Urban Jungle: No Forest, No Water for Mexico City

Editor's note: In honor of the International Day of Forests (today) and World Water Day (tomorrow), we bring you a story that highlights how closely tied ecosystems are. This is the second post in our new “Urban Jungle” series, which explores the inextricable connections between nature and thriving cities. Read the first post

My relationship with the forest began when I was two weeks old and my mother took me to Desierto de los Leones National Park — at the time a deep, humid fir forest that crowned much of the mountains southwest of Mexico City.

This park is part of what is increasingly known as the “Water Forest,” a 2,500 square-kilometer (about 1,000 square-mile) area of forest and natural grassland-covered mountains. Although the Water Forest only makes up 0.1% of Mexico’s land area, it provides water for 23 million people inhabiting three neighboring cities — including Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises.


This forest is nested within the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a region containing some of Mexico’s most unique ecosystems and providing habitats for species as varied as the volcano rabbit — found nowhere else on Earth — and North America’s migratory monarch butterflies, which spend their winters here.

Trees and natural grasslands hold soil in place, keeping sediment out of rivers. Trees and plants also increase groundwater by absorbing rainfall. When forests disappear, both the quantity and quality of available fresh water decline rapidly. Recent estimates calculated that replacing the “free” hydrological service provided by the Water Forest would cost US$ 30 billion.

Around 70% of the Water Forest is protected by 21 federal, state and municipal protected areas. However, this protection is mostly in name only, and has not impeded decades of mismanagement, conversion to agriculture and increasing urban sprawl.

In just the last 40 years, the southern part of Mexico City has lost nearly 30% of its forests. By 2017, the neighboring city of Cuernavaca is expected to join the list of cities in the region that withdraws more water from its aquifers than is being naturally replenished.

In an extraordinary gesture, last year six governors from central Mexico recognized this area as an important region for national security. This unprecedented recognition acknowledges the havoc that further loss in water supply could wreak among the millions of people who depend on it.

Water availability already polarizes Mexico City residents. In the wealthier areas, average daily consumption is 600 liters per person. In the poorer areas, it’s a heavily rationed 20 liters. I can only imagine what will happen when the latter receive the water one day too late.

In response to these surmounting challenges, in late 2011 41 organizations signed their support for the Water Forest Initiative, developed with financial support from the Fundación Gonzalo Rio Arronte (FGRA).

Last year, CI joined the partnership and obtained FGRA’s support to implement activities in three pilot areas. We strive to bring together a wide range of people — landowners, local business owners, government officials, academics, scientists, etc. — to demonstrate how together we can permanently protect and restore key areas of this forest.

Planned activities include:

  • Developing community-based forest and agricultural management and restoration plans designed to improve forest health and land use, support better grazing practices and reduce the impact on the aquifer that provides for urban settlements;
  • Engaging and training local people to monitor their ecosystems to improve management practices; and
  • Promoting payments for environmental services and responsible attitudes toward forest conservation through communications campaigns and social marketing.

I have spent more than 25 years working in conservation living and working in eight countries. My experiences range from holding important roles at the Mexican Embassy in Canada to herding reindeer in Lapland’s high Arctic. The political, scientific, social and economic issues at stake here in Mexico City make me view all these experiences as a prelude to the Water Forest project, which is the biggest test of my career.

Mexico’s president recently elevated the concept of a “megalopolis,” a tight mesh of adjacent cities. Together, Mexico City and its five neighboring cities comprise 30 million people — and about half of Mexico’s GDP.

Freshwater access in cities is a much more critical issue than many people realize. Empowering landowners to keep natural areas in good condition will be more important than ever to secure the viability of forest ecosystems in the face of the needs of growing urban populations.

What we learn here in Mexico could hold invaluable lessons for an increasingly urbanized world. Under the auspices of the Clinton Global Initiative, CI recently made a commitment to foster an information exchange between Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Bogotá — three Latin American cities that are facing similar issues regarding ecosystem degradation and freshwater access. We believe that by sharing ideas and inspirational stories of success, we can move closer to finding much-needed answers.

It will not be an easy task. Finding strong and lasting solutions to complex problems like this can clearly be complicated. They require us to use the best knowledge available to inform our decisions and find a way to communicate effectively with all groups who have a stake in this land.

This forest is part of me — part of all of us, whether we realize it or not. Despite formidable challenges, I am optimistic about the success of this project, which seeks to find an enduring balance between people and nature.

But in the face of inexorable urban sprawl, we don’t have much time. Securing water for our cities is an urgent task that will require all of our ingenuity, yet it’s the only choice we have.

Jürgen Hoth is the project director of the Water Forest Initiative at CI-Mexico.