Two articles in the Sunday New York Times
revealed that some residents of Mexico City and
Charleston, West Virginia, share a common bond: lack of clean water. While drought and leaks have drained Mexico City’s reservoirs, pollution and run-off from coal plants has befouled water supplies in West Virginia’s small towns. But in both cases, the less powerful are the ones stuck up the creek without a paddle.
No Water for the Poor in Mexico City
Mexico’s worst drought in 60 years has depleted the massive Cutzamala system, which brings water from miles to the west to meet the needs of the capital. In response, officials have begun to restrict the water supply in many poor neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the lawns of rich neighborhoods are suspiciously green. According to a National Polytechnic Institute study cited by the NYT, the city’s wealthy households consume four to fives times as much water as poor households on the city’s east side.
Iztapalapa, “the city’s largest and poorest borough, has endured sporadic cuts this year, including one in April when water was shut off for 36 hours,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Water Stories,” a Wilson Center multimedia project, depicts the lives of residents of Iztapalapa’s apartment buildings and shacks, where the water runs for only an hour a day (if that).
If population growth, water demand, and drought continue, authorities now warn that Mexico City may run out of water by February 2010. Other cities are in the same boat: “Los Angeles, Beijing, and Singapore are just a few of the world’s urban centers struggling to accommodate growing populations with dwindling supplies of drinkable water,” reports the WSJ.
Black Water and Clean Coal in West Virginia
Farther north, in a small community outside of Charleston, West Virginia, Jennifer Hall-Massey is living every mother’s nightmare. The latest installment in the NYT‘s “Toxic Waters” series depicts her growing realization that “we’ve got to get the kids out of here,” as her young sons’ scabs won’t heal and the neighbors develop tumors from the heavy metals in the water. But they can’t sell the house, so she cuts the kids’ bath time short to limit their exposure to the toxic soup.
While the series focuses on improving water quality enforcement across the country—and includes an interactive database of effluent violators—I hope that it also helps expose one of the greatest misnomers of all time: “clean coal.” If coal production continues to create slurry ponds full of heavy metals seeping into drinking water, no amount of carbon sequestration will clean up the mess.
It strikes me that if another country was shaving off the mountain tops of one of its most beautiful ranges and contaminating the drinking water with deadly toxins—in a region with a long history of poverty and oppression—I think we in the United States would not call it “clean.” According to a new report from Catholic Relief Services, the lack of water in both Mexico City and West Virginia is a form of “structural violence.”
Is it Safe?
The minds of most readers, however, will turn instead to a more personal question: How safe is my water? The NYT’s Cornelia Dean recommends using filters, although she notes that they won’t help against emerging contaminants like prescription drugs.
But will fear push people back to bottled water, after some successful campaigns to make it less fashionable? Bottled water may not be any better. According to Peter Gleick, whose new book on bottled water will be published by Island Press in 2010, “a substantial amount of the bottled water sold in the United States — around 60 percent — comes from groundwater.”
But there’s hope. As Gleick reports in his blog, solving water contamination problems is based on two simple principles: “don’t let the contamination into our water supply in the first place, or apply the right filters to clean it up when it does.” New EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the NYT that “strengthening water protections is among her top priorities”—and the EPA just announced that it will review 79 mountain-top removal permits for water pollution.
Unfortunately, Mexico City’s approach to its water supply problem—ad campaigns and inequitable rationing—doesn’t seem as promising.
Photo: Tubs of water in the Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Courtesy J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue.