A pioneer in the promotion of rainwater use and harvesting in Mexico City (Mexico), Isla Urbana has since 2009, developed products and projects that invite citizens to become part of the city’s water management process by using tools such as Rainwater Harvesting Systems (RWH). Currently, Isla Urbana has installed more than 9,000 systems, which means that more than 50,000 people have been involved in the solution process. This is a significant action towards ensuring sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity (UN SDG 6.4) and strengthening the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management (UN SDG 6.b)

Activating and educating communities about rainwater is essential to Renata Fenton, Head Designer at Isla Urbana. She spoke about it during the World Design Talks(™) on Water 12 October 2018 in Mexico City and shared her vision of the water issue with the World Design Organization.

How do you see Mexico City in 20 years? What can be the impact of industrial design in this future?

By 2030, Greater Mexico City will be the 8th largest city in the world with 24.1million people. SACMEX, the city’s water operator says that they can only guarantee water supply until 2019 and by 2030 we do not know where the water supply of a quarter of the population  will come from.

However, when you look at past crises in the city such as the 1985 and 2017 earthquakes, you see that Mexico City found ways to recover. I believe the city and its people are very resilient. When the water crisis finally touches everyone, things will change for the better. During the Megacorte in November 2018, many people contacted us about acquiring a RWH system or water saving devices. I have evidence and hope that the incoming governments are and will continue to become more sensitive to water scarcity and inequality. Younger generations of Mexicans are getting involved with greener technologies. I believe the capabilities and the energy in Latin America is growing which will only become a stronger movement in the future.

Is there really one “water issue” in Mexico? How would you define this issue?

As any complex issue, the water crisis is composed of a series of aspects and inefficiencies in the existing system and society:

  1. Ignorance – People have no idea of the quality of city water and much less where it comes from or where it is being dumped once polluted. Major education and sensitization is necessary to reduce the access gap between rich and poor. There are also major behavioural discrepancies between the conscientious and the indifferent in both rich and middle class communities. A behavioural shift is required.
  2. Inefficiencies and leaks – Today, 40% of the water in the system is lost in leaks due to old infrastructure. Water trucking is commonly used to compensate for the water grid’s lack of capacity and trucking is highly polluting.
  3. Inequality – The average city water consumption is close to 300L per person per day but some have access to over 700L per day and others to less than 40L.
  4. Linear systems – 70% of the water comes from the aquifer under the city and 30% from external sources through the Lerma Cutzamala. There is no black water treatment, only 10% of sewage is treated for reuse.
  5. Cost – The Mexico City spends more than 10% of its total budget pumping water to and around the city. There are also hidden costs, due to the fact that the current system does not work, the poorest people spend up to 20% of their income on accessing water in their community. Water is also heavily subsidized which allows the major water consumers to waste the resource irresponsibly.

As a designer, why is it important for you to focus on water?

Water has been a pivotal component of my life as a designer. Water is the building block of life and the creator of cultures, so for me, there is no better muse than water. It is hard to seperate water from any other major social or environmental challenge, so I find it natural that it has had so much weight in my life. The creative solutions to major social and environmental challenges such as climate change, hunger, health, environmental devastation and many others will continue to become (and rightly so) the raison d’être of future designers. In 2005, I got involved with a project on sustainability that dealt with design, engineering, water supply and energy production. I don’t think I ever recovered since then! Once you delve into design focused on regenerating our social and natural environment it is essentially impossible to focus on anything else.

About Isla Urbana

Isla Urbana is a non-profit organization that has designed an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable rainwater harvesting system that collects and cleans rainwater for households, schools and health clinics.  The system is inexpensive, easy to install and provides individual residences with about 40% of their water supply.

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About Renata

Renata Fenton is a Co-Founder and Design Director at Isla Urbana. A social designer, her interests are in finding ways to apply socially and environmentally responsible design through multidisciplinary and participatory work within the urban context. A design activist, her experience includes product and systems design, water related technologies and capacity development.

Renata holds a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from The Rhode Island School of Design in the United States and a double master’s degree in Innovation, Design and Engineering from The Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London, UK.