As a result of my discovery that Bangkok is sinking, I went on a reading rampage and discovered that she is certainly not alone in the world where sagging cities are concerned. Although there are many vulnerable mega-metropolises we could highlight here (literally dozens), Mexico City stands out as the poster child for all the things prudent decision makers should not do when their most vital water resources are there beneath their very feet.
But first things first. As I’m sure I will ultimately end up mentioning elsewhere in this blog, sometimes bad decisions made by those in power many generations ago only sneak around full circle to bite their long-removed progeny in the hind-end when they least expect it. Sometimes the progeny seem as ill-adapted as their ancestors at understanding what’s at stake when they “drain the lake.”
We’ll start this tale of woe with the 16th century Aztecs who decided to build a small town on an island sitting in Lake Texcoco. Fair enough…nice lake, nice climate, pleasant scenery, good fishing, oh, and plenty of fresh water…let’s put some roots down here. They called it Tenochtitlan and made it the capital of their empire. That’s when things start going wrong, and they’ve never quite recovered…
Mistake No. 1: The Aztecs were ambitious builders, constructing the new buildings on top of old ones, and several times over. The place was already sinking way back then. Stone is pretty heavy stuff, after all.
Mistake No. 2: Now here come the Spaniards—specifically Hernan Cortes— looking to take over the place. So he kills off the natives (as all conquerors worth their salt are obligated to do) and decides to build his new Spanish city right on top of the old Aztec abode. I’m sure nobody took soil samples, did percolation tests, or conducted much survey work, at least not the kind that would have told them it’s always bad joojoo to keep building atop already shaky ground.
Mistake No. 3: No time to waste on this highly compressed timeline, though. The engineering work meticulously accomplished by the Aztec engineers— causeways, bridges, canals, dikes, aqueducts, dams? Yeah, all destroyed in the heat of battle or its immediate aftermath.
Mistake No. 4: Drain the lake! Maybe you would too if your city kept flooding time and again because it was already beneath the water table. Dig a great big tunnel and channel the water out to a nearby river. That will solve all the problems for sure.
Mistake No. 5: Keep building and building…and building on the basin of the lake that once was, adding more and more weight on top of a foundation that simply cannot support the top heavy mass now there entrenched.
Mistake No. 6: As the thousands, and ultimately millions of inhabitants slowly move to the megalopolis, built atop salt marshes and lake sediment, tap the aquifer mercilessly, right there in the ground beneath us, driven relentlessly by the needs of a thirsty electorate. Drain it down and down, until buildings begin to slide, and tilt, break and fall. What more could a city’s leaders do to make the situation any worse?
Since lists of ten always seem to please, here are four more…
Mistake No. 7: Deforest surrounding hillsides and build into those, as well, further exacerbating what’s already an unfolding ecological disaster. Dump a bunch of the city’s waste on the outskirts of town somewhere, too, because existing infrastructure simply can’t cut the mustard, and the poo has nowhere else to go.
Mistake No. 8: Put many rules and regulations on the books regarding zoning, building, industry, wastewater treatment, sewage and drainage…then enforce none of them effectively.
Mistake No. 9: Keep pandering to that elephant squatting in the room…always trumpeting for more fresh water in its trough. Pump additional water in from far and wide, not only ignoring the issues that should have been faced head on many decades ago, but catering to the needs and wants of industry, land developers, politicians, and wealthy residents who usually get their way. Pretend as though nothing is the matter, running everything as it always has been, inefficiently and with so much indifference about what’s truly at stake for the multitudes.
Mistake No. 10: Watch the national treasures of this most impressively beautiful and historical city list mercilessly into the muck and the mire, since there’s really nothing anyone can do.
Okay, No. 10 is where somebody amongst the protesting angry mob leads the rallying cry, searching for that rare personality who can bring hope and money and science to bear. Someone with that can-do spirit, an entrepreneur, a visionary, a politician? Who can take the bull by the horns and insist that a remedy for the disaster exists, it simply must be found? Someone? Anyone?
Alas!…(wait for it) they’re working on it.
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