Mexico races the calendar to build water pipelines for its people

Slowly, ever so slowly, the mammoth crane lowered the huge tubing into the 30 -foot deep trench. "Nudge it over a half meter," shouted a workman to the crane operator.

"There, that's it. Now, let it down a little. . . .

"A little more. . . .

"There. . . .

"Now link it with the last tube. . . .

That's fine!"

With that exchange, one more link of steel tubing, 6 meters (20 feet) in diameter, was laid into a 9-meter-deep trench near here.

It is a slow process.Not more than 12 or 15 are laid each day.

But with each link, Mexico City's virtually insatiable thirst for water is closer to being quenched.

When all the thousands of these huge tubes are in place and connected over a 99-kilometer (61-mile) course sometime next year, water from the lakes around Valle de Bravo will begin flowing into the reservoirs on the edge of Mexico City.

The need for water is urgent. Mexico City's population is growing yearly at the rate of 400,000 -- and not only individual use of water is up, but industrial demands are mounting. Even when the Cutzamala system, as the facility here is called, is finished, it will solve Mexico City's water dilemma only until 1988.

But it is a progressive step, albeit a costly one, that is in part being funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. Those working on the project are not giving much thought to the cost nor the fact that the system will only solve Mexico City's water needs for less than a decade. They are being encouraged to finish the project as fast as possible.

Standing beside the trench, Arturo Perez Garcia, the Mexican engineer in charge of laying the tubing, commented: "There is an urgency in this project; Mexico City has long been short of water. But the shortage seems almost more acute now than ever before."

Indeed it is. Mexico City planners say the city's population spiral has reached a critical stage. Not only is there a baby boom in the city, but there is also a migration of peasants from the countryside to the urban slums of the capital.

No city in Latin America, indeed no city in the world, is growing so fast. All the normal essential services are taxed. If the population surge continues, by the end of the century there will be about 30 million people living within the volcano-ringed Valley of Mexico where Mexico City is located.

At the moment, the population is roughly 17 million.

And water is clearly one of the city's critical needs.

The Cutzamala system was on the drawing boards as early as 1975, but cost estimates kept rising and aspects of the project were troublesome to some engineers. Eventually, those problems were ironed out -- but not before the cost of the project had soared to $428.2 million. the Inter-American Development Bank is providing almost 40 percent of the money needed to build the system, with the Mexican government providing the remaining money from a variety of sources.

In many ways water is the most critical need Mexico has as it struggles to provide for its burgeoning population. Much of Mexico's agricultural lands need water for irrigation, while cities are short of drinking water and industries need increasing amounts of water.

Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo noted last year that "unless Mexico solves its water problems, our progress will be slowed and perhaps stalled."

Yet Mexico has tremendous stores of unused water, such as that in the lakes around Valle de Bravo, that could be channeled to other areas of the country. The Cutzamala project aims at doing just that.

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