Mexico City's dirty truth
By Central America and
Caribbean Correspondent Nick Miles
Mexico City's streets are
choked with traffic. Mexico City is infamous for its air pollution.
Government figures suggest that tens of thousands of people die prematurely
because of health problems related to the toxic cocktail of smog that
envelops the city for much of the winter period from November to May. The
Mexico City government in conjunction with federal authorities has come up
with a new ten-year plan to deal with the problem.
Smarting eyes and wheezing are the norm for many of the 25 million
residents. It involves new restrictions on the lead and sulphur content in
petrol and multi-million dollar schemes to create new systems of public
transport across the city. It is really only when you get above the city in
the mountains to the south that you get a real impression of how bad the
smog is. Deadly smog. Some 500 years ago when the conquistadores fist
laid their eyes on what was then the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, they saw
an island city connected to the mainland by a series of causeways, a
majestic site of floating islands for cultivating crops.
Chroniclers at the time called it an "enchanted vision".
Not so now. The lake has disappeared and in its place lies a sprawling
conurbation of 25 million people. Just another smoggy day in Mexico City.
From the mountain vantage point, the city is shrouded in what looks like
low-lying cloud. Skyscrapers poke out above the dense and deadly smog caused
by cold air sinking down into the city trapping pollution beneath it. "Your
eyes smart, your throat stings, you're breathless after just a few steps,"
local environmental activist Tanya Mijares says as she looks down on the
city. "Successive governments have ignored the problem," she said. "We need
action to stop the problem."
It is in Mexico City's main
children's hospital in the centre of town that the urgency for action hits
home. One-year-old Elva is sitting on her mother's lap with her eyes
streaming. Doctors are trying to fit a oxygen mask over tiny face. Elva is
one of the hundreds of thousands of children who suffer from chronic asthma
across the city. One-year-old Elva suffers from chronic asthma. "The
pollution itself doesn't cause asthma, but the mixture of hundreds of
different particles in the air exacerbates the problem," Dr Juan Jose Sienra
tells me as he attends to the dozens of children in his care. "And it's not
only the young who suffer, the pollution puts a strain on the heart and
increases the risk of all forms of cancer." It was not until the 1980s that
the Mexican Government woke up to the scale of the problem. Throughout the
past 20 years, a number of policies have been put in place.
First there was the closing
down of much of the heavily polluting industries in the city - bitumen
factories, chemical plants and the like were relocated to sites outside the
city. A system of reducing traffic pollution was also started whereby cars
were given a rating on the basis of how environmentally-friendly they are.
When will the needs of our children, our pregnant women, our elderly people
ever be fully taken into account.
Tanja Mijares, environmentalist
The worst offenders are kept off the streets for as much as three days a
week. "That was a good idea in principle," says political commentator Sergio
Sarmiento. "But corruption is so rampant in Mexico that it has been easy for
people to pay off inspectors. Many of the dirtiest vehicles remain on the
streets." So what will the new 10-year plan mean for the city?
"It's a great step forward," says Arnold Ricalde, head of the environment
commission for the state government.
"For the first time, we are
looking at ways of increasing the public transport network so that it
becomes fully integrated with train systems connecting all of the suburban
areas." But the policy will cost billions of dollars and Mexico is in the
grip of an economic recession. Environmentalist Tanja Mijares is sceptical
about whether the money will ever be forthcoming. She takes me to the "periferico"
the six-lane road that circles the city. As usual it is clogged with
traffic. "The government has allocated funds to build a whole new level for
the traffic here," she tells me. "That won't solve the problem. In time,
that too will become jammed. The billions of dollars it will cost should go
into encouraging car-sharing schemes, developing new forms of transport,
electric cars, electric trams." As with pollution problems in so many of the
world's cities, the immediate priorities of dealing with congestion - more
road building - seem to be at odds with the long-term goals of improving the
environment. But for Ms Mijares that is an approach that the Mexican
Government can ill afford to take.
"People are dying here," she says. "When will the needs of our children, our
pregnant women, our elderly people ever be fully taken into account?"