Climate Change, Water Rights, and the Future of the Mexican Altiplano: An interview with Lorena Bello

A large lagoon in the middle of an otherwise dry plain.
Apan Lagoon, formerly a 600-hectare lake, dries up seasonally. Image: Gustavo Madrid

The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow offered fresh evidence of the unbridled global climate crisis, and reminded us that while humanity faces unprecedented threats, some communities are bearing an undue portion of the burden. GSD Design Critic Lorena Bello Gómez’s research combines landscape, architecture, and urbanism to mitigate that burden for environmentally vulnerable communities. As an urbanist, she is interested in how design at the territorial scale can address flawed policies and infrastructures to reduce injustice.

This semester, Bello is teaching “Aqua Incognita: Deciphering Liquid Territories in the Mexican Altiplano.” Using a water-scarce region in the hinterland of Mexico City as a case study, studio participants are designing sustainable and scalable pilot projects to help this farming region confront the fallout from unsustainable industrialization and the active threats to local livelihoods posed by climate change.

How has your practice informed the Aqua Incognita studio?

For five years, I have been looking at territories beyond cities that are engulfed in climatic risks. I typically work with local foundations in collaboration with interdisciplinary teams, raising support through international grants. My current project looks at the Apan Plains, an area 80 kilometers from Mexico City. The city and the plains form a single region climatically, in terms of water resources, fluxes, and metabolism. But they don’t have any other connection, which creates tensions. There’s a political divide because these plains belong to another state, Hidalgo, with different policies, governor, and political agendas. And while Mexico City is always in the spotlight of climate crises; the Apan Plains don’t get into the news. This absence of visibility makes them vulnerable to climate change and to other environmental injustices.

The studio is positioned to respond through design to the cultural, political, biophysical, and socioeconomic structural issues that are placing pressure on this liquid territory. We are supported by a UKPACT international grant to build capacity for implementation and to establish trust with local stakeholders.

As climate crises increase, the new regimes of too much or too little water that don’t allow you to farm are also increasing. This requires a more equitable access, provision, treatment and reuse of water resources. Designers can provide scenarios showing the gains of such redistribution.

Lorena Bello

What can you tell us about these pressures?

In the 1920s, after an agrarian revolution, lakes were drained and land was given back to farmers as commons or ejidos. Mexican land is communally owned and individually farmed, a trend diminishing over time as the nation entered a neoliberal era. After NAFTA, in 1992, land could be privatized and transferred from common land to dominio pleno, or private land. Mexico is still urbanizing peri-urban areas in the outskirts of cities, transforming ejido land to urban land.

In Apan, land has been abandoned or overexploited through industrialization. Adding to farmer’s challenges, in 1954, the national government determined that the Apan Plains’ aquifer, linked hydrologically to Mexico City’s, could not be used by local farmers. Instead, the national government has granted aquifer access to many industrialists. There are now global beer and paper industries, metal companies, and solar farms in the valley, all using aquifer water needed by communities.

So, the crux of the issue is access to—and control over—water resources?

Yes. On the one hand, you have a population who depends on their land yet only have access to rainwater. Then you have the urban areas of the valley together with these industrialists, that have access and are depleting the aquifer—as nobody measures consumption.

This, along with the privatization of land, is causing water-intensive processes and erosion, since Apan Plains’ municipalities lack urban plans to protect critical environmental zones and resources.

Does the course look at a particular kind of solution?

The studio is testing hypotheses through design, working closely with Mexican and global experts in law, urban sociology, ecology, agronomy and environmental sustainability. This interdisciplinary team provides students a holistic view of the intertwined structural challenges that these communities are facing.

At selected settlements of ~2,000 people, students are designing aquacultural projects that improve the hydrological region in a bottom-up fashion. They are integrating formerly siloed areas of scientific knowledge to build spatial connections, creating processes that enhance positive feedback loops and decrease waste. They are designing systems, not objects.

Can you give me examples of potential solutions to any of the problems that you’ve mentioned?

Farmers can be helped to reforest and transition from barley monoculture into more sustainable and profitable agriculture. This will in turn diminish the amount of pesticides and agrochemicals that go into the aquifer and water bodies, and improve the quality of soil—which is arid—in order to amplify wetness.

As climate crises increase, the new regimes of too much or too little water that don’t allow you to farm are also increasing. This requires a more equitable access, provision, treatment, and reuse of water resources. Designers can provide scenarios showing the gains of such redistribution.

What kind of experience have you created for your students?

The Apan Plains make visible and tactile the challenges that vulnerable human/non-human communities are facing. Students heard this in first person from different stakeholders and they had the opportunity to get a lot of feedback. In this sense, Aqua Incognita gives them an active voice in reducing such vulnerabilities with projects that must anticipate: resistance among actors, low budgets, low management and maintenance—not dissimilar from greening plans in Europe or the US.

When I think about landscape architecture, I imagine gardens. What does landscape architecture mean in the context of this work?

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the first designers to think systemically about the metabolism of cities, with large visionary projects that move beyond gardens and become a kind of regional design. To me, it is an excellent way to think about sustainable regions today: How do you enhance the metabolic cycle of resources? How do you start closing cycles instead of linear structures that leave things open? So, part of the approach of the studio is to think about water circularly, moving from a myopic understanding of solutions to a holistic understanding of problems.

UKPACT project collaborators include Antonio Azuela, Charlotte Chambard, Diane E. Davis, Gabriela Degetau, Gustavo Madrid, Raúl Mejía, Samuel Tabory, Monica Tapia, and Luis Zambrano. Student researchers include Ying Dong, Lauren Duda, Angel Escobar-Rodas, Barbara Graeff, Xingyue Huang, Jingyun Li, Hala Nasr, Sophie Mattinson, Alison Maurer, Morgan Vogt, and Maria Vollas.