By Andrew Diaz
All over town, church bells were tolling, but they were not marking the top of the hour as they usually do. Upon hearing this signal, masses of townspeople came from all directions, armed with stones, pipes, even sticks—anything that was lying around was fair game that day. Off in the distance, the opposition could be seen approaching through the haze, their fifteen hundred shiny, black helmets slowly marching forward as one force behind the protection of their transparent shields and riot gear. As the dark swarm of police approached down the narrow, twisting streets, the crowd of townspeople braced themselves. They shouted commands at each other to hold their positions. Soon, the objects in their hands would become a barrage of projectiles hurled at the officers in an effort to keep them back.
This scene was the culmination of thirteen months of acrimonious debate. San Bartolo Ameyalco is an otherwise unremarkable town sitting on the hills of the Álvaro Obregón delegation, or borough, on the fringes of Mexico City. Founded in 1535, the town is one of the oldest communities in the Federal District, and is indeed one of the older settlements in the whole of Mexico. Its history probably dates even further back, as it is believed that the town was first settled by the native Tepanec people.
What brought the early settlers to this area, and what has kept people in San Bartolo ever since? The residents of the town simply know it as el ojo de agua, or “the waterhole”— a volcanic spring that has been faithfully providing freshwater to the community from the time of its founding. In fact, Ameyalco is a Nahuatl word meaning “place from which the water flows,” which it continues to do at a rate of about 60 liters per second.
It is this water supply that is at the heart of the dispute that is taking place in one of the largest and most densely populated cities on earth. Desperate to find additional water sources to supplement a rapidly-depleting aquifer below its soil, the government of Mexico City announced in April 2013 that a part of San Bartolo’s water supply would be joining a larger system delivering water across the entire borough. The residents of the town, whose name is often referred to simply as Ameyalco, responded with a clear voice: “no.”
Miguel Ángel Mancera, the mayor of Mexico City, insists that this project would benefit at least twenty thousand people. Many of Ameyalco’s residents, however, believe that the main beneficiaries of such a project would be the rich, inhabiting hastily-built communities with profits from international business —such as the community of Santa Fe, built over a former dumping ground not far from Ameyalco — and with no prior infrastructure for delivering water.
The government asserts it has a responsibility to deliver water to these newer communities, and that the people of Ameyalco do not have the right to selfishly appropriate this precious resource. Meanwhile, the people of San Bartolo proclaim that their water is not for sale, as water is already scarce in their community. Additionally, they say that they should not have to pay the price for the city’s poor planning.
The floodgates of this controversy finally burst wide open on the morning of May 21, 2014, as workers of Sacmex, the Mexico City water company, arrived to lay the pipe that would connect San Bartolo’s water to the wider network. The residents were determined to guard their spring in any way possible. Once it became clear that efforts to continue the construction project would be met with resistance, the riot police were called in. There are conflicting reports, but the ensuing clash resulted in at least fifty to seventy of the townspeople injured or hospitalized, over fifty policemen injured—at least two of them seriously—and property damage around the area of the conflict, including several destroyed police vehicles.
Despite the opposition to the construction plan, the project in San Bartolo was carried out. The government has stated that Amayalco’s spring has not been affected by the plan, but instead it was the nearby water system by the name of Cutzamala that was connected to the borough-wide system. The borough of Álvaro Obregón has even released a statement guaranteeing that San Bartolo’s spring water will not be mixed with this larger system. There are many in San Bartolo who see this as just the calm before another storm, and as a result want to negotiate terms with the government. However, their demand is to have their rights respected by having a seat at the discussion table, and for the government to be transparent about its plans regarding the region’s water.
In the meantime, Mexico City continues to literally sink under its own weight as it swiftly drains its underground water reservoir ever more quickly. As its vast and growing population continues to demand more and more resources, it is a near certainty that this complex and contentious issue is far from settled.
Andrew Diaz is an international research and policy intern with Food & Water Watch. He currently attends the University of Maryland at College Park and majors in geographic information science and minors in international development and conflict management.