draining the infinite metropolis:

engineering and the mundanity of disaster in Mexico City

A part of the massive Deep Drainage System that snakes under Mexico City.

A part of the massive Deep Drainage System that snakes under Mexico City.

Overview: Mexico City’s massive urban drainage tunnel system, the Deep Drainage, presents a paradox: it is both the solution and indirect cause of the city’s constant flooding. First inaugurated in 1975, engineers are currently finishing a massive expansion. My dissertation investigates how confidence in drainage engineering as the answer to flooding has persisted over time, in spite of engineers’ own doubts and concerns. It traces how engineers built the system amidst the modernist hubris of the 20th century and how they operate it today in the context of extreme economic austerity and the virtual end of long-term state planning. I conducted nearly two years of ethnographic work with the engineers and workers who built, operate, and maintain the system and the residents affected by it. I also conducted archival research in largely unexplored or previously inaccessible internal government libraries and archives.

Drawing on this research, I argue that the tunnels do not “solve” but rather displace the problem of catastrophic flooding in time and space, rendering it a kind of mundane disaster, invisible for the wealthiest and normalized for the poorest zones of the city. Furthermore, I show how, through their technical practices, engineers also transform flooding – an ephemeral, uncertain phenomenon – into an object seemingly amenable to management. In so doing, I demonstrate that engineers produce a sense of confidence that they can “solve” the problem of flooding, enabling political and business elites to imagine a city whose growth has no limits.

The project fundamentally challenges the commonsense notion that engineers “solve” environmental problems, showing instead how engineers displace and transform these problems in time and space. Building on the scholarship which has shown why urbanization occurs, this study shows how formerly insurmountable environmental challenges to urban growth are overcome. I demonstrate that it is through this process of displacement that engineers make urbanization both imaginable and materially possible. In attending to the labor of engineers that design and build infrastructures within relations of power, this study also offers a more politically salient and theoretically nuanced understanding of materiality that does not elide very real human plans and technopolitical strategies.