Every Last Drop
Alberta Garduño Espinosa, a 60-year-old grandmother, sometimes gets in line for a water delivery the night before it arrives. Her home in the Mexico City district of Iztapalapa technically has plumbing, but the water pressure is so low that it rarely makes it through the taps of the homes in her neighborhood. When water is scarce—as it usually is—she might stay up all night waiting for the water truck known as the pipa, for the pipes it uses to fill up cisterns. If no one is there to meet the pipa, it might pass the neighborhood by. Garduño Espinosa hopes to be among the first to fill up her colorful plastic containers, which she will load onto a piece of plywood on wheels and push home. If she is lucky, the water will last her until the next pipa arrives—which could be anywhere from a day to two weeks later.
Mexico City’s low-income residents depend on water deliveries to sustain their daily lives, and the schedules of Garduño Espinosa and the other women in her neighborhood are closely tied to the erratic rhythms of the pipas—a ritual so demanding it can prevent women in poor neighborhoods from holding a job outside the home. According to the city’s government, nearly 20 percent of its 21 million residents can’t count on having running water on any given day. The severity of water scarcity in Greater Mexico City—a metropolitan area of 3,037 square miles, built on what was once the basin of a lake—has been compounded by factors such as climate change and overpopulation, and the subterranean Valley of Mexico aquifer on which the city depends for much of its drinking water has not continued to replenish itself during recent rainy seasons, due in part to the pavement covering the city.
In Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous district, more than a third of the 1.8 million residents live in poverty, often with no running water—either because their homes were built with no permits or plumbing, or because the city just doesn’t maintain infrastructure in poorer, more remote neighborhoods.
By contrast, those living in middle class and wealthy areas tend to both have running water in their homes and be able to buy bottled drinking water. If wealthier residents find their taps running dry—as might happen once or twice a year—they can pay for a private pipa company to deliver water at a cost of anywhere from 60 to 75 US dollars per 10,000-liter truck. The public water deliveries to neighborhoods like Iztapalapa are theoretically free, the pipas regulated by the Water System of Mexico City (SACMEX). Iztapalapa residents order water via telephone, and although there may be a vague time set for delivery, in practice, when and how often pipas arrive is often a mystery.
Pipas start their deliveries in the west, closer to the Cutzamala reservoir system—provider of about 30 percent of Mexico City’s water—and they fill up at sites known as garzas. When pipas arrive in a neighborhood, there needs to be someone waiting to receive them. At 11 a.m. on a Friday, Norma Calderón, 37, stands in the middle of an unpaved street talking on the phone. She has already coordinated three water-truck deliveries to her neighborhood, and she will coordinate at least three more that day—unpaid work that can last until evening, since pipa drivers have no fixed schedule or route. Not only that, but Iztapalapa is both poor and on the east side of the city, far from the reservoir system.
Calderón’s job is to direct the drivers to the various giant plastic water barrels around the neighborhood, where they will each deliver 10,000 or more liters of water several days a week—although sometimes they bring less than that, or don’t come at all. The water that arrives in Iztapalapa is sometimes brown (or as one local described it, “tamarind”) after its voyage in a rusty, old truck, and it will sit uncovered in communal plastic barrels until residents—usually women who stay at home with children or elders—fill up smaller plastic receptacles with it and carry it home for daily household needs.
“I do this for my neighborhood,” says Calderón, who only takes Sundays off from coordinating her area’s water delivery. She shares a home with nine family members, including two grandchildren, and says it is a struggle to keep her family healthy when they have to bathe in dirty water. And when water isn’t delivered for some 15 days—as was the case this past June—she can’t afford to buy the water she would need to bathe her grandkids. “When kids arrive at school dirty, they tell them they smell bad and send them home,” she explains, looking at the ground, her hand clutching her phone.
As Jacobo Espinoza Hilario, a researcher at the Commission for the River Basin Amecameca at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, explains, one of the central problems is that 70 percent of the city’s water comes from wells drawing on the aquifer, which are exploited 300 percent more than would be considered sustainable. (He adds that this doesn’t include the many illegal or unregistered wells in Mexico City which locals drill without permits.) Frequent earthquakes—Mexico sits at the boundary of three fault lines—also pose challenges to aging subterranean pipes, which now lose 25 to 35 percent of the water they carry to leaks.
Espinoza Hilario says the last time the water situation was stable in Mexico City was when it was Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire from 1325 to 1521. The Mexicas, as the indigenous people of the Aztec empire were known, built their city on an island in the middle of what was then Lake Texcoco—but the conquering Spaniards later drained the lake, expanding their city onto the spongy clay they found underneath. Espinoza Hilario says that now for every liter that makes it into the Valley of Mexico aquifer from rainfall, the city draws four. Because of this, the ground is constantly sinking, throwing buildings such as the Metropolitan Cathedral permanently off-kilter; Mexico City has sunk an average of 24 feet over the last century. “Even if we stopped taking everything out of the wells now, the city would continue sinking,” Espinoza Hilario added.
The first pipas hit the road in the late 1970s, and José Luis de León’s father drove one of the first to deliver in Iztapalapa. When de Léon was 19, he started working for his father; now his son, Ángel, drives a water truck, too. De Léon, 61 and semi-retired, says that when his father started his business, water trucks could only hold up to 8,000 liters, and there were only three pipas that delivered water to the district. Today water trucks can carry between 10,000 and 40,000 liters, and the district is serviced by up to 348 trucks making 1,800 trips a day.
De Léon and other pipa drivers say they have been regularly hijacked on the job, using the verb secuestrar, or “kidnap” in Spanish: people desperate for water stop trucks, pull out machetes or guns, and demand that the driver redirect water deliveries to their neighborhood. “It gets worse every day,” says de Léon’s daughter-in-law, Fabiola Nuñez de León, 41, who has lived in the area for 15 years. “Every day people get more aggressive. The young people set water trucks on fire. I wouldn’t call it kidnapping exactly, but they have held my husband and forced him to deliver water.”
Even women can be fierce with drivers, says José Luis de León; they have shouted insults and gotten physical with him and other drivers when water hasn’t been delivered. “Women have always made decisions in the streets and at home. Always,” he says. “Because they are at home, they are the ones who need water. The men who work don’t even realize if there isn’t water. When women get together, it is difficult to control them!”
Sometimes, Alberta Garduño Espinosa says, “We wait in line here for water that will never arrive. Ten years ago, it was different: whoever gave [the drivers] more money got water, and those who didn’t, well, got nothing.” Now when water doesn’t arrive for days or weeks, Garduño Espinosa says that she and other women in the neighborhood organize, file complaints, make calls, and, as a last resort: “We all go, women who are 60, 70, 75 years old, and we shut down the streets.”
“Women have always made decisions in the streets and at home. Always. They are the ones who need water.”
José Luis de León says he remembers women starting to close the streets in Iztapalapa as a tactic to get water delivered about 25 years ago. Now Nancy Hinojosa, 34, says that roughly every two months, when water isn’t delivered, she organizes 500 to 600 women in the neighborhood to shut down a major thoroughfare in protest, physically blocking passage with their bodies to get the attention of local authorities. Unfortunately, in their experience, pursuing formal bureaucratic paths such as calling the water company or going to company offices to request water delivery does not have the same effect. “We take the kids with us because we don’t have anyone to care for them,” says Lorena Anaya, 34, who lives in the same neighborhood as Hinojosa. Hinojosa says that when they stage these protests, a representative from the local delegation will eventually show up; then they will require him to make the call to request the water trucks in their presence. This past June, an angry driver ran over three protestors from the crowd blocking the streets. (They survived.)
Hinojosa and Anaya both explain that although the public pipas deliveries are theoretically free, water often comes with conditions. The drivers might ask for small cash bribes or soft drinks or snacks in return for water. Sometimes, at the request of local politicians, they will make water delivery conditional on residents’ political affiliation: politicians have stopped by and promised that water would always be delivered to residents if they would serve as protesters-on-demand for different issues at the request of their political party. But “we don’t support any political party,” says Hinojosa; regardless of whether the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) or the National Action Party (PAN) has been in power during her ten years in the neighborhood, she explains, getting water delivered has always been a struggle.
“On the news, they always talk about the importance of water education, of not wasting water,” she continues, “but the people who have the resources when they turn on their faucets—they are the ones who waste it the most. Because we have few economic resources, we fight for it and we know what it means to carry water home.”
Norma Calderón waits in the street as morning stretches into afternoon. Women and girls of all ages walk by, brightly colored buckets in hand, on their way to the water barrels. Despite all the work done to secure its arrival, sometimes the water that is delivered is too dirty to use, or doesn’t arrive for days or weeks. Then the women who can afford it buy bottled water to bathe their children, at about 40 pesos for 20 liters. (“Buying water is expensive,” says Hinojosa, “but buying medicine is going to cost me even more.”) Others, like Calderón, who have fewer resources, live with the shame of having their grandchildren sent home from school for being dirty, their education interrupted for as long as they can’t bathe. Women and children’s daily lives are defined by the cycle of fetching, carrying, storing, and recycling water. As Hinojosa says, “The only constant in our lives is water scarcity.”
“Buying water is expensive, but buying medicine is going to cost me even more.”