Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 7 News List

`Sewage divers' keep Mexico City from backing up

THE GUARDIAN , MEXICO CITY

Julio Cesar Cuc spends his days blindly feeling his way through sewage and occasionally risking his life deep in the bowels of Mexico's capital.

"It's a great job," the city's most experienced sewage diver told me recently just before a dive, his tone betraying only the slightest hint of irony. "It's unusual, it's challenging, it's exciting and it's a real public service."

That part I buy, especially during the rainy season from May to September when emergency underwater plumbing can be the only thing keeping the rivers of sewage flowing through Mexico City's 1350km miles of pipes and tunnels -- rather than bubbling to the surface or bursting the banks of surface canals.

"Black water" floods still happen here, but without Cuc and his team of sewage divers they would be much more common.

The four-man team spends much of its time fixing the pumps that push sewage out of a sprawling metropolitan area twice the size of London, or pulling out rubbish impeding its progress.

The risks are real, from minor infections to being stabbed with infected syringes. A diver drowned 10 years ago in a cascade unleashed when a pipe he was painstakingly clearing suddenly unblocked.

Cuc's own close shaves include nearly getting sucked into the whirring blades of a pump. But the veteran diver, who was one of the founding members of the team, formed in 1982, prefers to talk about the things he's found, including half a Volkswagen and more than a dozen dead bodies -- "I don't know how they get down there, but we have to get them out."

There are industrial divers in other cities from Kuala Lumpur to Stockholm who sometimes work in waste, but Mexico City's are probably the only ones who do nothing else, earning a maximum salary of US$745 a month.

Their dives last, Mr Cuc tells me, anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours, at depths ranging from 4m to 100m.

The preparation is always the same. Like medieval knights, the divers step into impermeable suits designed for the icy waters of the North Sea, hold out their arms for thick gloves to be taped on, and then disappear into a helmet connected to a tube that supplies them with oxygen from a surface tank and allows radio communication.

"I can feel rubbish, lots of it ... plastic bags, bottles ... nothing big today. .." Carlos Barrios gave a running commentary from the deep, his only guide in the dense, dark liquid his sense of touch.

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