Urban water Water storage Mexico
Wednesday, 3 August 2022

The collapse of Teotihuacan: Why Mexico's water past is crucial to its future

The Mayan civilisation was at one point the most advanced on the planet. Yet prolonged drought set the wheels in motion for its downfall.

As Mexico faces serve water challenges, could the past hold the answers that could be crucial for its future?

Past to present

The Maya civilization, known as the Mayapán, was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples and noted for its logo syllabic script—the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system.

One of the most famous symbols that remains from the Mayans is the Teotihuacan - an ancient Mesoamerican city located in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico.

The Teotihuacan is made up of three pyramids: the Sun Pyramid, the Moon Pyramid and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, dating back to 100 BCE–550 CE.

It has had many names over the millennia but the most significant is the City of Water.

During 1400 and 1450CE the Mayan city experienced a prolonged drought that escalated existing social tensions. This had a severe impact on food availability which started the exodus that led many to leave the city.

Learning from the past

Mexico City is one of 11 cities that is predicted to reach a Day Zero event soon, similar to a warning to the city of Cape Town in South Africa.

Despite heavy flooding and rainfall, the city is facing a water shortage. Currently, 20 million residents do not have enough water to drink for nearly half the year. Furthermore, the city is dealing with the consequences of groundwater over-extraction.

And with more than half of Mexico currently facing moderate to severe drought conditions, according to the federal water commission CONAGUA, Mexico needs to learn from its past in order to thrive in the future.

Recent interdisciplinary research into the K’uk’ulkan and Round temples has uncovered new insights that could put Mexico back on track.

“The role of climate change in exacerbating internal political tensions and factionalism in areas where drought leads to food insecurity”

New research published in Nature Communications suggests that the civil unrest which led to the collapse of Mayapán emerged as a result of climatic changes.

Researchers included: Australia’s University of New South Wales, the University of California in the US and the University of Cambridge in the UK.

“Our data indicate that institutional collapse occurred in the environmental context of drought and conflict within the city,” said the authors of the study.

“Vulnerabilities of this coupled natural-social system existed because of the strong reliance on rain-fed maize agriculture, lack of centralised long-term grain storage, minimal opportunities for irrigation, and a socio-political system led by elite families with competing political interests, from different parts of the Yucatán Peninsula."

The authors concluded: “Our transdisciplinary work highlights the importance of understanding the complex relationships between natural and social systems, especially when evaluating the role of climate change in exacerbating internal political tensions and factionalism in areas where drought leads to food insecurity.”

The water challenges (and opportunities) ahead

While there are some lessons to be learned from the fall of the Teotihuacan, Mexico and its capital are not taking this challenge laying down.

Mexico City initiated the Green Plan project, which will run until the end of this year with goals such as reducing groundwater losses and repairing water infrastructure.

Former President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a series of presidential decrees in 2018 to create water reserves in nearly 300 river basins throughout the country.

Whereas in 2019, $7.4 billion was invested into mitigating the water crisis by Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo.

While the Teotihuacan may have fallen as a result of depleted water supplies, Mexico City will soon face its own judgement day as droughts continue to spread but recent developments suggest that this city will not go quietly into the night.


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