How Mexico City’s poorest neighbourhood is battling climate change

The city of Iztapalapa is fighting climate-change-induced inundations through better education, communication and community-building.

by Laura Puttkamer

This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.

When my group and I arrive in Iztapalapa for a field trip, we are greeted by the unmistakable sound of an earthquake alarm. Everyone is outside, as far away from the countless, densely built buildings as possible, until they are sure that the ground is not moving. About 1.8 million people live in Mexico City’s poorest urban district of Iztapalapa. The houses here are built on structurally weak ground, on what was once a lake, and are highly prone to earthquakes.

After 15 minutes, it’s like nothing happened. The Iztapalapa city centre is bustling again, street vendors praising their goods, señoras selling fresh juices and a group of women working out in a Zumba class at the central kiosk. Our group which consists of climate and risk researchers is met by Enrique Guevara, the charismatic officer of Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres, National Disaster Control Center (CENAPRED). He shows us around and tells us how this vulnerable district deals with climate-change-induced challenges, in particular, the frequent floods during the rainy season.

Iztapalapa City Centre. Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

According to the Local Risk Atlas of Iztapalapa, inundations cause about half of Mexico City’s climate change-related disasters and account for up to 84% of local deaths due to climate effects. They contribute to the spread of diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid fever, cholera and malaria, especially in dense settlements with a low level of services. Apart from putting homes in danger, the floods can lead to loss of possessions and in some cases even livelihoods.

Research by Sánchez et al. and Lopez-Blanco, published in 2011 and 2014 respectively, show that climate change is only exacerbating the lamentable water supply situation as well as overall poverty in Iztapalapa. However, they are also expecting resilience and health awareness to improve due to the regular recurrence of such climate change-induced inundations.

Were those predictions right? Here is what the different approaches to tackle floods in Iztapalapa tell us.

A partially collapsed building during the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City. Photograph by AntoFran, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The government’s approach

We start the tour in Iztapalapa’s local disaster control and civil protection center, which is run by Mexico’s National Center for Prevention of Disasters known as CENAPRED. “WhatsApp is our most important communication tool,” one of the officers tells me. They use the Sistema Múltiple de Alertamiento Temprano (SMAT), a highly sophisticated early warning system which is the pride of Iztapalapa municipal office. It includes an app and a radio signal, intended to warn residents of environmental dangers such as earthquakes, floods or grietas.

Grieta is the Spanish word describing cracks in the ground that can open quite suddenly and contribute to the destruction of houses. Several schools and public buildings in Iztapalapa have been crumbling because of the brittle ground. During the rainy season, the cracks fill up with water and are extremely dangerous to pedestrians who mistake them for small puddles. In 2017, a teenager in Iztapalapa was swallowed by a crack in the ground.

Grieta that appeared in the vicinity of the Vicente Guerrero Housing Unit in Iztapalapa. Photograph courtesy of Excelsior

According to Enrique, the SMAT system is intended to serve as government insurance against flooding, helping vulnerable households and decreasing the cost for repair. It seems to be working well. Officers are monitoring environmental data and indicators, sending out warnings to residents through WhatsApp groups when necessary. An officer explains: “We decide danger levels and warn residents accordingly. We also try to focus on targeting families at risk through WhatsApp and with cooperation from the neighbours.”

Communications expert Naira Bonilla says that WhatsApp can work effectively to crowdsource information, share updates, organise activities and even raise funds. In Mexico, WhatsApp is the most widely used messaging tool. Despite high poverty rates in Iztapalapa, phones are a must-have for everyone.

Street art is used to raise awareness and spread messages about climate change. Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

“Almost everyone is able to communicate not just through text, but also voice message, emojis, videos, pictures and other media on WhatsApp,” Naira tells me. People have a sense of belonging in their WhatsApp community so sharing information and asking people to act is very easy and natural. People even feel comfortable sending voice notes, stickers and memes, to get people to act. It’s a unique way of communicating in areas with low connectivity. “

After getting a demo of the government-funded SMAT centre, Enrique guides us through the crowded streets of Iztapalapa. He proudly points at some street art along the way and speaks about the importance of raising awareness. Although floods are common in Iztapalapa, many people do not know how to react adequately. “They lose time gathering family heirlooms instead of properly barricading their doors,” he says.

Lessons about educating the community

Next, we meet Maestra Deisy, who leads classes in the aula móvil. This mobile classroom in a truck has been touring Iztapalapa for the last few months. Daisy, a trained psychologist, tells me: “In the aula móvil, we combine playing with a more theoretical approach. For example, we organise simulations to learn about different alerts and dangers. By pretending to be authorities, citizens can decide danger levels and possible measures, thus learning to understand situations better.”

The mobile classroom in Iztapalapa is an innovative solution that has received much international attention. It is tirelessly touring the district and offers a space for people to learn about climate change, risks from natural disasters and ways to protect their livelihoods during an earthquake or a flood.

20,000 residents in Iztapalapa have been trained by the mobile classroom. Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

The training on climate risks consists of capacity-building, hands-on training for emergency situations such as floods, first aid and firefighting, as well as neighbourhood-wide drills and simulations for evacuations. The training team also makes sure that certain values are highlighted during these sessions, stressing the importance of resilience and of treating the environment with respect.

Up to 35 people can attend the mobile classroom session, and families at risk are targeted in particular. Apart from carrying door-to-door promotions and designing flyers, Maestra and her team also recruit students through WhatsApp. These students, in turn, support the education efforts and later become community officers, serving as multipliers. Each training session takes one hour and is open to everyone. By mid-2018, only a few months into the programme, 20,000 residents had been successfully trained.

“Education is crucial for populations living in climate-change-affected areas.” Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

While the aula móvil has been remarkably successful, it only stays on a block or in a neighborhood for about a day. As many of the people living in Iztapalapa are still not educated on how to react to floods and other natural disasters, there is much more to be done.

Education expert Magdalena Fierro, who works on similar projects in Atizapán de Zaragoza, just outside Mexico City, confirms that education is crucial for populations living in climate-change-affected areas. In an interview, she tells me: “In Mexico, there is a lack of financial resources for education programmes but I see a lot of potential, especially when it comes to educating children about flood risks. While adults might be more apathetic, in my experience, teaching in schools about how to deal with floods in the neighborhood can be of value for everyone.”

Community participation is key during local crises

On the last leg of our tour, we get the chance to talk to Margarita, a resident of one of the lower areas of Iztapalapa which has a high risk of floods. She is about 60 years-old and a proud matriarch. After feeding us cake and giving out cans of Coca-Cola, Margarita ushers our group up a narrow set of stairs to her roof and proudly points out a set of new speakers. “Up to 600 people can hear the alarm from my house when a flood or an earthquake is coming,” she says. The speakers are part of the government’s SMAT system.

While there isn’t much data available on the actual effectiveness of the system, it appears that the speakers and the combined SMAT app do not always work. Local news outlets such as the Gaceta de Iztapalapa as well as neighbours who are active on Twitter report that on occasions, neither the speakers nor the SMAT app have alerted residents of upcoming floods. However, it isn’t clear whether this is due to technical difficulties, lack of funds or other reasons.

SMAT is a highly sophisticated early warning system which is the pride of Iztapalapa municipal office. Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

But Margarita and her husband also demonstrate a very efficient measure that government funding has made available to houses like theirs in particularly vulnerable locations: flood gates. These are about 50 centimetres high and made of stainless steel and aluminium. “Finally, the local government has done something really good for us. With these gates, we can just shut our house when the floods hit us during the rainy season, instead of having to move all of our belongings to the first floor,” they explain.

Each flood gate installed in a vulnerable household as part of Iztapalapa’s pilot programme costs about 300 USD, weighs 3 kilos and takes only a minute to set up. For every peso invested, the government expects to save 3.6 pesos in the long-term. The measurements of the flood gates depend on the individual household, but more importantly, according to Enrique, they are twice the height of the average flood level observed. Moreover, they have sacks filled with gel that work similarly to the flood gates, but are cheaper and can seal the door completely from the water.

Flood gates have been installed in many of the households in Iztapalapa. Photograph by Laura Puttkamer

The government is measuring more and more houses in Iztapalapa to fit flood gates. They are also looking into subsidies and donations, particularly for people in high-risk areas in Iztapalapa that might be economically vulnerable. Public-private partnerships are also being considered. In the overall budget in 2018, two million pesos were assigned for the floodgates, which currently amounts to less than 100,000 USD. While there are no numbers from 2020 on the distribution of flood gates, it is safe to assume that about 300 or 400 of them could have been installed in the past year.

Margarita’s pride in the SMAT installations in her house, local street art, community festivals and neighbourhood ambassadors in Iztapalapa show that residents are key in combating the effects of climate change. They encourage communication within the community, take care of their neighbours, spread important information and serve as community organisers. Even if government funding runs out or falls victim to corruption, which is highly likely in Mexico, their resilience would still improve thanks to educated neighbours, and future floods will be met in a more organised manner.

Can Iztapalapa’s solutions be applied elsewhere?

When people hear about the impacts of climate change in cities, they mostly think of coastal cities endangered by rising sea levels. But even Mexico City, in its sheltered location, surrounded by mountains and far away from the ocean, is in danger due to changing weather. The varying rainfall can have disastrous effects on poor urban neighbourhoods, which tend to be built on the weakest soil in the worst-quality land. On top of this geographical vulnerability, there are climate change-induced disasters such as floods, landslides that make survival harder. To improve resilience, especially in poor and informal settlements, innovative solutions are necessary in urban poor areas all over the world.

“Awareness is the first and most important step in dealing with the annual rainy season and the floods it brings.” Photograph courtesy of Milenio

The example of Iztapalapa shows that education and communication as well as community spirit are crucial. Innovative measures for education such as a mobile classroom are a good first step. With this, it is crucial to consider local context. Communications expert Naira Bonilla points out that not everyone in poorer settlements all over Latin America might speak the same language or have a comparable degree of education.

For example, in Mexico memes are very important in communication, since they are shared widely and include the use of humor, providing an outlet to educate and inform citizens. While there are some critical questions to be asked of neighborhood initiatives – such as funding, political interests, inclusion and degree of education – in the day-to-day dealing with floods and other natural disasters in a poor district like Iztapalapa, neighborhood help is invaluable. While government systems may fail or run out of funding, neighborhood support is the first front of defense.

“We moved the neighbour’s car into our garage during the last flood,” Margarita tells us. She also describes how some residents have systems to mechanically lift furniture once flood water enters the house. According to her, awareness is the first and most important step in dealing with the annual rainy season and the floods it brings. “I am proud of my neighbourhood,” she says with a big smile.

Note: The interviews with all experts but Naira Bonillo have been translated by the author into English.

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