Santa Fe and the more affluent central borough of Cuauhtémoc will be primary benefactors of these renovations.
Avoiding intense, persistent flooding is only one of Mexico City’s issues with water — what to do with water that is available in the ground is also a source of conflict, as the recent violent protests in the community of San Bartolo Ameyalco demonstrate.
The Forgotten Borough
Iztapalapa, although the city’s largest borough, is often neglected by the municipal government due to its impoverished aspect, said Alejandra Boites, a spokeswoman for public security in the Iztapalapa borough government.
Its allocation for flood-prevention in the city-wide budget is enough to fund an emergency response team, but not for investment in any long-term preventative measures, she added.
“We have teams on standby throughout the rainy season to help in cases of emergencies,” she told VICE News in an interview at the borough offices. “But by that time we’re simply working on damage limitation. We can’t do much to prevent the floods until the city improves the drainage system.”
Rogelio Sánchez, who lives around the block from Wenceslao’s bar, in the barrio of Santa Maria Aztahuacan, was one such resident whose home flood defenses collapsed on the second day of flooding last year.
Today the street-level wall erected to keep the flood waters out of his living room remains demolished following the disaster, boarded up with plywood and loose ballast.
“We lost nearly everything on the ground floor,” Sanchez said. “We still haven’t been able to make repairs because the prices the workmen charge are too high.”
The floods have certainly made more work for the region’s builders, like Joaquin Jímenez, who not only repairs flood damage but installs drainage systems connected to the borough’s network in areas that were hastily constructed without them.
“To get your house connected to the main drainage system you have to get permission from the local government,” he said near the site of his latest project, a month-long installation to connect two houses to the municipal network. “For that you either have to have a close friend in local government, or bribe someone a lot of money.”
“For the majority of people here, neither is feasible,” Jímenez added.
While the rains cause flooding problems on the low ground in the area, escaping to higher ground doesn’t bring much more safety either.
“The rains are a serious danger here when they come down hard,” said Beba Hernández, a resident of the barrio called Cabras (meaning ‘goat’, an apt name, as the slum perches on a hilltop above Iztapalapa). “Landslides are a problem for rapidly-built houses with poor foundations. Recently a family here was killed in their home by rocks dislodged from the mountain during the storms.”
Forced upwards to the 7,300-ft. plateau on which the metropolis sits, tropical storms gather strength as they dip over the volcanic mountain ring that surrounds the city, hammering the densely populated Valley of Mexico for a few hours every day from about late May to early October.
The Aztecs built their original settlement of Tenochtitlan on a vast lake, which was drained by the Spanish conquistadors in order to build the capital of “New Spain.”
Huge reserves of groundwater still remain and the annual rains are not quickly absorbed, causing floods that destroy roads, homes, and businesses.
In 2012, engineers discovered a gigantic water reserve 1.2 miles directly below Iztapalapa. The reserve would be large enough (if tapped) to supply the entire borough with water for 30 years, but it is likely decades away from bringing any benefit to Iztapalapa’s residents.
“The floods have been steadily getting worse in the past decade,” Vasquez said as he settled in for his afternoon siesta beside the bar. “When the waters come, I get more business. People can’t go to work so they come here instead.”
“Something has to change,” he said, dozing off. “Either the waters go, or the people will.”
One solution to this problem might be Urban Island, a Mexico City company that installs rainwater catchment systems for the roofs of houses. Urban Island has installed more than 1,000 of these systems since 2009, but it remains sorely marginalized in most of the dialogue in Mexico about how to manage the flooding problems during the greater rainy season.
The system’s cost and installation fee is $600, far too costly for the majority of Iztapalapa’s residents to place themselves.
According to Antonio Cervantes Lozada, a spokesman for the small company, Urban Island is in talks with the Iztapalapa government to install subsidized systems in the most affected areas.
“It’s a benefit to a household,” Lozada said. “But it often happens that if the system has been installed for free, then the house owners don’t recognize its value and take no care of it. … We need to strike the balance.”