A/D/O | Can Isla Urbana solve Mexico City’s water crisis?

Solving Mexico City’s water crisis

Isla Urbana is installing rainwater harvesting systems across Mexico City and imbuing an eco-tech philosophy in the minds of residents.

Mexico City’s water crisis is a story of tragic irony. When the Spanish invaded and took control of Tenochtitlan, they destroyed its technologically advanced hydraulic infrastructure and decided to drain the lake it sat on. Their shortsighted efforts, committed in the name of “civilization,” marked the end of life in harmony with water for the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico and the beginning of centuries of both savage floods and cultural estrangement from the Valley’s most abundant element.

The city today gets about 70% of its water from the aquifer beneath the dry lakebed. Most of the  rest is pumped in from the states of Mexico and Michoacan using as much electricity daily as the city of Puebla. A whopping 40% (an official and probably conservative estimate) of water from both sources is lost to leaky pipes. Ten million people, mostly in semi-informal and periurban areas, lack access to safe water. By official counts (but again, probably conservative) 20% of the city’s population doesn’t have water that comes in their taps every day. This is partially because Mexico City has grown from 30 to 3,000 square miles since 1960 and the City hasn’t been able to build enough water infrastructure to keep up.

The perniciously unrelenting growth has simultaneously witnessed: the paving over of the porous ground that, for millennia, absorbed the enormous quantity of rain that falls in the valley every year which replenished the aquifer; and increasing extraction of water from the aquifer to meet the demands of the population. This is why Mexico City today suffers concurrent droughts and flooding. If nothing changes, the future is certain: less in, more out is a simple equation.

“When we started working in hillside communities, people didn’t have water in their houses, but during the rainy season their streets turned into rivers so big that cars would float away on them,” Nabani Vera Tenorio, director of communications for Isla Urbana, told The Journal. Climate change is expected to bring even more rain to the region. “Collecting rainwater is not going to fix the flooding problem. What we’re trying to do is build [awareness] of how to use this resource we have too much of and don’t know what to do with.”

Isla Urbana started as Renata Fenton and Enrique Lomnitz’s joint senior thesis project at RISD’s industrial design program. It’s now a design startup that, since 2009, has built, installed, and raised awareness about rainwater harvesting systems. “We consider ourselves activist designers,” said Fenton, who is now the studio’s design director. “The idea is that you face problems creatively and pragmatically. We want to change the paradigm of design in Mexico so that it addresses real human needs. We want to be both economically and environmentally sustainable.” Isla Urbana works commercially, creating sustainable technologies for the market while simultaneously bringing their systems to Mexico’s most marginalized communities.

The most visible aspect of their work is a big bright-blue square: the incredibly cheap-to-produce and simple-to-use rainwater filtration system they engineered and continue to iterate. But the majority of their work is neither cheap nor simple: rather than merely installing the systems in houses, they make a huge effort to embed them in communities through intensive community involvement and education initiatives.

After seven years of iterating its filtration system and community work methodologies, Isla Urbana teamed up with an environmental scientist, Claudia Sheinbaum, who was then the president of Tlalpan – the borough of Mexico City with the most residents that had to get water by truck. Sheinbaum herself lived in a house without water for almost 20 years. Isla Urbana installed 3,276 systems in Tlalpan. Then, last July, Sheinbaum was elected mayor.

Three weeks ago, armed with a city contract, Isla Urbana embarked on its biggest project yet – Mexico City’s (and possibly the world’s) biggest urban rainwater harvesting project ever: 10,000 systems across the Iztapalapa and Xochimilco boroughs. It’s a new scale of work for what was, until a month ago, a 40-person organization. They’ve since more than doubled in staff. And yes, they’re very, very excited.

“We have a vision of a whole rainwater harvesting city,” Fenton said. “This is a first step toward that vision. We’re doing our best to keep it growing.” Isla Urbana hopes to install 100,000 units in the next six years. Right now they’re trying to anticipate what it’s going to take scale up without compromising what’s important to them: perfect installations, deep community work, and extensive follow-up.

“It makes all the difference how you approach people to talk about the water problem; how you explain the concept of harvesting, and whether you continue to follow up,” said Vera. “That’s the difference between us and a traditional government program. We don’t just throw solutions at people and leave; we want every person to understand why they don’t have water before we install their system. We want them to keep harvesting rainwater. We want to build a culture around it.”

The team hopes to build this culture within the communities they work in, but also to transmit it to people who do have water. That’s why Isla Urbana also produces curriculum, workshops, digital content, parties, public theater, community murals, expositions, and even puppet shows to spread the message. Most of this work is inside of Mexico, but they’re currently displaying their filtration system in Paola Antonelli’s Broken Nature exhibition in Milan where it’s one of the few exhibits showcasing functional currently in-use designs.

Isla Urbana is not just trying to install rainwater harvesting systems on houses. The team is trying to install rainwater harvesting in the public imagination. Ultimately, Isla Urbana wants to repair the relationship between the people of the Valley of Mexico and their water supply.

The Isla Urbana crew talks a lot about healing people’s relationship to nature. It seems to be what actually motivates them. But it’s not what made them so successful. According to Vera, it was it’s been their ability to learn to navigate the public and private sectors:

“It’s not enough to have a good idea. We want a new market for rainwater harvesting and we want the public policy in place to facilitate it. To scale it up significantly, you have to understand the insane logics of governments and how the capitalist world actually works. You have to learn how to show that your idea is actually good business. It’s a matter of learning to speak to powerful actors in a way they understand.”  

Isla Urbana is an eco-tech success case study. Their technology is surely viable in other global contexts – especially other rapidly growing informal, peri-urban swaths – where there’s a lot of rain and little access to water. But their integrated business structure and thoughtful methodologies provide even bigger takeaways for eco-tech projects all over the world. For real uptake of a new technology solution, you need to start by changing the way people understand and view the problem.

“We want a water-supply paradigm shift,” said Vera. “Once that happens, we don’t care if the systems are Isla Urbana brand.”