On November 3rd, the Department of Geography and Urban Studies welcomed Dr. Katie Meehan from the University of Oregon to present this year’s Benjamin H/ Kohl Social Justice Lecture, titled “Water Justice in Mexico City: Grassroots Innovation and Paradoxical Promise.” The event, which celebrates the life and academic commitments of beloved GUS faculty member Ben Kohl, attracted a large and engaged crowd. Many in the audience knew and worked with Dr. Kohl, others were familiar with his scholarship, and all were part of continuing his legacy by participating in an event that united social justice concerns with academic inquiry.
Prior to the lecture itself, GUS graduate students had the chance to get to know Dr. Meehan during a working lunch organized by the department. This turned out to be a great experience for the group, since many GUS graduate students are doing research that relates directly to Dr. Meehan’s, particularly in their commitments to transdisciplinary approaches to human geography and social justice.
While Dr. Meehan is currently involved in multiple research projects in a few different research sites, her lecture focused on the issue of water insecurity in Mexico City and potential solutions being proposed by a community-based organization called Isla Urbana. Dr. Meehan immediately captured the audience’s attention by narrating the story of a Mexico City resident’s daily water procurement practices, revealing both the technical details of rainwater capturing and the lived experience of a woman utilizing this method. This bit of storytelling, as well as a broader historical framing that went back to Aztec water mythology, provided a compelling introduction to an excellent talk and discussion.
In Dr. Meehan’s presentation, she demonstrated that in Mexico City, as in other cities throughout the world, significant portions of the population are not provided with safe and sufficient water to drink, cook, bathe, etc. She explained that despite water being designated by the Mexico City government as a human right, 31% of the population does not have safe, all-day water access and therefore must fill in the gaps through a number of practices, one of which is capturing rainwater. Dr. Meehan concluded by affirming that the work of Isla Urbana, a community-based organization that builds and installs water catchment systems, has the potential to bring water justice to Mexico City by “re-plumbing the republic.”
A question and answer session followed the lecture, allowing attendees and Dr. Meehan to partake in a dialogue that discussed topics such as how the work of Isla Urbana relates to broader social movements in Mexico City, the tensions between the work of NGOs and social justice goals, and the issue of water privatization in other areas of Latin America, such as Bolivia, where Dr. Kohl lived for many years as both an activist and researcher. Conversation continued over food and drinks during a reception outside the GUS Department’s newly opened GIS Studio.
By PhD Student Rebecca Croog