By Samira Mehta

April 1, 2019

On Saturday, March 23rd, forty-eight people – adults, college students, and even two babies – gathered on Shoemaker Green to participate in Isla Urbana at Penn’s first annual Walk for Water in collaboration with the Water Center at Penn. The walk was organized with the goal of starting a conversation in Philadelphia about global water scarcity issues. All proceeds from the event supported Isla Urbana Foundation in combating the water crisis in Mexico City through the installation of rainwater harvesting systems into vulnerable schools and communities.

The event began with a speech by Samira Mehta and Pallavi Menon, the co-founders and co-presidents of Isla Urbana at Penn. They spoke about the origins of the water crisis, explaining that a key factor in the development of water scarcity issues in Mexico City is the rapid depletion of the city’s main source of water: an aquifer underground. Within the city, this has resulted in frequent water shutdowns; however, it is really in the outskirts of Mexico City in the mountainous regions where the true severity of the problem is seen. The people living in these communities are off-grid access to water, meaning that there aren’t pipes coming in from the city to bring them water. These families rely on government issued water trucks known as “las pipas,” which are supposed to bring them water on a fixed schedule. Due to the limited supply of water, these families are living off of around 20 liters a day per person, which is less than a third of the amount of water used during an average shower in the United States. The water trucks, however, by no means stick to their schedule. Often they will not come for 3 to 4 weeks with no advance notice, so families don’t know when they will be getting water next. The burden falls mainly on women and children to walk up and down these mountains several times a day to obtain water for their families. This means that children are unable to go to school and women cannot focus on their careers.

These water scarcity issues are not unique to Mexico City, and are certainly not unique to developing countries, as the next speaker, Swati Hegde, a senior fellow from the Water Center, pointed out. There are currently eleven day zero cities around the globe, including Mexico City, Miami, Cape Town, and Bangalore. Water scarcity is clearly an issue that exists on every continent and is quickly growing. In Africa and Asia especially, the burden of obtaining water is placed on woman. On average, women will have to walk 3.7 miles per day for water, often with the fear of being raped, injured, or attacked by an animal. Even so, there is no guarantee that the water that they have fetched is safe to drink.

Although water scarcity is a rapidly growing issue, as Hegde explained, from the development of desalination techniques and drip irrigation to finding ways to implement  stormwater management and rainwater harvesting, technology and innovation have been part of key efforts to solve this issue. In Mexico City specifically, Isla Urbana has been installing rainwater harvesting systems into schools and communities that are most vulnerable to the water crisis. During the rainy season, these harvesting systems are able to alleviate problems of flooding and provide plentiful water to families. In the dry season, families are able to tap into their stored water resources when the water trucks don’t come. Because of this, rainwater harvesting systems can provide families with 40%-80 of their annual water supply.


After the speeches, it was time for the walk! The group of 48 marched through Penn Park holding the Walk for Water banner. As we walked, participants had time to discuss amongst themselves and with the featured speakers about water scarcity issues. This was what was most inspiring to see. Our walk had not only spread awareness about water scarcity, but had started a discussion. It is through this readiness to learn and to openly discuss the topic that we truly take steps towards a solution, so Isla Urbana at Penn is glad to have been an initiator.

The walk concluded at the Class of 1923 Ice Arena, where we took off our walking shoes and put on ice skates! We all celebrated a walk well done with some victory laps around the ice and pizza.

Isla Urbana at Penn is so pleased with the success of the event. Through ticket sales and donations, we raised $4,287! This Summer, five of our members will be traveling to Mexico City. All proceeds from the walk will be used to fund rainwater harvesting systems that our members will personally be installing in communities and schools. We are excited to continue our partnership with the Water Center at Penn so that we can continue to grow this event every year.