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HomeWorld News‘Environmental Hell’: A Small Town Grapples With Pollution From Mexico City

‘Environmental Hell’: A Small Town Grapples With Pollution From Mexico City

TULA DE ALLENDE, MEXICO — On the night of Sept. 6, 2021, the Tula River ran over its banks, flooding the streets of Tula de Allende, a city of 115,000 people around 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Mexico City. It reached up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) high, damaged 2,500 buildings and caused failures in the electrical system. Seventeen people died.

The damage didn’t ebb with the water. As it receded, it left a foul-smelling mud behind, clinging to walls and objects. “Even after cleaning with bleach and vinegar, the stains and the smell remained,” says María Elena Sánchez, a Tula de Allende resident. “The Civil Protection personnel told us to throw away all [the furniture], that even after cleaning with bleach, it wouldn’t be safe to use it.”

The Tula River is one of the most contaminated in Mexico. For centuries, wastewater from Mexico City — a megalopolis of more than 22 million people built on a lakebed with no water outflows — has been poured in the Tula without treatment, with little thought of the consequences downstream.

Deadly outflows like that of September 2021, however, aren’t common. In the two years since, residents of Tula de Allende and experts have joined forces to understand what happened, as there were no abnormal rains in the region that night.

Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

In the home of María Elena Sánchez’s in-laws, highly polluted Tula River floodwaters almost reached the ceiling in September 2021. Heaps of furniture and personal objects had to be discarded for safety.

A conclusion became obvious: In December 2019, the federal government inaugurated a major addition to the capital city’s sewer system. Costing a whopping 33 billion Mexican pesos (1.8 billion United States dollars), the Túnel Emisor Oriente — at 62 kilometers (39 miles) long and 7 meters (23 feet) wide — nearly doubled the drainage capacity of the city’s wastewaters, emptying in a reservoir just south of Tula de Allende.

“I am certain that what happened that night is that they somehow decided not to retain the water in Mexico City,” says Dean Chahim, an anthropologist at Stanford University, in the United States, who studies flood control engineering in Mexico City. “The regulating reservoirs [of Mexico City] don’t have enough capacity. They’re covered up by construction, they have a lot of sediment, there is property development. Because of all that, Mexico City’s drainage system fills up very rapidly.”

Manuel Olguín is a biologist and activist with the Red de Conciencia Ambiental “Queremos Vivir,” an environmental awareness collective of Tepeji-Tula area residents that formed in response to the floods. “We were saying, ‘We’re going to get flooded,’ because they hit us with the Túnel Emisor Oriente. We knew it. We said it. And it happened,” he says. “We were fighting to improve the water quality and recover our river … and they came out with this gift of sending us more dirty water.”

Besides the constant fears of yearly floods, residents of Tula de Allende and nearby towns say they feel like authorities treat their homes as a mere dumping ground for Mexico City’s water. They want that to stop. And the 2021 catastrophe might have been the drop — or the flood — that broke the camel’s back.

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

Federal, state and municipal workers clean the streets of Tula de Allende, in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, after a historic flood in September 2021.

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

Mud and trash accumulate on the streets of Tula de Allende, in the state of Hidalgo, in September 2021.

‘One of the environmental hells’

The Tula River is one of many waterways in the dry Mezquital Valley, a series of small valleys and flat areas in central Mexico. It flows through several rural villages of small colorful houses surrounded by vast, unfenced tracts of farmland. Tula de Allende is the largest town in the basin, where the landscape turns rather industrial.

What could have been an idyllic setting has long been treated as a waste dump. In 2007, the National Water Commission (CNA at that time, now CONAGUA), Mexico’s water regulation agency, released a report about the region that indicated that its rivers, streams, dams, lakes and aquifers are heavily contaminated, primarily due to the historical dumping of residual waters from Mexico City without treatment.

A 2016 academic study found high levels of heavy metals such as lead, zinc and mercury in the river’s water, soil and fish. “Since [then], there have been no efforts to decrease the amount of heavy metals deposited in the river,” says Victoria Ortega Morgano, the earth sciences expert who authored the study. “There are villages that not only live close to the river but also live off it. They fish and swim in these contaminated waters.”

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

An uncovered stretch of Túnel Emisor Oriente near the town of San José Acoculco, in the state of Hidalgo.

The Túnel Emisor Oriente project included a treatment plant — Mexico’s largest to date — meant to render the Tula River’s water suitable for agriculture, a major economic activity in the state of Hidalgo. But, Ortega says, the plant only removes organic matter, not heavy metals.

Residents of San José Acoculco, one of three towns near the new treatment plant, say they have endured a fly infestation that they think is connected to the plant. “The sludge that is deposited here is left out in the open air,” says Apolinar Carbajal, a local resident. “We residents have been saying exactly what the experts have been saying: that the treatment plant is not serving to remove heavy metals.”

Heber Saucedo, who was the CONAGUA regional representative from June 2021 until June this year, says there are no irregularities with the treatment plant. He says, however, that there are no up-to-date water quality studies.

Residents say that CONAGUA never made them fully aware of the effects of the Túnel Emisor Oriente prior to construction. Saucedo says the regulator informed the affected municipalities in an October 2016 article published in the local newspaper, but residents interviewed by Global Press Journal say they were not aware of that publication.

After the floods of 2021, authorities enlarged the river and lined it with concrete, but experts don’t think this will prevent future disasters. “The only thing that lining does is increase the water speed,” says Francisco Peña, a researcher at Colegio de San Luis, a public research center. “I think they expect the water to pass quickly through Tula, but they’re not considering what will happen at the end of the river.”

For Angélica Arellano, another member of the Red de Conciencia Ambiental “Queremos Vivir,” all Tula residents want is to have an environment suitable for enjoyment and leisure, but the authorities’ decisions seem to be based entirely on prioritizing the functioning of Mexico City. She says, for example, that in 2017, during the construction of the Túnel Emisor Oriente, CONAGUA felled 1,300 trees in the area as they widened the river, and only stopped short of the original plan to cut 9,000 trees because residents protested.

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

The Atotonilco Wastewater Treatment Plant in San José Acoculco, in the state of Hidalgo.

“What we wanted was to recover the river, to have trees and clean water running,” says Norma Reyes, another resident of Tula de Allende. “All we have is trash and bad odor.”

“I’ve never seen the river clean. Neither did my parents. When I was born, it was already a contaminated river,” says Maya Cervantes, a civil engineer who lives in Mezquital Valley. “But if there was will to recover it … we would have a beautiful place with water and vegetation.”

For Chahim, the Stanford anthropologist, the solution to avoid floods in Tula again is that CONAGUA and the Sistema de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (SACMEX), Mexico City’s water operator, don’t send so much water to Tula at once. He proposes that authorities restore Lake Texcoco, northeast of Mexico City, whose water level has been low for years. Citizens and activists from Tula have linked up with a movement there to recover the reservoir. SACMEX did not reply to requests for comment.

“This alliance that is forming represents the grassroots refusal of CONAGUA’s vision, which artificially separates the problems of [Tula and Texcoco] basins … and says the problems are local. Ultimately, they are hydraulically connected in a way that cannot be denied,” Chahim says.

Peña agrees. “[The government] is acting too locally in a single part of the system instead of seeing it with greater technical range.” Mexico City must “abandon this obsession of removing all the water from the city because it’s more and more water every time,” he says.

When asked what he would like for authorities to know about living by the Tula River, Olguín, from the Red de Conciencia Ambiental “Queremos Vivir,” says that everyone has a right to live in a healthy environment free of contamination. For now, however, “we live in one of the environmental hells.”

Editor’s note: Global Press Journal reporter Aline Suárez del Real has followed this story since 2021 in order to fully understand the underlying issues behind the catastrophic floods — as well as the organizing efforts of Tula de Allende’s residents over the last two years.

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