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Great Lakes Article:

Mexican forum to pool suggestions on future water policies
Dry capital shows cost of bad planning
By Chris Hawley
Published March 17, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- Thousands of water experts are gathered in the Mexican capital to discuss some scary stuff: future droughts measured in millions of deaths, possible wars fought over rivers and how bad water management could scar civilization forever.

They couldn't have picked a more telling site. The world's second-biggest metropolis (after Tokyo) is an example of how to destroy a paradise by sucking away its water. It's a lesson that other dry places should pay attention to, experts say.

When Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the Venice of Latin America, an island city surrounded by floating gardens, canals and causeways. An aqueduct carried pristine water to the city from springs on Chapultepec Hill.

Now, the lakes are gone, the water table is dropping, and the city is literally sinking into the earth. Buildings are being ripped apart as the ground shrivels beneath them. The old lake bed becomes a killing field during earthquakes.

With a centuries-old history of problems, it's a fitting location for the water forum, which brings together 13,000 scientists, activists, diplomats and water officials for six days of seminars and debate.

Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of State for democracy and global affairs, is leading the U.S. government's 77-member delegation.

At the end of the meeting Wednesday, government representatives are expected to issue a declaration outlining policies that should be followed. The recommendations have no legal force but can influence policy-makers, said Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute.

"There are countries all over the world that share the same watersheds, and different frictions have developed over them," said Jose Antonio Rodriguez Tirado, coordinator of regional delegations. "There are a lot of issues in that respect that have not been resolved."

Among the representatives coming from 121 nations are Japan's Prince Naruhito and the Netherlands' Prince Willem-Alexander.

They will be meeting near the shore of a long-disappeared lake, part of the complex water system that once surrounded Tenochtitlan. Aztecs built huge floating mats to grow their food and used boats to move produce along canals.

After the conquest, the Spaniards drained the highland lakes. In the 1840s, the city began drilling wells. As the aquifer was used up, the center of the city began to sink.

Since the early 1900s, the downtown has dropped 30 feet, buckling as it goes. Colonial buildings are tilting and cracked. Cables and massive turnbuckles keep old churches from splitting apart. A third of the city's drinking water is lost through snapped pipes.

In recent years, the sinking has slowed to less than a quarter-inch per year, mainly because the ground can't compress much further. But the suburb of Nezahualcoyotl is still dropping about a foot a year.

The sinking has brought back the flooding. Some parts of the city have to get water from tanker trucks or even have it delivered by burros.

"It's many problems coming one after another, and there's no easy solution to it," said Maria Vicenta Esteller, a researcher at Mexico's Interamerican Water Resources Center.




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