The system blames the crowd, the crowd blames the system.

1:1 model of the Tunel Emisor Oriente boring machine, with graphics of the Vivir Mejor (Living Better) federal program. Pic by: Water Technology

We visited the Water Treatment Plant in Atotonilco de Tula. The plant treats the black waters that Mexico City produces and sends to the Tula River through the TEO (Túnel Emisor Oriente). Tula and the river that gives its name are located in the Valle del Mezquital, an Otomi region in the State of Hidalgo where the main economic activity is agriculture. The plant is now operating for three consecutive years but the waste from CDMX has been sent to the valley since the late 50’s. So yes, as you can now imagine the crops of the region have been watered with sewage water, chemicals and political disdain (dead bodies included).

Although it was already on our plans to visit Valle del Mezquital. We visited Tula following the advice of basically everyone we’ve met until now. Most of them claimed that there are 4 places in Central Mexico that condense and reveal what we are looking at (waste, water and food) in striking ways: Xochimilco, Central de Abasto, Milpa Alta and Valle del Mezquital.

The relation that Valle del Mezquital has with Mexico City goes a long way. But in the case of our study this is pretty straight forward. The city sends its shit through a 10m diameter pipe, the pipe meets the river in Tula, the farmers use the river to water the crops, and then the products are sold in Mexico City and around through Central de Abasto. We talked to some farmers that said that the problem is not human waste in water but chemicals. So some of them thought that the water treatment plant would take care of the lead poisoning the crops and have a more healthy production cycle.

The mood is intense, charged with distrust at the same time that they are eager to share and seek for accomplices that can help them to push their struggle further.

We were not sure how to locate the place where the TEO meets Tula River so we looked for advice in the Water and Sewage Management Office of Tula. They said that the information we were requesting was only available at the Town Hall. We felt it like non-sense but, being familiar with Mexican bureaucracy it kind of made sense, so… Once in the Town Hall, at least 5 people told us that they didn’t have that information and sent us back to Water and Sewage Management. Pretty common thing to happen in Mexican bureaucracy but due to the scale of THE ISSUE it seemed more like the information is not to be shared with foreigners or maybe the interns just don’t care.

While leaving the office a little bit frustrated I approached two men that looked like they were doing some kind paperwork in the offices. They knew and were part of an NGO called Movimiento Popular y Campesino Nacional. They told us their story, the critical degrees of pollution, the food crisis (corn is not growing and they are pushed to import, guess from whom? 🇺🇸), the floods of black water, the years and years of chemicals in the soil and the water leading to lots of people having some kind of cancer…

They community pushed the Federal Government for years to get a water treatment plant. After fifteen years of struggle, on 2016 the plant opened and started working but, not quite.

View of the Water Treatment Plant from the road towards it. Picture by A+A

Locals argue that nothing has happened, that the plant is there without any actual benefit for the region. Where according to our interlocutors, they one that actually gets a benefit is the hydroelectric plant of the CFE (Federal Commission of Electricity). They didn’t explain exactly how but later on we will see how this is interesting in itself. We said goodbye after getting their contact information and some blocks down the road on our way to the car, someone approached us. A man in his 60’s -said that he saw us talking to the other guys close to Town Hall and heard our interest in the pollution of the river and its relation to food production. He asked who those people were, he said he was part of the actual NGO pushing the government for solutions to the environmental crisis -he actually showed us a copy of letter signed by at least 15 people that was sent to Andres Manuel López Obrador demanding a response to the urgency of the situation in the Valley.

The situation left us with a weird feeling. It was between creepy and kind to be followed to talk about the plant and the environmental crisis. The vibe of the conversations was full of distrust, caution and enthusiasm for the subject. And with reasons, as in basically everywhere around the globe, environmental activists are in danger. They are afraid of something, but, of whom?

We got to the plant. Surrounded by open air mining, there’s a peculiar smell in the air. Not disgusting, not nice, just, odd. We were received by an armed guard that looked at us again with mistrust, and also a little bit of confusion. What do you want? – We want to visit the plant… Is it possible to schedule a tour? -Where do you come from, who do you work for? -Ahm, a US art institution… -let me ask.

After a while we could talk to the human resources representative. He explained to us how the plant works. Around 70 people work there, it is mostly automatic, so it only needs some skillful operators and managers.

Screenshot from: tunnel-online.info / TEO: The biggest Sewage Project in the World

We ask because there are certain tensions with the community because they are upset. The change that they expected is not happening. And they are right, according to what the manager said, the plant gets clogged constantly as the waste that arrives is so massive that the filters flood. And the plant is was not working at its full capacity, as the tunnel construction just finished and the plant would start receiving and treating 50 cubic meters per second. The plant started working on 2017, but the tunnel was working at its full capacity on July 2019.

Cars, fridges, laundry machines, human bodies, animals. The list of objects that end up in the filters is compelling, adding up to that, we are talking about the organic residues of approximately 10.5 million people and other toxic metals and chemicals from unregulated industry.

“If Mexico City would manage its waste properly, things would run smoothly”… Here, the displacement of responsibility on the matter is revealing on the scale of the problem. How will dialogue among the different positions of each element of the equation might happen?

We are fascinated by it, and I think, precisely that inability to grasp all the vertices of the crisis is at the core of why we are running towards the abyss, and something that we might keep looking at. I will probably continue adding stuff to this text but I needed to share, also, to start a dialogue with you dear reader.

Air vents (Lumbreras) located along the TEO.