Renata Fenlon, executive director of Isla Urban, explains rain water capture techniques at her organization’s headquarters in Mexico City. Her goal this year is to install 10,000 systems for the city’s most vulnerable people.

Meet the NGO that is solving a severe water crisis in Mexico’s bustling capital

A fleet of workers drive through Mexico City at 5 a.m. every morning with the same destination: a warehouse in Iztalapa, near the outskirts of the sprawling capital city. 

The warehouse is where the workers pick up their supplies for the day. On the list: two large jugs - one to put on the roof of a local home and the second as a storage unit in the backyard -  many metres of piping, and at least two cylindrical filters and their linings. 

Then, the workers pair off and head out to install two water filtration system installments at homes they have visited at least a few times before. Each team conducts a minimum of two site visits before installation day to measure the size of the home and the height of the walls, and to evaluate the home’s existing structural support. 

Renata Fenlon supervises the flow of workers in the warehouse. Ten years ago she learned that five million taps in Mexico’s capital city had run dry, after the water grid in the city had been stopped in order to limit the amount of water lost through leakages. 

That’s when Fenlon left her stable engineering job in the American northwest and co-founded Isla Urbana - a non-profit organization that installs renewable water filtration systems in some of Mexico’s poorest households.

“People were freaking out,” Fenlon recalled. “I expect we are going to see this happen more and more in the next 10 years.” 

The stakes are high. The World Bank, along with Mexico’s national commission for water (also known as CONAGUA) expect to see massive water shortages by 2030 which could eventually dry up the city in the next 30 years. If you ask Mexico City residents though, they will tell you these problems have already started; more than 250 thousand people currently live without a connection to the city’s existing water grid. 

One of the easiest explanations for the water crisis is the continuous leakages in the Cutzamala water system, which transports water from other Mexican provinces through 130 kilometres of underground pipes to service the city’s population. Every second in Mexico City, 40,000 litres of waste is produced, which in turn clogs up the pipes normally used for drinking water. The government often shuts down the system to do repairs, which damages the pipes from continuous overuse. 

Enter Isla Urbana. Fenlon and a small but mighty team started their work by doing research into the areas of the city that had the poorest water quality. Four sectors of the city were identified as the highest in need, including Iztapalapa, the home of Isla Urbana's headquarters.

The filtration systems are designed to compliment Mexico’s existing water grid in these poorer areas.

The water filtration system is expected to capture 8-10 months of potable water per household. The water is held in the jug to the left of the photo. 

The water is first gathered in a massive cylindrical jug installed on to the roof of each home. Then, the water is filtered through a series of outdoor pipes and small filters that removes any possible pollutants. The refined water is stored in a 2,500L jug at the back of the home. When filled to the brim, the jug supplies a small family with roughly 6-10 months of potable water.

All the parts - save a small filtration filter imported from Israel, are made and manufactured in Mexico. Fenlon said she hopes to make it 100 percent locally-sourced in the near future.

In 2009, Isla Urbana was installing one water filtration system per month. Ten years later, the organization is on to their biggest mission yet - connecting 10,000 homes to a water filtration system before December 31. Dozens of workers install roughly 50 systems a day to get to their goal.

If the NGO meets its goal by the end of the year, thousands of households will reduce their reliance on the expensive trucks that bring fresh water to communities not connected to the city’s water grid. 

Fenlon says that's the most important impact on families that now use this system.

Climate change exacerbates the existing water accessibility problems by making rain patterns more difficult to predict and widening the earthquake risk area around the city. 

Fenlon says her team needs to keep these environmental factors in mind when they design their filtration systems going forward. 

Fenlon said that in climate-induced disasters, the water filtration systems have literally saved lives. She saw this first-hand after the 2017 Mexico City earthquake that killed roughly 220 people and leveled many of the homes and infrastructure in the city.