The Lake that is Dying

Homero Aridjis is Mexico’s most renowned contemporary poet and environmental activist, founder of the Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100). His efforts are responsible for saving the country’s sea turtles, monarch butterflies, and rainforest from destruction. Homero also led the successful fight to preserve the gray whale habitat at Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon, from development of a huge saltworks planned by Mitsubishi and the Mexican government. This courageous fighter for our planet writes a biweekly column for a leading Mexico City newspaper.

Here is a translation from Spanish of Homero’s editorial

A few days ago, on an ecologically plundered planet, World Earth Day was observed. As always there was no shortage of speeches from officials, nor of negative diagnoses: Patient Earth continues dying. And with the patient go the forests, the seas, the rivers and the lakes, animals and men. Millions of people were interested neither in the event nor the revelations about the material condition of the terrestrial globe. For them the dime hasn’t dropped yet; that they inhabit a living organism and that its fate is linked to their own. Here at home, in this multitudinous city, the traffic was heavy. Our daily pollution was present, thanks to a mayor who doesn’t care about the environment.

In connection with the environmental event, Victor Lichtinger, Secretary of Semarnat, revealed that 600 thousand forest acres are lost each year in Mexico; or let’s say a little under 2 thousand acres a day. Soccer fans could imagine this loss if they calculated it in sports’ stadia, geography buffs in the number of states of the republic it might cover. The revelation hardly surprised me: the map of deforestation grows daily in Mexico thanks to the impunity enjoyed by loggers and the inability of the authorities to take action against so much complicity. The statements of the Secretary that the “environmental decline of Mexico cannot be corrected in one administration or even in one generation,” leaves us helpless: It means that we still have to wait. The problem is that we have only one life and we belong to one generation. A political “mañana” in Mexico convinces us little, especially if it refers to health, safety and the environment. So we hope Vicente Fox understands the urgency of the environmental problem in Mexico and that he gives all necessary resources and support to SEMARNAT. We cannot lose more time defending life.

In a country where the forests and rainforest are disappearing from Chiapas to Chihuahua, from Oaxaca to Vera Cruz, from Puebla to the State of Mexico, from Durango to Michoacán, the lack of action seems alarming. Where are the pronouncements from Vicente Fox and Aguilar Zinser that the forests are a matter of national security? What is the Fox government going to do to protect Montes Azules? How is it going to prevent politicians and businessmen from destroying the heritage of Mexicans? What are the actions today, today, today, as the President likes to say, to save the Monarch sanctuaries from the chronic and massive mortalities of butterflies.

On the other hand, what about the “nautical steps” (“escalera nautica”), that delirious development project of FONATUR in protected areas? How is the Sea of Cortés, the aquarium of the world, going to be protected from the present plundering of it? As for the nuclear power plant at Laguna Verde, what decision is the government going to take about reactors one and two, that publicized disaster? Or is it going to carry on with the project that de la Madrid set in motion? It would have stimulated Mexican public opinion a great deal if President Fox had publicized one concrete project, just one. Saving Lake Chapala, for example: or determined protection for the Monarch sanctuaries, enlarged at the end of the previous regime.

One hoped that not only Fox would have announced something, but also Manuel Lopez Obrador, who in spite of having seen, and lived, the pollution of Pemex in Tabasco, appears not to understand the environmental issues in the Valley of Mexico: the pollution of water, ground and air, the systematic invasion and destruction in natural areas. What steps is he going to take to alleviate the traffic in this congested Metropolitan Zone? How is he going to reduce the pollution of suspended particles to below ten microns?? Is the Monitoring Network going to be open again to civic scrutiny, or are we going to have to accept phony official bulletins about obsolete and debatable Imecas? What are the consequences of environmental pollution for the health of children in the Valley of Mexico? What are the levels of water pollution? When does water begin to get recycled in the city? When will garbage get separated and collected on different days of the week? One day the political management of air and water pollution may come back on Lopez Obrador. The problems are there.

The description of Lake Chapala once made by the Ministry of Hydraulic resources now seems a thing of the past: this important natural basin, that in reality acts as a buffer reservoir for the Lerma-Santiago system, is the biggest in the country. Its dimensions: 77 kilometers at its maximum length, 15 kilometers in its median width. Its main source is the River Lerma, which begins near Toluca and carries with it all the factory pollution along its route until it empties into the lake; the second is the River Zula. Lake Chapala is the water tank for Guadalajara -which consumes annually 250 million cubic meters- but at its present rate of desertification what, in two years, is this city going to do in order to provide itself with this precious liquid? They say the lake now has an average depth of two meters and evaporation is happening at a rate of one meter a year. As has been condemned by ecological organizations in the Distrito Federal (“hay lago de fondo”?) three officials of the State of Jalisco have called for agricultural activity in the zone and dividing it up, and the current governor has accepted the deterioration, inasmuch as concessions for 18 of the 26 thousand dried up hectares have been granted.

The people of Jalisco know that saving Lake Chapala is not just a question of money, it is a political decision. And not for the pleasure of a few aesthetes who have houses around it, (as a foolish official of the National Water Commission believes), but because it is the biggest lake in Mexico. Will it be necessary for the lake to end in a desert for the remorse of neighboring authorities and the panic of the people of Jalisco to restore Chapala’s right to water, asks the industrialist Enrique Alvarez dela Pena, because the lake has 2 thousand 100 million cubic meters left and in two years evaporation can take away up to one thousand 700 million. The architect Javier Pintado proposes two immediate solutions: 1. Allow the greatest volume of water possible to pass into Lake Chapala. 2. That work begin immediately on the La Zurda reservoir, as was proposed 40 years ago by the engineer Pedro Vazquez Guerra. The feature writer Allyn Hunt maintains the hope that Fox will keep his campaign promises: to save Lake Chapala.

Lake Chapala does not have time -it is at its lowest level in 46 years, overwhelmed by weeds, lack of fresh water and the inefficiency of politicians. It is like watching someone in an Intensive Care Unit who is denied a transfusion and then it is too late, as writes Lynn Spaulding, one of the people, once privileged and now at risk,who live on its shores. She goes on to say: in a world where water is scarce it can be more precious than oil or gold. She is right, gold and oil can be replaced, but once Lake Chapala dies it is for ever.

Whether it be World Earth Day or not, let us all together save Lake Chapala. Lake Chapala has been our inland sea and is our mirror of water where we have looked at the Moon for centuries. Let us hope that Vicente Fox, the Minister for Semarnat, and the governor of Jalisco comprehend this.