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Capturing the Rainfall to Fight Drought in Mexico City

A small company adapts a technique typically used in rural areas to augment struggling municipal water systems.

Isla Urbana’s rainwater capture and filtration system.

Isla Urbana’s rainwater capture and filtration system.

Photographer: Jake Naughton for Bloomberg Businessweek

Seven hundred years ago, the land where Mexico City now sits was a vast lake that stretched across hundreds of square miles. Over the centuries, as early settlers built homes on dry land and later rulers drained the area to fight seasonal floods, the lake almost disappeared. Today, given the volumes being pumped from the aquifer beneath the ancient lakebed, the metro area of 22 million risks running out of water. The capital is sinking by as much as 20 inches per year, and homes endure frequent shutoffs and periods when what liquid comes out is clouded and smelly.

For Enrique Lomnitz, that smelled like opportunity. The Mexico City native and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate thought he could help households capture the abundant rain that mostly drains out to distant regions rather than replenishing the city’s supplies. “We have more rainfall than London,” Lomnitz says. “But that doesn’t filter down and recharge our aquifer.”