Mexico’s capital city teems with skyscrapers in wealthy neighborhoods like Reforma, a testament to the wealth that exists here.
On a clear day you can see them from the San Gregorio neighborhood, just 15 miles away as the crow flies.
But in San Gregorio, there is no wealth. There are some places with no running water with which to wash your hands, in the midst of the pandemic.
‘Everyone here suffers from a lack of water.’
San Gregorio sits in the chronically poor Xochimilco district of the city, where poverty rates hover around 40 percent according to the latest government data.
Drive around and you’ll run across oil drum-sized blue plastic containers, often grouped together. These barrels are where city water trucks, called “pipas,” deposit water to be used by the barrels’ owners.
Victoria Arias Lopez, 26, is one of many neighbors who depend on these water deliveries. The barrels help for everyday household needs.
“Every 15 days, they come here to leave us water,” Arias Lopez told CNN. “We always have to clean trash out of the buckets before the ‘pipas’ come.”
The water only lasts her family about three days. Though the government says it’s potable water, Arias Lopez says it’s too dirty to drink. She doesn’t know when these trucks get maintenance or if the water is actually good quality for drinking. Besides, she says, there is also the accumulation of leaves and dirt which gather inside the containers from one fill-up to the next.
So, her family uses the water for washing dishes and clothes, and buys drinking water. Each bottle of water costs 150 pesos—slightly more than a day’s wages for her husband.
As for the laundry, a public washing station is a 15-minute taxi drive away. Inside are two rows of a dozen or so concrete sinks, each with ridged bottoms to wash clothes against.
Water pumped from a government-owned tap runs through an open space beneath the sinks. The washers dip small buckets into the water below and pour it out over sudsy clothes above.
Locals come here from all around. “The truth is we suffer a lot with water,” said a woman named Lucero who declined to provide her last name, setting aside her wash. “All the neighbors do.”
It rains in Mexico City almost every day for six months per year. Yet years of poor city planning, a lack of infrastructure investment and corruption have led to severe water shortages. The city’s public water lines do not extend into this neighborhood.
Government data from 2018 shows that about 20 percent of Mexico City’s population doesn’t have access to water every day, the majority of which live in the city’s poorest areas.
That made life hard for millions of people—and then came the pandemic. These water-starved areas are among the worst effected localities in the entire country, both in terms of deaths and confirmed cases.
How do you wash your hands without water? You don’t.
There are government signs all over the city telling residents what to do ‘contra el Coronavirus,’ against the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 730,000 cases and 76,430 deaths across the country.
Right at or near the top of these signs it often says ‘lavate las manos constantemente con agua y jabón,’ wash your hands constantly with water and soap.
It is good advice during a pandemic. But if you don’t have running water, how do you do that? The answer—you don’t.
“Honestly, [the government] doesn’t know the situation that we live with,” says Arias Lopez. “They say wash your hands, but they’ve got water in the center of the city. We don’t out here.”
Arias Lopez and 12 family members share two barebones concrete houses with a common courtyard. The water they do have comes from a rag-tag rainwater collection system they rigged up over the years.
During the wet season, rain collects on a dirty, slanted rooftop that funnels the water toward a hole chiseled into the concrete. It runs down through a series of PVC pipes joined together with electric tape, before collecting in a barrel two stories below.
The water is too dirty to wash with until they let it sit for three days, enough time for sediment to settle, and add some bleach. Drinking it is out of the question.
“We wash our hands sometimes, like after the bathroom or before the kids eat,” says Arias Lopez. “But we don’t have enough water to wash them often.”
Though that is about to change. Arias Lopez was chosen recently by non-profit Isla Urbana, whose mission is to increase sustainable access to water, to receive an improved rainfall collection system.
A series of pipes will send the water through a filtration system, helped by a motorized pump that speeds up the process. A newly installed, 2,500 liter cistern will then hold onto the water until they’re ready to use it. They’ll be able to wash with it immediately, and with just one more filtration, drink it. Isla Urbana tells CNN the rainwater catching systems they install have six steps of “filtering and treatment.”
“With the first six phases, the water meets the federal norms” for potable water in Mexico, says Emilio Becerril, Isla Urbana’s Public Policy and Management Coordinator. An additional seventh step of filtering the water with activated charcoal filter makes the water even cleaner for drinking.
Rainwater catching systems are becoming “necessary as the availability of good quality water declines,” the World Health Organization (WHO) says on their website. And good filtration along with safe practices of disinfecting water are key in communities’ access to drinking water, a life necessity.
Arias Lopez smiles knowing her laborious days to obtaining drinking water for her sons and family have become easier. It means less going out, more handwashing, saving money and better protection from an epidemic.
“I’m so excited,” she says.
The black pipes and brown cistern don’t look like much but make no mistake, they are a luxury—a luxury most of her neighbors don’t have.