Through his organization, Urban Island, Enrique Lomnitz aims to solve the water shortage in Mexico City by creating a sustainable rainwater capture system.
The New Idea
Enrique is solving the problem of water supply in Mexico with a system that collects rainwater and complements the existing water supply network. Severe strains on the current system, above all in the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, mean that the aquifers and other natural supplies are not sufficiently replenished thereby causing shortages that affect the population. There is strong demand for Enrique’s rainwater catchment systems from Mexico City residents given their problems with water scarcity. This demand has resulted in the rapid growth of Urban Island and the installation of the organization’s water capture systems. The rain collection systems provide water for at least five or six months every year. Not only does this recharge the aquifer, but it also decreases the problems of flooding attributable to the saturation of Mexico City’s enormous sewage system. Unlike other models of rainwater capture, this model can be adapted to any kind of home so its impact would not be limited to just the elite social classes meaning rainwater capture could become a common practice for all of the city’s citizens.
With this model, Enrique also makes citizens responsible and technologically capable to care for and replenish the water supply. He trains architects, plumbers, engineers, and local community groups to reproduce the model on their own. Through negotiations with local governments, Enrique has successfully financed the installation of these systems through a strategy of collaborative construction that reduces installation costs and promotes the use of raw materials in the home. Still, in order to ensure that communities are committed to maintaining the system, Enrique and his team are implementing a variety of financial models and incentives that increase the adoption rate of the water capture systems especially among low-income communities vulnerable to the water crisis.
Although his early work has been with the hardest hit communities, Enrique plans to implement his strategy with all sectors of society. In addition, Urban Island is helping to install water catchment systems in rural indigenous communities, exploring methodologies to achieve participation of communities typically resistant to outside influence. So far, his water capture system is being replicated independently in several communities that he’s worked with. Enrique envisions that Mexico City will be full of rainwater capture systems so in the rainy season, instead of water shortages and flooding problems, there will be two million water tanks in the Valley of Mexico reliably providing water to the residents.
Inadequate and unsustainable water supply systems in Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, have forced the authorities to seek additional sources to supply water to the city. The aquifer under Mexico City has been overexploited and can no longer provide enough water for the city’s rapidly growing population. Therefore, authorities have been forced to pump water in from a water system in a neighboring region. This system pumps water from a point more than 1,000 meters below the city’s altitude, a process that consumes the same amount of electricity per day as the entire city of Puebla. This highly inefficient system currently supplies 30 percent of the water the city uses. The municipal Water Commission predicts that if no new source of water is developed in the near future, it will be necessary to dramatically reduce the flow of water to the city because of the inability to replenish the aquifer and the lack of water supply alternatives.
Nationwide, ten million people lack access to a water supply network and more than 35 percent of homes in Mexico City receive water inconsistently, having access to water only on specific days or hours each week. In Mexico City, the overexploitation of conventional water sources and the small capacity of the conventional system have caused a permanent issue of scarcity. A lack of potable water, sinking due to the over-extraction of subterranean waters, conflicts with the neighboring communities that export water to Mexico City to supplement its aquifer, and severe floods composed of rain mixed with sewage during the rainy season further mars this critical situation.
The hydrologic conditions and physical infrastructure that encourage rainwater capture and storage in Mexico City have not been well explored. The population largely does not understand or even know about these alternative methods of domestic water capture. Therefore to satisfy the growing need for more water, homes increasingly depend on a highly inefficient water delivery system of water tank trucks. Government subsidies pay for 90 percent of the cost of this water delivery system, which hides the actual cost of water from consumers and is a disincentive against the responsible use of water.
Water supply has become a daily struggle for Mexican communities. Concerned authorities have recognized the problem but have been unable to propose comprehensive changes, and they lack the resources to abandon conventional methods of water supply. Their proposals have successfully integrated teaching communities to preserve water by adopting certain habits or by mitigating pipe leakages, but these have ultimately proven insufficient and costly. Failure to implement a water system that is designed particularly to the geographical and hydrological context of the Mexican Valley has caused the deterioration of natural water sources and the waste of the rainwater that falls abundantly over the city and that each year both saturates the drainage system and floods low-lying areas. General ignorance regarding the water supply requires a technique that would assign more responsibility over the management of water supplies to citizens and thereby creates a culture of care and participation instead of the current model that assigns the responsibility of water supply to the government and sees users as passive consumers.
Through Urban Island, Enrique seeks to develop a sustainable model for the dispersal, management, and consumption of water. The organization’s strategy is the installation of rainwater capture systems that can be customized to adapt to any type of home.
The water capture systems are designed to take advantage of existing infrastructure. Roofs made of aluminum are used to funnel the water into plastic pipes. First-flush mechanisms separate the first 50 liters of captured water because this water could have come into contact with contaminants on the roof or in pipes. Once the roof and pipes have been rinsed by the first 50 liters of water, the rest of the water is physically filtered with inexpensive, but effective water filters. The filtered water fills water tanks that already exist in almost every Mexican home and the water can be used for bathing or cleaning. Water from the Mexican water distribution system is not potable which requires Mexico City’s residents to drink bottled water. Therefore, Mexicans are used to having different water sources for drinking and for other uses. For this reason Enrique’s systems adapt well to Mexican water consumption habits. The systems have expanded rapidly due to word-of-mouth marketing as well as the water scarcity problem.
However, Enrique and his team recognize that their success should be measured, not only by the number of systems installed, but also by the adoption rate of these systems. Subsidies that cover the full cost of the systems have proven unsuccessful in promoting their use and maintenance. Therefore, Urban Island is developing and testing diverse financing mechanisms to increase the adoption rate. In addition, Urban Island increases the adoption rate of the water capture systems by training the families to maintain the systems during the installation and conduct follow-up visits several months after the installation. Lastly, Urban Island studies user habits and designs technology, like the first flush mechanisms, that are inexpensive and require little to no maintenance to increase the adoption rate of the systems.
To create a platform to develop his idea, Enrique formed an independent project at the International Renewable Resources Institute (IRRI), a citizen organization (CO) that through research and the development of sustainable technology seeks to change the way in which people relate to waste and natural resources. IRRI is an umbrella organization under which Enrique operates the Urban Island project. IRRI handles accounting, human resources and other administrative duties, while Enrique independently administers Urban Island, including his budget, staff, and strategic direction of the organization. Affiliation with IRRI grants him the benefits of a respected, established Mexican CO with a track record in sustainable technology without interfering with his freedom to guide the strategy of Urban Island. Urban Island and IRRI share a research team that monitors both the quality of the water and the habits of users in order to make any necessary adjustments for easier and more effective use. These studies also allow Urban Island to determine the best practices for introducing the concept of rainwater capture to communities.
In addition to the Urban Island project, Enrique founded and manages a social business, The Pluvial Solution, dedicated to installing large water capture systems for clients who can afford the full cost of the systems. Profit generated from the social business is used to fund the Urban Island project. To date, the Pluvial Solution has installed water catchment systems at a science and technology center, a hanger in Mexico City’s international airport, private schools, and large residences among other types of buildings. The Pluvial Solution also designs products to adapt to buildings from any socioeconomic condition.
To publicize their water capture systems, Enrique’s team launches public awareness campaigns and other outreach through local media, schools, and other forums. As a result, Urban Island receives an abundance of requests from communities asking for help install water catchment systems in their community. Enrique only works in communities with high demand from the residents, interest from local plumbers, architects and engineers, and support from community leaders and local politicians. Upon entering a community, Urban Island hosts training workshops for plumbers, architects, engineers and citizens to learn the technical capabilities to replicate the systems on their own. Enrique welcomes the installation and reproduction of his water capture systems because he feels that given the massive demand for water in Mexico City, there is sufficient work for Urban Island and its competitors. Enrique lobbies and forms collaborative alliances with municipal governments to construct a legal framework that would promote rain capture and provide rules and set standards of quality for this new market. In this way, the water catchment systems work as a complement, instead of a competitor, to the traditional water system.
Urban Island funds its projects from national and international foundations, banks, local governments, and from directs sale of their rain collection systems. The materials and installation of a water catchment system can cost anywhere from $100 dollars for a small home to thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the system. To date, they have installed more than 500 rain capture systems that have collected around ten million liters of water, providing water to almost 4,000 people.
In the medium and long-term, Enrique expects to achieve exponential growth with the installation of systems collection of rainwater, due to the increasing demand for water. Enrique carefully selects committed and capable employees and partners, to allow him to focus on strategic expansion. The systems have expanded independently within the communities and Enrique believes that this expansion will continue given the increasing number of plumbers, architects, and engineers that are trained to install the systems as well as the increasing demand from communities. Enrique plans to facilitate the development of a legal framework that provides incentives to adopt these systems through financing models that facilitate their purchase and installation.
Enrique was born in Mexico and lived his entire childhood between Mexico and the United States. This experience gave him perspective about both cultures and the leadership ability to organize and attract people with diverse visions. Enrique was profoundly influenced by his parents, who fought for social justice issues and instilled in him a strong ambition for social change, along with the lesson that a career should be a means for personal growth and development.
Enrique had a passion for environmental issues and art, and at college he decided to go into plastic arts. However, during this time he developed a strong interest in working on sustainable issues. He changed his major and studied industrial design in order to apply his creativity to sustainability problems.
Enrique began exploring ideas to promote sustainability among marginalized communities, and an academic trip gave him the opportunity to visit disadvantaged and low-resource communities in Mexico City. After visiting and interviewing community members, he realized water scarcity was a reoccurring problem. Enrique identified a potential opportunity to solve this by installing rainwater capture systems. After conducting some research, he became convinced that rainwater capture was the sustainable solution to water scarcity not only in marginalized communities, but at all levels of society.
After graduation from college in 2006, Enrique didn’t feel he was completely ready to launch his project, so he traveled for three years throughout the U.S. and Mexico working on various sustainability projects. His travels served as a time of learning and development before embarking on his own project; learning valuable sustainability project management skills.
In 2009 Enrique formally launched Urban Island. Despite setbacks, he pushed forward and today relies on a multidisciplinary team to support Urban Island’s work.