Exceptional Routines: Materiality, Rationalization, and the Challenge of Public Oversight in Mexico City’s Flood Control System

Authors: Dean Chahim*, Stanford University
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Urban Geography
Keywords: disaster, materiality, flooding, Mexico, engineering, emergency, infrastructure, anthropocene
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As the soil beneath Mexico City gives way due to anthropogenic land subsidence and climate change brings more intense and unpredictable storms, the megacity’s flood control system is regularly filled to the point of bursting during the rainy season. Emergency flood response crews are now on perpetual standby on the impoverished urban periphery where flooding has become a routine fixture of neighborhoods. Yet the particular spatial and temporal dynamics of flooding are anything but inevitable. As this paper shows, government drainage engineers carefully control how – and where – the city floods through their discretionary and discriminatory operations of the massive interconnected flood control system. By moving massive floodgates and pumps, engineers sacrifice the homes and streets of the periphery to save the richer urban core. This paper examines what these operations do to reshape flooding in the city and how these once exceptional operations have become part of the regular, institutionalized work of the city water utility while evading substantive public oversight. I show that these operations have evaded transparency measures both because of their origins as an emergency measure and the very material complexity of the drainage system in a context of anthropogenic environmental change. I show that this complexity – and the changing environmental conditions in which engineers must operate the system – have militated against attempts at rationalization in the form of formal protocols that could more easily be subject to public oversight.

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