Mexico City is drinking itself into the ground

Mexico City's cathedral, which had to be propped up with stone wedges as it was being built to stop it sinking. Image: Francisco Diez

When the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlán in the middle of a lake, they thought they were being incredibly clever.

It was 1325, the height of the era of Mesoamerican tribes vying for supremacy in the narrowing strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Gulf, and a small island on the western side of Lake Texcoco seemed like a pretty good place to be. 

The Mexica people who lived there – and from whose tribe the name Mexico now comes – became enormously successful. Their Aztec Empire was the most formidable force on the continent, exerted control and influence for thousands of miles around, and established trading relationships stretching as far as the Inca Empire in modern-day Peru.

Their island city, smattered with canals, causeways, and dykes, was a lesson in sustainability.

Lake Texcoco and the city of Tenochtitlán before s*** went down. Image: Yavidaxiu.

The channels they built provided natural irrigation and water management, while floating gardens called chinampas kept the city fed as it grew to an astonishing size. By the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, the city had approximately 300,000 residents – making it five times the size of London at the time.

The Mexico City of today is a very different story.

A choked-up Mexico City today. Image: Fidel Gonzalez/creative commons.

Up no creek with no canoe

A choking, smog-shrouded sprawl of 21m people. It has no island, no lake, a water shortage that means millions are left with empty taps on a regular basis, and is sinking at an astonishing rate.

Roughly 20 per cent of Mexico City’s residents cannot guarantee that water will come out of their taps every day, and the ground is sinking by as much as nine inches a year in some suburbs. That’s the equivalent of nearly a storey a decade.

The city’s cathedral, which took more than 200 years to build, has a leaning chapel and bell tower, propped up by stone wedges to stop the whole thing crumbling down. The Gilded Angel of Independence – a local tourist hotspot and national landmark – was built with nine shallow steps leading up from the street below. As the surrounding area has sunk, an extra 14 large steps have been added as the angel is increasingly left marooned above a vanishing city.

Slanted buildings leer menacingly over pavements, their doors and windows no longer in alignment with their friends as if crudely displaced from a grotesque theme park funhouse. Terraced streets built on level ground now undulate, with wavy gables crowding up against each other in parts, and pulling away in others, while city-dwellers struggle up hilly pavements where once the path was flat.

In Iztapalapa, a suburb of approximately 2m people built on the ancient lake’s southern shores in the city’s south-east, 15 primary schools have crumbled or caved in, and a teenager was swallowed up when a gaping crack appeared in the street.

So what happened?

As per usual, the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the pesky European invaders.

Xochimilco, the last vestige of Mexico City's lakeside history. Image: Owen Prior.

Veni, vidi, conquistadori

When Hernán Cortes entered the city in 1519, he was “stunned by its beauty and its size”, and in awe of a city where he was welcomed as a god and given plush lodgings by the Aztecs. This, obviously, did not last: war ensued, and the conquistadores took control of the city and named it the capital of their new colony, the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Where the Aztecs had constructed dykes and channels to live in harmony with the lake, the Spaniards covered them over to build roads and increase the city’s size. They started draining the lake and cutting down the forests on its shores, making the city more susceptible to intense flooding.

Mexico City suffered major floods in 1555, 1580, 1604, and 1607, before one bright spark proposed moving the capital to dry land in 1630. But after deliberating on this for a while, the authorities decided that the answer was no, and the flooding continued, with more serious deluges in 1645, 1674, 1691, 1707, 1714, 1724, 1747, and 1763.

One flood was so severe that the entire city was submerged for five whole years from 1629 – yet the city lived on, gasping for air and expanding further across the lakebed between downpours.

By the 20th century, most of the lake had been drained, and flooding became the least of the city’s worries. As it grew and grew, and poorer migrants from the surrounding country arrived in search of economic opportunity, Mexico City grew thirsty.

Which was a problem.

The Gilded Angel of Independence, which has risen above the sinking streets. Image: TJ DeGroat.

Geologically insane

The city is built on two different geological foundations. Some of the ground underneath Mexico City is volcanic soil, which was fertile and used by the Aztecs for growing crops. It was also handily water-absorbent: moisture would soak in and flow to underground aquifers easily, without damaging the structure of the soil.

But when developers built on the volcanic soil and covered it in concrete and asphalt, water could no longer get through to the soil and filter through to the aquifers on which the city relies. And other parts of the city sit on clay. This, unlike the volcanic soil, can't absorb the water, merely sandwiching it between layers of clay – like cream between layers of pastry. When the cream is sucked out, the layers of pastry crack and collapse, falling on top of one another.


And that’s what’s happened beneath Mexico City. Desperate for water in a lake basin devoid of a lake, the city has tapped into the clay soil while covering over the useful volcanic soil. And as the city is built on a mixture of both geologies, it has sunk in an uneven, mismatched way, causing dangerous fissures, cracks, and the bizarre phenomenon of wavy, undulating streets.

It is estimated that the city has dropped 10 meters in the last century; if anything the signs are that this process is accelerating.

The climate change doom blockbusters show us coastal cities dramatically engulfed by storms and waves from rising sea levels, as great ice shelves melt in the Arctic and Antarctic.

But one of the first cities claimed as victims by man-made destruction may be less cinematic: a leviathan of 21m sinking into the ground, cracking and buckling, swallowing up people, houses, and livelihoods, and starving its poorest residents of water and hope as it goes. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.