Greenbuild Mexico keynote sneak peek: Water challenges

Joe Crea
June 6, 2019

Greenbuild Mexico, taking place June 18–19 at the Hilton Mexico City Reforma, brings together sustainability leaders and green building professionals from around the Latin American region. Hosted in conjunction with SUMe, the event offers an education program and lineup of environmental visionaries that will give participants valuable insights into the future of the region—and our world.

One of the opening plenary keynote speakers is Arnoldo Matus Kramer, Ph.D., an environmental activist and eco-entrepreneur who has served as Mexico City's Chief Resilience Officer. In this Q&A, Kramer shares with USGBC his experience related to water resource and resilience issues in the country. Attend Greenbuild Mexico to hear more from Kramer.

Q&A with Arnoldo Matus Kramer, Ph.D.

Greenbuild Mexico is taking place in Mexico City. Given your November 2014 through December 2018 tenure as the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, what are the critical environmental issues that sustainable building can help mitigate?

Water is the city’s most pressing environmental issue. Sustainable building can very much play a role in mitigating this. When it was first colonized, Mexico City was a water-rich location. It was founded in the middle of a huge lake basin and in proximity to a very large aquifer. Since then, that natural bounty has been put at risk.

A major factor is rapid urbanization. During the 20th century, the population of Mexico City grew from around 2 million to more than 20 million, making it one of the world’s largest megacities. The Megalopolis, which includes the Mexico City metropolitan area and the surrounding cities, encompasses 27 million people. It is projected that by 2030, the population will grow to 30 million. Today, because of urbanization, there are only a few remaining areas from the ancient lake, and those areas are under enormous environmental pressure.

A second factor involves the city’s hydrological infrastructure. Early efforts intended to control flooding produced a human-made system with extensive hard engineering. This approach has made the city dependent on external water sources.

The third factor is climate change and the resultant droughts that affect the entire central region of Mexico and its access to those external water sources.

Another critical factor involves a very large aquifer that has supported water supply for the population for the last 60 years. As the population has grown and surface water put under greater stress, the aquifer has been massively over-exploited.

The combination of those four factors is the basis for a national emergency. The huge population growth has dramatically increased water usage. The frequent droughts caused by climate change put tremendous pressure on our external water sources. To make up for shortages in our external water supply, we have been massively overexploiting our only reserve—an ancient aquifer—at unsustainable rates.

We have already experienced what it means to have a lack of water in certain parts of the city. I’m speaking about our two major earthquakes, one in 1985 and the other in 2017. In both instances, some of the main social disruptions came because of the lack of access to water. I don’t think that we are really putting enough effort into maintaining a strategic reserve of water in the city of Mexico—and the six surrounding cities, as well. Together, we are around 27 million people. So these cities are still growing, and we are using the same limited natural resources, the same limited water resources.

There are other repercussions. For example, as the aquifer is drained, parts of the city are sinking. This sinking damages the underground infrastructure. Already, it has led to significant water leakages. Though no one knows for certain, some estimate that as much as 40% of all potable water is wasted.

The current government has taken important steps to reduce the water leaks. Their goal is to cut the waste in half, to 20%. They also want to close some of the wells, and they are entertaining other efforts to maintain critical areas for the recharge of the aquifer. The focus of this initiative is over large conservation areas, mainly large forest areas within the mountains that are adjacent to the city.

But at the moment, we are facing a serious problem, largely because for years, there was a lack of water investment. We still don’t have access to timely data on the aquifer or a robust monitoring system to inform us if we are making progress or continuing on a bad track. Consensus is that we remain on a bad track in our exploitation of the aquifer.

Are those specific investments being made now?

Yes. This year, with this administration, there was an increased budget for the water sector, but it is still not enough. And, for political reasons, there are important considerations that are not yet on the agenda. For example, the use of water tariffs. They could contribute to sustainable water management, but there are no discussions under way.

In Mexico City, the water system is very centralized, where we have huge infrastructure projects for water supply and drainage. But there are only a few decentralized technologies or systems that promote the efficient use of this water. At the community level—or at the built environment level—there is a great opportunity. For example, this area still enjoys significant precipitation throughout the year. We could make better use of our rainwater, we could reduce the amount of water we use at the building level, and then we could share a public resource with many buildings to treat this water and make it available for reuse.

There are not many examples of this in Mexico—not yet, anyway. So, that is a huge opportunity to integrate new processes and technologies and thinking around the use and management of water. And to do so in a manner that provides more resilience during times of shortage—whether it is caused by drought or from lack of maintenance of systems or even from an earthquake or another natural disaster. There are different kinds of risk scenarios in relation to water that are very serious for this city.

What is the public perception of the city’s water situation?

Most people are not aware of the main challenges. The delivery of water is through an underground infrastructure, so most people don’t even know where their water is sourced or how their water system works. The reality is that our systems here in Mexico City, or in the valley of Mexico, are quite complicated. We have multiple sources of water. So, to counter the lack of public awareness of the issues and to begin changing behavior, it is very important for us to begin strategically communicating the key messages around water.

For leaders in the building community, there is even more responsibility to make things better. The decisions each of those individuals make are critical to changing the paradigm. We need to create many more examples of where we are tackling the issue of water as a resiliency issue and as a sustainability issue. The same is true of green infrastructure.

What are the priorities?

We come from decades where we contaminated our rivers and degraded our natural systems. This new administration, in its agenda, is looking to regenerate some of the rivers that flow within the city—rivers that were long ago moved underground. We need to change that old paradigm with a successful new one, and we need to do this in a way that the first regenerated river is presented with nice public spaces that the people can visit and see that, where our history is related to water, we can reclaim our environment and, specifically, the relationship our city shares with its water.

Going back, for a moment, to your tenure as Mexico City’s Chief Resilience Officer, what do you consider to be your major accomplishments?

During my tenure, water became one of the main pillars around Mexico City’s path to resilience. First, we placed the most pressing issues involving resilience and water into the middle of discussions. We worked to inform as many critical stakeholders as possible, not only within the Ministry, but also from within the private sector…at NGOs and universities. We also initiated discussions with them about how to address the issues. The resultant ideas and strategies involved extensive consultation with many different people.

We also initiated various projects that are still under development. One is to create a resilience plan for the area of Xochimilco. This includes some of the region’s largest remaining lake area. It is also a center for traditional agriculture, for which it is recognized as a world heritage site. The development process included several universities and organizations. This project, which is now in its final stage, will yield an actionable portfolio of strategies to increase the area’s long-term water resilience.

Another project that is quite important is one we are doing with the UNAM Engineering Institute. It involves placing sensors into different closed wells to monitor the aquifer in real time. It will also allow us to collect information about rain patterns, and to start building an open data source to better understand our relationship with the aquifer.

You have an undergraduate and two graduate degrees in environment-related specialties. How did you first become interested in this field of study?

In the 1980s, when I was still a child, the air pollution was very strong in Mexico. The city was widely known for smog and bad air quality, and I got asthma. That was a personal relation to problems with air quality. But also, in the ‘80s, we were still in this explosive urbanization process. I was living in the south of Mexico City, near the mountains. In a little over five years, I saw the transformation of those mountains from green space to urban areas. That impressed me.

At the same time, I was in a German school in Mexico. At one point, I traveled to Germany and saw that they were at another level in terms of their awareness of the environment. They were already recycling, doing things that we were not yet doing in Mexico. So, I became very aware of our environmental problems and crises within the city, and I became an activist. I joined Greenpeace to demonstrate for improved environmental policies, and then worked with other organizations that were involved with reforestation and restoration.

When I was ready to attend university, I knew that I wanted to learn about the environment and environmental issues. Unfortunately, in Mexico at that time, there were not many related academic options. That’s why I decided to go abroad, initially to McGill University. The year I started was the year they opened their environmental program. I enjoyed those studies so much that I decided to continue my pursuits—right through to earning my Ph.D. at the University of Oxford. The entire time, I was looking to gain the best education in order to come back to Mexico and be part of the working environmental community.

Over the years, that community has grown. There are many more people working on these issues, and there are now programs at the universities on sustainability science.

In addition to addressing environmental issues in Mexico City, what keeps you up at night?

Climate change is a huge thing. And on that issue, I’m not just working in Mexico. Through my company, Ithaca Environmental, I’m involved with other countries and on other projects.

Another issue that concerns me is inequality between the rich and poor. It’s an issue that is not just about financial resources, but it is also related to access to public space and public services. As Mexico City’s Chief Resilience Officer, I made many visits to our poorest neighborhoods, where some of the city’s most vulnerable populations reside. The difference between those neighborhoods and the richer ones is drastic. So, a major focus of mine is to find ways to think outside the box and provide solutions to those communities that are often forgotten. Now, maybe that’s changing. The current administration has a much more social agenda, and that’s something that inspires me to be involved. For all of us, there is much to do.

Addressing water challenges

Responsible water resource management is more than smart infrastructure planning—it's also imperative to protecting the human right to a healthy and safe standard of living. Through USGBC's advocacy work in water issues and our Water Efficiency credit category in LEED v4.1, we strive to reduce water waste and to make access to clean water a reality for everyone.

How can we make even more of a difference? Join us at Greenbuild Mexico to be part of the discussion.

Register for Greenbuild Mexico