A Rainy Day in Tijuana

Issue section: 
(293)

There is nothing inevitable about an increasing number of deaths in natural disasters.

Juana Tapia lost her two daughters - Matha, eight, and Maria, 13 - to the sudden rush of water and debris. It blew their shanty apart like an explosion. The little girls didn't have time to scream. Neighbours helped Juana and her husband claw through the muck, but they couldn't locate the children. Later bomberos (firefighters) came and dug out the crumpled bodies. The neighbourhood was chaos, mud and inconsolable grief. A few blocks away a five year old boy had also been swept away and drowned. Hundreds of homes had been damaged or destroyed.

This could have been Sumatra or Sri Lanka, but it was San Antonio de los Buenos, a poor colonia (popular neighbourhood) on the southern fringe of the border city of Tijuana, in mid-January. The Tapias are ragpickers who earn a living from a nearby municipal dump. They have lived in San Antonio for nine years and, unlike many of their newly arrived neighbours, they were scared of the rain. Immediately after new year a powerful weather system, fuelled by moist tropical air from Hawaii, laid siege to southern California and northern Baja California. Nearly a year's worth of rain fell in a furious two-week onslaught.

Winter storms are dreaded in Tijuana because the great majority of the population of 1.5 million live in self-built colonias that cling precariously to the sides of eroding hills or squat on bare mesas. Although Tijuana is still a gringo fantasy, forever associated with the gambling and vice that US gangsters brought south during Prohibition, the real city earns its living as a manufacturing platform for giant Japanese and Korean corporations.

The maquiladoras - factories exporting to the US under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - are located in modern, well designed industrial parks, indistinguishable from their counterparts north of the border, with broad paved streets and good storm drainage. The colonias, on the other hand, can wait decades for piped water and sewers. Paved streets might take a lifetime. Although the maquiladoras pay almost nothing in municipal taxes they consume the greater part of the city's budget. The Tijuana working class, in other words, subsidises wealthy foreign corporations.

Left to fend for themselves, colonia residents cope as best they can with the rutted streets, bare dirty hills and the clouds of suffocating dust that engulf much of the city. To protect their homes from the winter rains they build ingenious terraces out of old tyres packed with dirt. But two or three times each decade, typically in an El Niño year, storms arrive that overwhelm the defences of even the sturdiest colonias. Tijuana's barren hillsides dissolve into torrents of mud. The usually dry Tijuana river becomes a toxic Mississippi.

Over the course of past winters vast numbers of homes have been destroyed and scores, perhaps hundreds, killed. In the 1970s the government used a flood emergency as an opportunity to evict several thousand colonia residents, replacing their ruined homes with maquiladoras.

Although San Diego is contiguous with Tijuana, forming an extraordinary binational metropolis, the English-language media paid little attention to the death of the Tapia children or, for that matter, to several drownings in the sewage-choked Tijuana river.

One could plead that we gringos were simply more absorbed by own picturesque tragedies - like the beach community near Santa Barbara that was crushed by a landslide that geologists had long warned was inevitable. But in truth we simply take it for granted that poor Tijuanese will live in the dirt and die in the mud. Doesn't it happen almost every year?

The real 'global disaster' story has little to do with earthquake faults, subduction zones, angry volcanoes, super-cell storms and other aspects of the earth's ordinary metabolism. Instead it is about the plight of San Antonio de los Buenos multiplied 100,000-fold.

Two years ago UN Habitat published landmark research that claimed that a billion people now dwell in the slums of the cities of the South - a number that will double by 2020.

Once upon a time newcomers might have hoped to squat on the agricultural edge of the city, but now well drained flat land is scarce and expensive everywhere. Urban migrants, as a consequence, have been forced to colonise sites that the market rejects as unbuildable because of toxicity or natural hazard. Progressive urban planners often advocate something called 'hazard zoning' to exclude development and population from dangerous floodplains, swamps, unstable hillsides, fire-prone brushlands and liquefaction zones.

Capitalist urbanisation in the Third World works by exactly the opposite principle: concentrating huge densities of poor, vulnerable people in the most unstable and hazardous sites. Informal urbanisation as a result everywhere multiplies, sometimes by a decimal order of magnitude or more, the inherent natural hazards of urban environments.

The rest of the world usually only sees the consequences when the body counts are in the thousands - the 1999 flash floods in Venezuela, the 2000 collapse of a 'garbage mountain' in Manila, the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the 2002 arsenal explosion in Lagos, and now the tsunami catastrophe in the Indian Ocean.

Hidden from view is the global epidemic of small-scale chronic disaster that only rarely deserves the adjective 'natural'. It is the housing crisis, not plate tectonics or El Niño, that hands out death sentences to the poor.