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Bringing Water Heritage (Back) to the City

The Mexico City metropolitan area is home to 23 million people

Last week I roamed around a populated metro station in downtown Mexico City asking everyone who was willing to chat - families, young people, and retired citizens - if they knew where the water they use each day comes from. In my work on watershed conservation with Conservation International México, I've found that public awareness is key for promoting sustainable water resource management.

Most people I interviewed said they didn't have a clue. A few cited a transport system that brings water from over a hundred miles away (the well-documented Cutzamala System that provides about 28% of the water used). Only two people I asked knew anything about aquifers, the source of 70% of the water used by 23 million people in the region.

Overlooking Mexico City

A lack of knowledge and misconceptions about the origins of water mirror the lack of awareness of where food comes from, a phenomenon present in cities around the world. Many urbanites - adults and youth alike - think water comes from the tap and vegetables from the supermarket. In cities, our dependency on nature is outsourced and out of sight.

Not having a water heritage, or rather, not knowing about this heritage, has wide implications.

Know to Protect

"Conocer para Proteger: Know to Protect" is a saying often uttered in conservation circles. To safeguard our freshwater, food sources, and clean air we need to know something about the lands and water bodies on which we rely. If we do not connect to our water heritage it's less likely we'll be lobbying local officials to protect our water resources, signing a petition, donating to conservation, or helping pull trash from the local creek.

Trash in the wetlands of Xochimilco, Mexico City

This isn't to say there's a lack of water awareness in all urban areas.

In some cities, you can find immense pride in water. In Bogotá, for example, taxi drivers and Colombians I spoke to on the street were proud to share that their water is of excellent quality and can be enjoyed straight from the tap. The majority knew that their water came from the páramos watershed, the high alpine tundras around the city. Perhaps it's no coincidence that city officials and partner organizations like Conservation International Colombia are actively working to protect this precious watershed for generations to come.

The páramos outside of Bogotá, Colombia

In light of the upcoming World Water Forum in Brasilia, I'm thinking about water heritage and its usefulness in framing action-oriented work in cities. Celebrating water heritage asks us as conscientious citizens to look beyond shorter showers and fixing household leaks - both valuable and relevant interventions - and remind ourselves why water matters.

3 Reasons To Celebrate Water Heritage

Our bodies, our food, our cities, our industry and commerce, and our cultures are all integrally connected to water.

Our traditions connect to water heritage.

Many cultural and spiritual traditions speak to the importance of the life-bearing rains, the flowing of the river, the seasonal floods. Effigies of Tlalcoc, god of rain, water, and fertility from the Aztec tradition, have been found across Mexico and into the Mayan Yucatan Peninsula. Mother Ganga, the Hindu Goddess of the Ganges River, brings holy and quenching waters throughout northern India and Bangladesh. Diverse practices and beliefs the world over often reflect our dependence on water and the bounty it provides. To celebrate our water heritage is to celebrate our roots.

Views of the Ganges in Varanasi and Rishikesh, India

Our societies are built on water.

Many of our major cities were settled along freshwater bodies such as rivers, lakes, and springs, given their strategic position for transportation and importance for crop irrigation, drinking water, and industry needs. Some 50% of the world's population lives within 3km to surface freshwater sources. Many more of us live above valuable groundwater sources. To celebrate our water heritage is to celebrate our history.

We are water.

Our water heritage runs deep in our veins. Literally. Adult humans are about 70% water. This means 70% of us is the river, or the aquifer, or the mighty lakes. Its quality directly affects our bodies. Improper water and watershed management leads to sickness, increase exposure to carcinogens and causes other health issues. To celebrate our water heritage is to celebrate our health.

What Does Celebrating Water Heritage Look Like?

What would it look like if we collectively recognized the importance of water and stood up for its protection, and its ultimate protection of our biodiverse planet, our economies, our rich cultural traditions, our cities, and ourselves?

Freshwater body in Lagunas de Zempoala National Park, Mexico

Celebrating water heritage looks like following our water back to its source. It looks like pulling out the phonebook and calling up the water utilities for a family tour. Like joining on a river cleanup day. Or hiking through the watershed. It looks like being a little bit more conscious and a tad more grateful for water as we wash the dishes or drink a cup of tea in the morning.

Before long many of us might not have the luxury to not think about water on a day-to-day basis. By 2025, half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas. By 2030, the demand for water will outpace availability by 40%.

Already many Mexicans living on the outskirts of Mexico City have limited access to water and must wait up to two weeks for a delivery

Understanding our water heritage today can help us be more water-wise tomorrow, demand water conservation and watershed preservation from our decision-makers, and give younger generations a head start in finding solutions to complex resource issues. But to do all this, celebrating water heritage starts at the base: by forming connections and building appreciation for our reliance on nature.

As a friend once told me, we won't act unless we feel it.

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