Updated: May 3, 2021
Mexico City wasn't always the cracked concrete, sprawling metropolis that it is now. At one point in history there were more than 45 rivers winding in and around the well-established and over-populated city that we know today.
Originally founded in 1325, the Aztecs built their humble city on top of a rock in the middle of the largest lake in the region, known as Lago de Texcoco. This lake was located in the Mesoamerica region of North America and included five islands, separated by water.
Legend has it that the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli directed them to leave their homeland and roam elsewhere until they saw a specific sign determined by the god. They were directed to travel until they found an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake.
Coincidentally, or miraculously, they happened upon an eagle, cactus and snake on an island in the middle of the lake and determined it was the sign from god they were looking for.
The Aztecs, being skilled warriors, dominated the Mesoamerica region and eventually grew the city into the powerful Tenochtitlán capital. Their city, and entire civilization, became the largest and most powerful tribe in pre-Columbian America. They created several allies, but made even more enemies during this time, while conquering many nearby tribes in a fight for territory.
The city of Tenochtitlán was an engineering marvel with palaces, moving bridges and fresh water aqueducts that supplied the city, and one of the most efficient agricultural systems in history.
In order to connect the five islands, they built small islands above the water level, called "chinampas" or floating gardens, to cultivate food for the population and utilize the waterways to their advantage. Their cultivation methods, known as permaculture, sustained the entire population and further enhanced the ecosystem and became one of the most efficient agricultural systems in the world.
The Templo Mayor was built around 1325 as the primary temple in the city, devoted to the gods. The striking pyramid, only 90 feet high, was considered the center of the city. This is where most of the important rituals, prayers and sacrifices would take place.
The memoirs of Bernal Díaz del Castillo recount his impression during the conquest of Mexico, a thorough chronicle of observations during Spain's colonization of the Tenochtitlán area:
"...all these buildings resembled the fairy castles we read of in Amadis de Gaul; so high, majestic, and splendid did the temples, towers, and houses of the town, all built of massive stone and lime, rise up out of the midst of the lake."
He noted fellow travelers remarked the city canals were as picturesque like Venice and better regulated than even Rome markets and city streets:
"Some of our men, who had been at Constantinople and Rome, and travelled through the whole of Italy, said that they never had seen a market-place of such large dimensions, or which was so well regulated, or so crowded with people as this one at Mexico." - Bernal Díaz del Castillo
The beauty of the canals was stunning, and the famous aqueduct system collected rainwater, provided public bathing areas and also helped to prevent flooding, all while providing enough food for the residents.
When Hernán Cortés arrived from Spain, the Aztecs thought it was the prophesied return of the god Quetzalcóatl. So as not to offend the gods, leaders made Cortés comfortable and even sent gifts. When Cortés made it clear he wanted to conquer the city of Tenochtitlán in 1521, many local chieftains abandoned the Aztecs and joined the Spanish army.
Cortés followed through with his intention in order to make way for his vision of a new capital. The conquistadors looted, burned and destroyed most of the city, leaving the Templo Mayor in ruins and opening space for their new cathedral, today known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.
With little understanding or respect to Aztec engineering and the benefits of their successful water system, the Spaniards drained most of the waterways which resulted in low water supply for years to come.
In 1629 tremendous floods, lasting more than 5 years, killed so many people the churches gave rooftop masses. Cholera, malaria, gastrointestinal illness and meningitis became rampant throughout the city, now that the rivers became the city's trash and sewage dumping ground.
Eventually, after gaining the country's independence in 1810, a 30-mile drainage canal was built to help channel water away from the city during the rainy season as the mass of people continued to spread.
By the 1900's the population had already surged above 350,000 residents and many continued using the river beds for cleaning, garbage dumps and sewage. With waterborne health issues and floods plaguing the city, between 1947 and 1952 most of the 45 rivers in Mexico City were channeled into tubes and viaducts and buried.
Now, Mexico City is 10 times bigger than New York City, with a population of 21,919,000 residents in 2021. The lack of wastewater treatment facilities and untreated sewage flowing through ditches remains an issue, even worse during the rainy season.
Health issues related to untreated water in Mexico City remain a severe problem. It's one of the top 11 cities that are in immediate danger of running out of usable water resources. In 1991, infectious gastro-intestinal diseases were the second leading cause of infant mortality nationwide.
The natural aquifer under the city is being depleted too rapidly to refill, since concrete can't reabsorb the heavy rain back into the aquifer. Even with flooding, the lack of water management, treatment or collection practices leave the flooded streets with little clean drinking water.
The new waterway system built by the Spanish surely gave Mexico City the ability to continue growing, at an extensive rate. But now without the lean ecosystem, rich agriculture, rivers or canals, the almost 2-million square kilometer layout gives way to a smog-filled valley of concrete and flooding, surrounded by beautiful mountains.