Samira Mehta (C ’21) was a junior in high school when she first heard about Isla Urbana, an organization dedicated to fixing the water crisis in Mexico City. Back then, she had no idea that families in Mexico were struggling to meet basic needs with little to no clean water.
Now, as a college sophomore and Vagelos scholar, Samira has gone to Mexico City twice, installed rainwater harvesting systems in areas with the most need, and raised thousands of dollars for the nonprofit through Isla Urbana at Penn, a club she co–founded only last semester.
When Isla Urbana first visited high schoolers in Texas as a part of the Junior World Affairs Council (JWAC), a club centered around education about international issues, Samira had no idea that the organization would follow her for four years of her life. The president of the nonprofit, David Vargas, introduced the water crisis in Mexico City at a seminar for JWAC. In an effort to raise money for water systems, Vargas began a competition among the local high schools: whichever JWAC clubs raised the most money for Isla Urbana would be able to send two of their students to Mexico next summer to do hands–on work with the organization.
“When this whole thing was presented to me, I didn’t even know there was a water crisis in Mexico City, and I was not familiar at all with water crisis issues in the world,” says Samira. “It was a brand–new thing to me.” At first, Samira simply wanted to help out a good cause and, if she worked hard and was a little lucky, go on an educational trip to Mexico. But as she started researching the issue, the water crisis resonated with her and she wanted to do more than just raise money.
Samira learned that in rural communities around Mexico City, people sacrifice large chunks of their lives just so they can get access to water. Because there’s no infrastructure around filtration and water, families often rely on “las pipas,” or water trucks, to transport water to them.
“Once every week, the water truck will come, and then families will have their barrels, and they will go to the filling site and get them filled,” she says. “And they have to survive off of that amount of water until the truck comes again. Because of that, people are living off 20 liters of water a day.” To provide contrast, Samira says that an eight–minute shower usually takes 65 liters of water. The families in Mexico use their 20 liters for showering, drinking, and washing clothes.
The crisis is even more urgent because water trucks don’t always come on time, and sometimes they may not make an appearance for weeks. Families have to cope by spending hours of their day gathering water from filling stations in the mountains, and women and children often have to bear the burden.
“Women can’t focus on their careers, children can’t go to school,” Samira says. “The schools might be shut down because if the schools don’t have water, they also can’t run.”
After becoming more informed, Samira threw herself into raising money for Isla Urbana. Her JWAC club was one of the top fundraisers and she was so excited to be one of the two students selected from her school.
Going to Mexico City with Isla Urbana allowed Samira to witness these issues firsthand. She walked alongside locals up to the filling stations in the mountains, where she saw women and children transporting water back to their families in the middle of the day.
“The walk itself is like 20 minutes, but you’re doing it several times a day, and you have to go up and down, and also it’s extremely steep,” she says. “I was having a hard time getting up…People spend hours on it.”
Samira also got to see just how important the work Isla Urbana was doing. Because Mexico City has a rainy season during the summer, the nonprofit saw an opportunity to use this plentiful supply of water year–round. Rainwater harvesting systems installed by Isla Urbana collect, filter, and store water that runs off of roofs into cisterns that locals can rely on during the dry season. Overall, rainwater harvesting systems in Mexico City provide individual residences with 40% of their annual water supply.
As part of the trip, Samira got to help install a rainwater harvesting system in a school.
“This system is going to bring generations of water to children in this school,” she says. “The system took a couple hours to install, and after that they have clean water. That’s all it was. It’s something that their entire lives they’ve been struggling with, and in a few hours of our time, they have it. They don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
When Samira got to college, she knew she wanted to continue working with water scarcity issues, but there wasn’t a similar organization that existed at Penn. She decided to start Isla Urbana at Penn with her friend Pallavi Menon (C, W '21). At the close of its second semester, the club has raised $7000 for the nonprofit.
Samira and Pallavi raised the bulk of that money from Isla Urbana’s first annual Walk for Water, a fundraiser in collaboration with the Water Center at Penn. The event started at Shoemaker Green, where members of the club gave speeches on water scarcity issues. Then the group walked through Penn Park to the Class of 1923 Arena, where students got to enjoy food, music, and ice skating. Overall, the club was able to raise $4000 from the event.
“We didn’t know if we’d be able to accomplish it because I had never put on an event like that before,” she says. “It was very intimidating.” Samira was amazed that they were able to donate so much money to Isla Urbana, and she hopes to double or even triple attendance for the Walk for Water in coming years. And with the extra funds, Samira will be able to send five club members to Mexico City for the summer program she’d been a part of in high school. She’s looking forward to having Penn students experience the same life–changing trip, which she says has impacted her outlook on life and led to amazing friendships.
“It almost feels like I have another family in Mexico City,” Samira says. “That’s just how they treat you.”