Mexico made international headlines last October when farmers revolted over sending water to the US in the middle of a drought. Extreme weather conditions paired with failing infrastructure are at the core of Mexico’s water crisis. Enrique Lomnitz offers up a solution. He spoke with Pip Wheaton, Ashoka’s co-lead of Planet & Climate, about how he is transforming Mexico City’s water supply through household rainwater harvesting.

Pip Wheaton: Tell us about the early days of your work.

Enrique Lomnitz: We started the project by moving to a very water scarce area in Mexico City. We rented a little apartment there, moved in, and just started to install rainwater harvesting systems in the area and made noise around them. Everything else started branching off that initial work. At the time, if you googled rainwater harvesting in Spanish, you’d come up with a couple of diagrams from the 1970s,but there was really nothing. There weren’t any companies focusing on this. It was an entirely undeveloped field. A lot of our work in the beginning was just to get people to start looking at rainwater harvesting, not as a hippie technology for eco-villages, but to consider it as a serious part of a modern city’s water infrastructure.

Wheaton: Why does rainwater harvesting matter beyond the individual household?

Lomnitz: A lot of our work is focused on the idea of infrastructure for resilience. To give an example, there was a very intense earthquake in Mexico in September of 2017. A big area in the southeast of the city that we’ve done a lot of work in had the main water lines burst during the earthquake, and they went without municipal water, for some areas for as much as four months. At the same time, there were a whole bunch of families with rainwater harvesting systems that we had installed. The neighbors would go to those houses to fill up buckets and pails of water at those rainwater harvesting systems and then take them back home. So all of the rainwater harvesting systems that were already installed became little nodes that were still producing water in a context where the conventional infrastructure had completely failed. Our proposal is if we start filling the city up with rainwater harvesting systems, we can simultaneously reduce pressure on the aquifers – when you extract less water to supply, we can increase the amount of water in very targeted areas. We can collectively reduce runoff into the sewer during rain events, playing a role for local flood mitigation during intense storms. We’re building resilience infrastructure

Wheaton: What’s the impact of your work?

Lomnitz: We’ve put up over 20,000 rainwater harvesting systems so far. Collectively those systems harvest about a billion liters of water every year. But we’ve never given anybody a single drop of water: we give people pipes and filters and tanks and equipment, and they get the water directly from nature themselves, coming directly from the sky. That is a paradigm shift on how we’re building infrastructure because every government infrastructure that I’ve seen previously delivers the water to a passive consumer. To convince the government that instead of building a big piece of infrastructure that they’re going to operate to give people water, “why don’t you help people get a bunch of these tiny little pieces of infrastructure, that then are going to be transferred over to their control fully?”

Wheaton: Decentralization is a strong theme in your work. Why do you think it’s important?

Lomnitz: When things like our food and water depend on faraway places and come from a single source that you have no real control over, that’s a really risky situation. We need a much more local level of decentralized procurement of necessary needs. You see convergence by all the movements working in sustainability across water, food and agriculture, energy: they are all talking about decentralization, bringing things closer to home, making things local and diversified. I think that’s something that at this point, we’ve figured out. It doesn’t mean that none of your stuff can come from farther away. But you can’t be 100% dependent on stuff that you have no relationship with and no control over.

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Wheaton: How does this fit in the bigger climate movement?

Lomnitz: There’s a lot of inertia behind all of these systems. For Mexico City’s water management models, they are four hundred years in the building. We’ve been working along a certain kind of paradigm of water infrastructure since the early 1600s. It’s not that easy and that fast to change. But I think it’s important for people that are committed to change that we also understand ourselves as part of a much longer story. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to change and fix everything in our lifetimes. We’re standing on the shoulders of the people that came before us, and there’s hopefully going to be a lot more people that come after us.

Enrique Lomnitz is an industrial designer focused on water access and sustainability. He works on the development of decentralized, autonomous water infrastructure for communities facing high levels of water insecurity in both urban and rural Mexico, primarily through the promotion of rainwater harvesting. Lomnitz’s organization, Isla Urbana, mostly works in low-income, peri-urban neighborhoods, and in remote rural and indigenous communities, where it has installed over 20,000 rainwater harvesters since 2009.Lomnitz is an Ashoka Fellow, a UBS Visionary, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35.”

Pip Wheaton leads the search for new Ashoka Fellows in Europe, looking for exceptional systems changing social entrepreneurs, and is co-lead of the Next Now/Planet & Climate team. Australian by birth, she has worked in social innovation and social finance in both Africa and Europe. Prior to joining Ashoka, Pip founded the South African youth-leadership organization, enke: Make Your Mark, for which she became an Ashoka Fellow in 2014.

Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now/Planet & Climate connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 Part 8, Part 9, Part 10  and Part 11 of our series.

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