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|GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY IN MEXICO CITY|
|The rainy season is fast
approaching, when downpours will swamp this region's rickety drainage
system. The only thing standing between 20 million residents and streets
filled with raw sewage may be Julio Cu.
Cu is a professional diver, but his domain is neither the rolling Pacific nor the glittering Caribbean. He is part of a small team of frogmen who submerge themselves deep into the bowels of Mexico's City's sewer system to perform some of the filthiest, most frightening plumbing chores imaginable.
Like the Dutch boy who plugged the leaky sea wall with his finger, Mexico City's sewer divers are a last line of defense against a threatening tide.
"Too many people and too much waste," said Cu, neatly summarizing the messy task that confronts him daily in one of the world's most densely populated urban zones.
Floating in a sea of human waste and industrial chemicals, he and three compatriots unplug pipes, repair pumps and pull the occasional cadaver from canals to keep the aguas negras, or black waters, flowing. As if the job weren't difficult enough, they do it completely by feel, groping in liquid so murky that flashlights are useless. The work is dangerous, poorly paid and virtually unknown to millions of Mexicans whose shoes are all the drier for the frogmen's efforts.
To his knowledge, no other
dive team works exclusively in the sewers. But then no place can match
Mexico City for world-class plumbing problems. Perched 7,350 feet above
sea level in a valley surrounded by mountains, the area is essentially
a closed basin with poor drainage and a
Once dotted with shallow lakes and marshes, the valley was siphoned by the conquering Spanish to create more land for their colonial capital. Today, drinking water must be pumped from distant rivers as well as from an underground aquifer whose rapid depletion is causing the city to sink.
Meanwhile, sewage must be pumped up and out of this concave bowl. It adds up to tremendous stress on a fragile drainage system already straining to keep pace with the burgeoning population.
"Mexico City is famous for its air pollution, but our water problems are actually worse," said Homero Aridjis, a prominent environmental activist. "You walk the streets, smell the stench of raw sewage and can only imagine what's happening underground."
Unlike wealthier cities, which have separate waste and storm water networks, Mexico City has a single collection system that can fill to bursting during heavy summer rains. Spotty enforcement of environmental regulations means that factories and hospitals routinely dump hazardous material down the sewers, where it mingles with human waste, street garbage and other urban runoff.
Most of this effluent isn't treated before disposal. Instead, the raw sewage is channeled north out of the city via open-air canals to be used for crop irrigation in the state of Hidalgo. It's a Faustian bargain for the region's farmers, who desperately need the water, but who have contracted cholera, parasites and other illnesses from using it on their fields.
"We're trying to educate people about the risks," said Ana Maria Tavarez, director of health services for the state of Hidalgo.
Mexico City's divers need no such reminders. Gravely aware that each dip into the aguas negras could cause sickness, injury or worse, they encase themselves in waterproof armor to limit their exposure to the poison that surrounds them. Having respect for "the monster" is the key to surviving it, says Cu, 42, who has spent half his life in the sewers.
After all these years "I still have fear," Cu said. "We never know what we're going to encounter below." Inside a cluttered storage compound of the municipal water works department, beneath a drawing of a diver kneeling before the Virgin Mary, the frogmen show off the equipment to which they entrust their lives.
It starts with a bright red "dry suit," a one-piece, synthetic-rubber garment complete with boots. Waterproof gloves come next, lashed firmly to the wrists with plenty of duct tape. A rubbery turtleneck is pulled over the throat to keep sewage from trickling under the collar. It also serves as a cushion for a steel-titanium alloy helmet that encases the head and locks snugly around the neck.
The divers carry no tanks on their backs. Instead, a breathing hose connects them to an air supply on the surface. A two-way radio inside the helmet allows the submerged frogmen to communicate with co-workers up top. Once they resurface, they use gallons of chemical disinfectant to sanitize their bodies and equipment on the spot.
The current four-man team has sustained no injuries beyond a few cuts and eye infections. The work is physically demanding. Yet the divers say the biggest hurdles are psychological - accepting that they are literally swimming in the scatological dregs of society.
"Water is water," said Cu's partner, Carlos Barrios, 47, tapping an index finger on his temple. "The problems are up here in your head." He and the other divers know the inner workings of Mexico City's 6,000-mile labyrinth of pipes and canals more intimately than the engineers who created it. Unable to see in the brackish water, they have memorized the design of pumps, motors, drains and other equipment so they can repair them by feel.
They also remove garbage. Lots of it. Plastic bottles are the most common culprit slowing the sewage flow. But the divers have encountered all manner of junk, including mattresses, furniture, water tanks, trees, even half a Volkswagen that had to be cut up and lifted out in sections.
Despite rumors of alligators
and sea monsters lurking in the city's entrails, the frogmen swear they
have never encountered another living thing. They have, however,
run across plenty of dead ones: dogs, cats, birds, goats, pigs, sheep and
cows among them. That grim list extends to human beings. Cu estimates his
team has recovered more than a dozen bodies for police.
NOTE: If by chance Mr.Cu
reads this, please contact Oceans
Enterprises. I think you deserve some good armchair reading.
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