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April 14, 2001 Mexico Grows Parched, With Pollution and Politics By TIM WEINER

HIMALHUACÁN, Mexico, April 13 — In this grim slum 12 miles past Mexico City's eastern edge, the lives of thousands of families depend on Enrique García and his partners at the local pump house.

But, as Mr. García said as he watched thousands of gallons flow from a dwindling underground aquifer, "Who knows if it'll last?"

The Chimalhuacán slum is growing rapidly, and the water may turn toxic before it runs dry: the pump house lies a quarter mile from an enormous open sewer and the municipal garbage dump.

Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, calls water "a national security issue," and it is not hard to see why. Mexico lies along the same latitudes as the Sahara, and nearly half its land is bone dry. It has less drinking water per capita than Egypt, and 60 percent less than it did 50 years ago.

At that rate, the harsh truth is that someday — not this year, maybe not this decade, but before too long — Mexico could start dying of thirst.

Roughly 12 million people, one out of eight Mexicans, the poorest of the poor, have no easy access to drinking water at all. Those who can afford it pay dearly to have it trucked to their homes. Those without the money have to drink what they can find. Bad water kills thousands every year.

"There is no place in this country, with the exception of maybe one or two cities, like Monterrey, where you can drink the water without worrying you're going to get sick," said Victor Lichtinger, the environmental minister. The national water commissioner, Cristóbal Jaime Jaquez, says 73 percent of Mexico's water, underground and above, is contaminated and a danger to public health.

Almost every river and stream in the nation is polluted — 93 percent of them, the government says.

Rather than wellsprings of life, President Fox has said, they have become "a lethal source of sickness" after "decades of having been overexploited, without planning, without sense."

To stop the contamination, and to treat enough water to keep pace with people's needs, the water commission says, Mexico must spend at least $30 billion over the next decade. Mexico does not have that kind of money, nor even enough to maintain the water-treatment facilities it already has. For example, in Chiapas State, there are 13 treatment plants; for lack of money and maintenance, not one is working.

Mexico City, home to nearly 20 million people, is draining its immense underground aquifer, lowering it by as much as 11 feet a year and causing some of the city's most famous buildings, like the National Cathedral, the largest and oldest in Latin America, to bend and droop like a reflection from a funhouse mirror.

With the aquifer close to depleted, the city now pumps water nearly a mile uphill, from as much as 125 miles away, and half of that trickles away in leaks and cracks. The lost water would be enough to slake the thirst of the whole of Los Angeles. Some of the city's aqueducts date to Aztec times, five centuries ago, and replacing the century-old pipes beneath the city's streets could take decades, if it ever gets done.

Mr. Lichtinger, the environment minister, says there are in fact ways to begin to deal with a problem that has confounded a generation of Mexican scientists and environmentalists. But this will first require an overhaul of some sacrosanct political traditions.

Water has been used as a political tool in Mexico for decades. Under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which ran almost everything in Mexico from 1929 until Mr. Fox took office on Dec. 1, "water was a key to getting votes," Mr. Lichtinger said. "Decisions about where to deliver water were linked to politics, political favors, political alliances. Promises were made — `If you vote for us, you'll get water' — and that meant a lot."

One reason the PRI lost power last year was that it broke too many promises to too many poor people, eroding what had been its strongest political base.

In Chimalhuacán, for example, the PRI's power broker until last year was Guadalupe Buendía, nicknamed La Loba, the she-wolf. She controlled the water supply — and almost everything else, because her husband was the municipal treasurer, and a first cousin was the mayor. If someone crossed her, she would cut off their water, and their neighbors' too, for good measure. She was jailed last summer after instigating a riot against her cousin's successor as mayor, a riot in which 10 people died.

But the party kept many promises to more prosperous Mexicans. And one result is that agribusinesses, mining firms and cattle ranchers across Mexico get their water free. They consume at least 70 percent of the nation's water, losing half of it through evaporation, leaks and profligacy, according to most estimates.

Mr. Lichtinger says most of those enterprises are going to have to start paying for their water, if Congress passes a new tax law proposed by Mr. Fox. "That's the most important thing — starting to charge big agribusinesses," the minister said. "That's the beginning."

The money could reopen the closed plants in Chiapas and pay for new ones in Mexico's poorest states, like Oaxaca, where 54 of every 100,000 people die each year from bad water, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It could help save the wells feeding the city of Mérida, capital of Yucatán State, where sewage and industrial waste threatens the city's water supply. Today, only 14 percent of Mexico's municipal and industrial wastewater is treated at all.

And the money could help lay the groundwork for a rational way to cope with Mexico City's water problems, which have defied solution, and where water subsidies alone consume more than 1 percent of Mexico's entire federal budget.

"We have subsidized the rich and the middle class much more than the poor," Mr. Lichtinger said. "We have to have clearer criteria." For too long, he added, those criteria have been "not poverty, not health, but power."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Martin Thompson (, April 14, 2001

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