New Airport construction threatens the water supply to the City of Mexico
The construction of a new airport for Mexico City has been in the pipeline for over 15 years, and has been resisted throughout that time, but the current project took shape in September 2015, when it was presented to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).
Despite being one of the biggest megaprojects it has had to study, the process was rushed through: at the end of the year, when people are thinking more about family and holidays than changes to their immediate environment, the Environmental Impact Report was approved by the General Directorate of Environmental Impact and Risk (DGIRA) of the above-mentioned Secretariat.
"The project should be rejected by the DGIRA because there are many uncertainties about it, arising from the deliberate failure to provide information; these do not allow a proper assessment of the potential environmental impact of the work." This was the analysis of the project made by the Union of Socially Engaged Scientists, once they could get hold of it.
The group has been involved for 5 years in the analysis of megaprojects, with the aim of producing information that is independent, or at least as unbiased as possible, in order to generate real debate about the projects that should or should not go ahead.
"Our vision is to act as a counterweight to official information, to search for and point out shortcomings in the processes for the approval of megaprojects, and especially in them [the megaprojects], because they always tend to involve conflicts of interest. Our purpose is to generate independent information, which, in many cases, has served the peoples to strengthen their demands or legal appeals." This gives people more arguments when facing legal proceedings, or for public statements. Fernando Córdova Tapia is a young biologist and coordinator of the group, who talked with Desinformémonos about this work and gave details of the dangers posed by the construction of the New Airport of Mexico City.
"We have been analysing megaprojects for 5 years now. In other cases, in the public hearing provided for under the law, there is an opportunity to generate discussion, but the intention of this project was to get rapid approval, and that was what happened."
In this regard, the Regional Citizens’ Observatory for Sustainable Development in Texcoco indicated that, for the airport project, what took place was a "travesty of public consultation in the municipality of Ecatepec, and so far there has been no public meeting in the municipalities which are directly affected, territorially speaking, as in the case of Texcoco and Atenco."
In any case, the processes provided are extremely demanding for anyone who wants to participate. It is envisaged that once a project is presented for study by SEMARNAT, civil society has 20 working days in which to analyse it and be ready to participate, in an informed way, in the public consultation.
The consultancy in charge of producing the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Mexican government is called "Environmental Development Specialists S.A. of C.V." and one of its founding members is Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, who is currently employed as Assistant Secretary for Planning and Environmental Policy at – wait for it! – SEMARNAT.
"We came across this company in other controversial projects, such as the Southern Wind Farm, in Juchitán, Oaxaca."
Despite this participation on both sides of the table by Lacy Tamayo, this conflict of interest is not the worst aspect of the environmental report which led to the approval of the construction of the planned new airport, but rather the fact that "it is neither objective nor technically robust."
The team of scientists reports that as soon as SEMARNAT published the approval of the draft project in express-quick time, without any discussion about it, they drew up a plan of work, whose main aim was to determine whether SEMARNAT’s approval was legal or not.
"A double analysis is required. On the one hand, to know whether the information presented in the study is reliable, if it was collected following international and local planning and land use criteria; and secondly, to assess the viability of measures for mitigating the impact that the work will cause in the affected territories "
That is to say, on the one hand, to check that the information presented is faithful, accurate and not false; and secondly, if the full effects are declared or if things are omitted. In fact, shortcomings were found, some very serious, in the study in which the New Airport of Mexico City was proposed. This violated previous territorial planning regulations, and left huge information gaps, like blank cheques to be filled in during the construction – a big blank cheque. Is this carelessness on the part of SEMARNAT common when approving any megaproject? "We find these problems when the promoter is the government itself. If it is an individual, it depends. But never have we seen it behave as it behaved with this project."
One. The construction of the airport violates the territorial organization of Texcoco. More precisely it violates the Regional Urban Development Plan for the Cuautitlan-Texcoco Valley and the Municipal Urban Development Plan of Texcoco. According to the Municipal Plan, the area of the basin of the former Lake Texcoco is an area designated as not for building, and is considered a Protected Natural Area, because it is one of the areas with most environmental value in the municipality. For that reason, the plan establishes a "strict control of urban growth, as well as promoting and boosting agricultural activities, discouraging human settlements."
"When reviewing the resolution of SEMARNAT, we found that the division in charge of the study had not raised any objection to this violation, that there was no issue with the location of the projected airport even though violating land use plans is completely illegal, and, as can be seen, the land use plans explicitly prohibit the continued increase in the density of the population in the Lake Texcoco basin. "
The scientists have pointed out that these plans are in the process of "updating", which very probably implies an amendment to this prohibition so there is no longer any conflict with the airport, although they do not know for sure because they have not had access to the new plans submitted by the authorities of the State of Mexico and the municipality of Texcoco.
"This is another front that is being opened and it would be helpful to have access to the draft that is being produced whic has to go through public consultation. Until then we cannot know the intention behind this amendment, but we can sense it."
Two. In addition to building the runways and the terminal, they are planning to build the Aerotropolis, a new city linked to the airport, about which there are no further details. "When SEMARNAT accepts the project, it does so including these 3 components, and we do not even know how they will be. It is one of the major concerns, it is a blank cheque."
The Environmental Impact Assessment, when describing the impacts of the new construction, does not even include the size of the Aerotropolis, but scientists estimate that there will be 3.7 million square metres of pure new city, in an area that, as the above-mentioned Land Use Plan states, cannot support any more people.
"What they are planning is a small city linked to the airport, so that travelers do not have to go out of it, which will have hotels, convention centres and they will not get any closer to the country than here. It is the largest part of the new airport project and they barely mention what it consists of."
According to scientists, this mechanism is the symptom that reveals the mechanism: the intention from above is to hide the impacts that may occur, simply not to mention them, like whistling in the air, to see if they get through.
"The new airport has been promoted as one that will not waste much water, that will be super-sustainable, but how much water will that Aerotropolis need? We made an estimate based on the limited data available and we estimate that it would need about 23 million cubic metres a year just for that city "
The airport and related city will be connected to the municipal water network, in the "overexploited" zone of Texcoco, so that the priority for drinking water, scientists point out, will be the Aerotropolis and not the people of the area, who are already suffering shortages.
Three. For most of the proposed compensation measures, it is not clear how they will be carried out and some of them are simply ludicrous.
Such is the case, for example, with the generation of new bodies of water. As "mitigation" for drying up Lake Texcoco, the government proposes to create "new bodies of water"; it does not specify the depth or size or anything about these. "SEMARNAT accepts this without technical information, without any scientific rigour to certify that what is proposed will be achieved. We believe that it is the same with the Aerotropolis mentioned above: if you do not commit to anything, there is nothing to check to see if it has been fulfilled." There is nothing to be held accountable for, then.
The other compensation measure is planting 260,000 Tamarisk (cedro salado – salt cedar) trees, an invasive species, which is one of the main threats to the country’s flora and fauna. "We are fighting against the invasion of this species on all sides and yet here it is proposed as the magic remedy to compensate for the damage caused by the construction of the airport to the only hope the city of Mexico has of having water in the future," the biologist Cordova explained to Desinformémonos.
"Besides, these trees have highly inflammable leaves, and being in such a large area, they are very likely to end up on fire. These trees are a plague because they end up doing what no other species can, living in these conditions, without access to water. It is a plague that does not allow anything else to grow." He explained that this type of tree makes the groundwater salty, and with rain and falling leaves, which settle on the ground, the salt can infiltrate the aquifer beneath it. That or the deep roots that they grow.
"What they are trying to do is change a lake into a forest. From a scientific point of view, it is the worst [possible] decision. We should not even be trying. The Lake Texcoco basin is the hope for having water in the not too distant future, and on top of it you’re going to put a sheet of concrete, runways, a city and open spaces planted with a species that is a plague?"
Four. The area of Texcoco is the part of the city and state of Mexico which is sinking the fastest, between 30 and 40 centimetres a year; it is therefore one of the areas at the most at risk of flooding, as water always ends up in the lowest areas. Cordova says that since the 70s, the only hope for Mexico City to return to its original vocation as a lake was to solve the problem of recharging the aquifers. Also, as a way to alleviate the crisis in access to potable water, which was already latent even then.
"There was a plan to recover the Texcoco basin as a lake, which would facilitate the infiltration of the area and would operate as a buffer against flooding. The areas of the water table that have been overexploited are where the buildings are sinking the fastest."
Despite knowledge of all these serious problems, indicating that the work is neither suitable nor desirable at that location (nor anywhere else it might be said by members of the Front of Peoples in Defence of the Land, the principal resistance to the megaproject) the Ministry of the Environment gave the green light to the project with all its shortcomings. However, so far, the work has not advanced beyond levelling the ground and the budget cuts to the work for 2015 are estimated at 70% of the originally designated amount.
"The official government version maintains that the New Airport of Mexico City will be sustainable, and will recycle water, but the truth is that they have not analysed the real impact that the work will have, trying to divert attention from the important to the superficial. They are not declaring impacts in order to not have to pay compensation. This project is a headache whichever way you look at it."