Mexico City

The sinking city: The looming land subsidence crisis in Mexico City

Mexico City, once known as Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, is a testament to centuries of history and cultural heritage. However, beneath its bustling streets lurks a silent threat that is slowly eroding its foundations: land subsidence.

This phenomenon, primarily caused by excessive groundwater abstraction, is causing the city to sink at an alarming rate, creating serious problems for its infrastructure, economy, and residents.

Mexico City’s history of flooding goes back centuries and is intertwined with the city’s rich past. Founded 700 years ago on an island in Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan flourished as the heart of the Aztec Empire.

During colonial times, the conquering Spanish began ambitious drainage projects, turning the once lush lake into dry land suitable for urban development. Their actions began a series of events that haunted the city for centuries.

The role of groundwater extraction

Today, Mexico City is struggling with the consequences of relentless groundwater extraction.

As the metropolis expanded and its population grew, so did the need for water. To meet this demand, extensive pumping of water from underground aquifers has become commonplace. This over-extraction came at a cost.

The land beneath Mexico City is made up of unstable soil, a legacy of its ancient lakebed origins. When groundwater is pumped out, the soil becomes compacted, causing the ground above to sink, a process known as subsidence.

Over the years, the rate of subsidence has only accelerated, recently reaching a staggering 50 centimeters per year.

Research results

A recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research sheds light on the seriousness of the situation.

The study, led by a team of Mexican and American scientists, used 115 years of ground-based measurements and 24 years of Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) satellite data.

The results paint a grim picture: Mexico City’s subsidence is almost irreversible.

The consequences of this decline are far-reaching. City infrastructure, including buildings, historical sites, and essential utilities such as sewerage and water supply, is increasingly subject to damage and destruction.

Moreover, the risk of flooding is becoming increasingly significant as the land sinks unevenly, exacerbating the city’s vulnerability.

Problems and solutions

Some areas of Mexico City are more vulnerable to subsidence than others. The historic center, Colonia Roma, and Colonia Condesa are among those facing the greatest threat due to the soft composition of the soil.

To solve these problems, the authorities are taking several measures. Groundwater extraction regulations aim to curb overexploitation, and investments in alternative water sources aim to diversify the city’s water supply.

Sustainable urban planning strategies coupled with public awareness campaigns are essential components of a long-term solution. Collaboration between government agencies, researchers, and the public is paramount for effective mitigation.

Addressing the root causes of land subsidence requires concerted, long-term efforts.

Looking ahead

As Mexico City faces the dual challenges of water shortages and subsidence, the stakes have never been higher. Without decisive action, the city faces a future marred by infrastructure destruction, widespread flooding, and socio-economic disruption.

However, by practicing sustainable water management practices and promoting a culture of conservation, we can hope for a more sustainable and prosperous future.

In the face of adversity, Mexico City is a testament to human resilience and ingenuity. Facing a looming land subsidence crisis, the city can write a new chapter in its storied history  –  one of resilience, sustainability, and progress.

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