Relieving water scarcity, one home at a time

Five members of the Penn chapter of Isla Urbana, a nonprofit that fundraises to provide clean drinking water to residents in Mexico City, traveled there to help install rainwater collection and filtration systems.

Four smiling students posing by a blue container with a level on top of it
Members of the Penn chapter of nonprofit organization Isla Urbana, including (from left) Samira Mehta, Wanqi Fang, Pallavi Menon, and Imañia Powers, helped to install rainwater harvesting and filtration systems in Mexico City this summer. (Photo: Lucia Palmarini)

On Samira Mehta’s first trip to Mexico City in 2016, she witnessed firsthand what happens when residents in mountainous areas get their water delivered from las pipas, or government trucks. A woman was carrying a freshly filled bucket to her home when Mehta peered inside. It was riddled with bugs. The woman was dipping a live electrical wire into the water, hoping to electrocute the pests. This was her drinking water.

Mehta, a rising junior from Dallas, was in the city on behalf of Isla Urbana, an international nonprofit devoted to providing clean drinking water to residents of Mexico City through rainwater collection. This past fall, Mehta teamed up with her friend and fellow Penn student Pallavi Menon of Bangalore, India, to start their own chapter of Isla Urbana, Spanish for “urban island,” on campus. They have made it their mission to get Penn students involved in mediating the crisis.

To relieve water scarcity, Isla Urbana members raise money and install inexpensive water-harvesting and filtration systems in homes, schools, and other buildings. Rain is filtered through the Isla Urbana system and collected in a large cistern that many homes already have in place, providing residences with 40% to 100% of their water supply.

“These harvesting systems also have a greater impact by promoting sustainable water management practices, mitigating the city’s flooding problems, relieving poverty, and reducing carbon emissions,” says Menon.

Two weeks ago, Mehta returned to Mexico City, along with Menon, and fellow chapter members Wanqi Fang of Beijing, Olivia Wedig of St. Louis, and Imañia Powers of Washington, D.C., all of the class of 2021. In the first few days of their trip, the team helped install a rainwater harvesting system for a woman who is part of a mountainous community in the city of Quiltepec.

In that community, the students also spoke to another woman who already had an Isla Urbana system installed in her home prior to their trip. She told them that before she had the system, las pipas provided her enough water for needs like drinking but not for washing her clothes, which she would pack in suitcases once a week to wash in another town an hour away, where her brother had grid access to water.

Later in the week, the team visited a school for children with special needs, where a rainwater harvesting system, supplied and assembled with funds raised by Isla Urbana’s Penn chapter, had been installed a month prior. As a result, the school collected 10,000 liters of water from the first rain of the season alone. The children presented posters to the Isla Urbana visitors, detailing how critical it is to conserve water.

“It was really amazing to see young children being empowered by their schools to practice sustainability,” Mehta says. “It is definitely something that we don’t see enough of in the USA.”

The crew returned to the United States earlier this month with a renewed passion for water conservation and sustainability. They are eager to share what they’ve learned throughout the Penn community.

“Isla Urbana at Penn hopes to bring back these experiences to campus, not only educating our peers about global water scarcity issues but also advocating for more sustainable practices on Penn’s campus,” Mehta says.

Right now, the club has about 20 members, and they are eager to expand. Last year, with the help of the Global Water Alliance and the Water Center at Penn, the club was able to put on an all-day fundraising event called Walk for Water. The day kicked off with speeches from both Mehta and Menon, as well as Swati Hegde, senior academic research coordinator for the Penn Water Center. Then, all those who came out to participate—around 50 people, according to Mehta—walked from Shoemaker Green to the Class of 1923 Ice Rink, where they celebrated with an ice-skating party. Funds raised by registration fees clocked in around $4,000, and, thanks to the Water Center’s sponsorship of the festivities, all of the money raised from the walk went directly to Isla Urbana’s relief efforts.

“Other organizations can learn from how Isla Urbana is addressing water scarcity issues for the sustainable water future using a combined scientific, environmental, and social approach,” Hegde says.