11/22/2007

LECTURE TO UNITARIANS OCTOBER 28, 2007

Robin Luxmoore

Our area is waking up to the grim realization that the water supply will not last. This awareness is a positive move for change. Many NGOs, Non Government Organizations, and groups such as Basta Ya, the municipal Ecology Department, and PEASMA, a group formed to teach environmental concerns to school children, are stressing the serious water shortage.

Our local ecology department, under Don Patterson, is determined to make changes in water quality and quantity, and the past year they have been remarkably successful. If all municipalities follow their example we would have a more positive outlook. However we can’t assume all our local environmental problems are being seen to. Far from it. We still have serious doubts about water quality and quantity, sewer treatment and garbage disposal etc. Our local government is doing its best, but senior governments have to follow through.

There is an urgent need to change policies for managing groundwater resources. Governments exist to achieve tasks individuals cannot tackle alone, yet they have completely failed to tackle the environmental crisis that has been coming for decades. Long term planning is urgently needed and that means forcing the populous to adapt a sustainable life style and politicians fear the political consequences of these extreme measures. We are leading the change from the bottom, as it were, by begging the governments for help instead of governments making efforts to find out were help is needed.

There have been lots of warnings. At the International Goundwater Symposium in Leon in Dec. 1998 we were warned by many experts of the impending crisis and the total lack of concern by governments. Perhaps we have some 15-20 years of water left at present rate of consumption and some 300,000 hectares of land are in danger of going dry. Here in San Miguel we think only of the future—how long before we run out of water—yet close to us are areas that can no longer irrigate and some where domestic water has to be delivered by trucks. If we want to save the land for production, we must think beyond our own needs. Degraded land in this area is nutrient deficient and people become reflections of the soil’s depletion. Anemia is common in rural areas where no fresh food is grown and greens are not in season until the rains come.

Some areas are suffering from severe water quality problems from concentration of natural elements, such as fluoride and arsenic, due to the depletion of the aquifer. We are told some 4,000 inhabitants of San Luis de la Paz, northeast of San Miguel that draw water from our aquifer, have serious health problems from these contaminants. Children’s teeth are being eaten away by excessive fluoride leaving pitiful brown points that one might see in neglected teeth of impoverished old people.

In our area some 130 wells were tested for arsenic, fluoride and coliform bacteria by Ecosystems Science Foundation, an international environmental research organization from the United States. Over 100,000 people reside in the rural areas where the testing was done. Twenty wells exceeded Mexican Government standards for fluoride levels and 69 for coliform. The arsenic levels were below the standards and pose no risk, at present. However there is a move to raise the standards and this will mean many more wells will be considered unsafe.

As ground water supply diminishes due to over use, the contaminants increase, putting users at greater risk of suffering health effects. However steps are being taken to improve the water quality in our area. The city, under the professional management of Ecosystem Science Foundation, is installing rain water catchment systems in some communities that have high fluoride levels. Rain water, when mixed with ground water, will dilute the fluoride concentrations.

About 140 million people throughout the world, mainly in developing areas, are being poisoned by arsenic in their drinking water, researchers believe. Eating large amounts of rice grown in affected areas could also be a health risk. It is estimated that one person in ten who use water with high concentrations of arsenic will die as a result. It is the highest known increase in mortality from any environmental exposure. Few, if any, government agencies have given this the priority it deserves.

Adjustment to water shortage and pollution is selective. Those who have no choice, mostly the poor, suffer the most. They have to walk further and further to find water and cannot always purify it. The rich go deeper and deeper for their water and in the process dry out their neighbour’s wells and the neighbours have to buy back their water from the rich farmers. Some wells are being abandoned through the high cost of pumping and the presence of sodium at those depths is destroying the productivity of the land.

There are two aquifers; the granular from which we draw our water, and the fractured which lies beneath it. It is thought that sodium is advancing progressively towards granular because of the depletion of the water in the granular aquifer. We know how much water is being recharged by the increased presence of Tritium 90 which was released into the atmosphere after the first atom bomb was tested. If no Tritium 90 is found in the water, there would be no recharge since that atom test. Few wells in our area tested positive. The water we drink is some 15,000 years old and we are taking out three times the amount of water than is being recharged. The level of water is decreasing 2-5 metres a year and recent studies show the depletion is increasing. Rain water can take hundreds of years to reach into the aquifer in our area. The infiltration is quicker at the base of the hills where the soils are not as compacted.

Some 30% of the Gto workforce is in agriculture. As the land dries up many unemployed will move to the cities, such as ours, thus creating areas of greater poverty and strain on our infrastructure. We look forward to the future with apprehension. Yet efforts are being made to make the public aware and to act. As mentioned before, a new organization in San Miguel called Basta Ya is in the forefront in awareness and we have a Municipal Ecology Department and NGOs determined to show results. Yet few of the foreign community leave this oasis of San Miguel to visit the campo to see the devastation and the need to do something about it.

Central Mexico has lost over 80% of its forests through uncontrolled tree cutting in the past 45 yrs and 50% of its once fertile land is seriously eroded. In the late 1940s springs, seeps and streams ran year round but are now dry most of the year. The desertification of the area increases each year. The disappearing habitat is adversely affecting the health of the inhabitants and the economic sustainability of the area. Unfortunately the situation can only get worst because of uncontrolled population growth, making it harder to live off the land.

We hear of environmental disasters all over the world. Rain forest being denuded and aquifers running dry, animals becoming extinct etc. They are quickly brought to world attention and as quickly dropped, and ten years later we hear the problem is much worse and little has been done all those years to correct the situation. National statistics say that about 85% of the land in Mexico is eroded and the erosion increases about 2% a year. The same is true here in our area. We know we have a serious deficit in ground water for many years yet the drilling of illegal wells continued at the same rate. Presently there are over 2000 illegal wells drilled into our aquifer. Guanajuato comprises only 1.55% of Mexican territory, but uses 25% of its ground water. Throughout the world there is 50 times more water in aquifers than in rivers and lakes. And these aquifers are depleting and once they go dry or become mixed with salt water, they will never recover and the competition for the last drop is becoming war like. The very word ‘rival’ comes from the Latin ‘rivalis’, which means taking from same stream as another person.


It is important to keep in mind that the problem of excessive extraction of groundwater is extremely complex due to economic, social and political implications. However if no corrective measures are taken in the short term, this collapse will become a reality and put in danger this and other watersheds in Central and Northern Mexico. Dr. Adrian Ortega, Professor of Hydro-Geology at UNAM (National University of Mexico) who heads research into our aquifer wrote in 2002: ‘The focus of ground water resource management, in the last five decades, has been in the development and use of the resource with little concern. As a consequence, critical situations have developed in this region, increasing the risk of economic, social and environmental crisis in the near future. Therefore, there is an urgent need to change Mexico’s policy for managing groundwater resources’. Dr. Javier Castellanos, a soil scientist with the Federal Government referring to our aquifer wrote: ‘The gravest impact is the risk of a regional and social collapse in the intermediate future due to the decline of our most limited resource—water’.

About 85% of the water goes on the land as irrigation and about 60% to 80% of that water is wasted through inefficient flood irrigation, open delivery ditches and evaporation from overhead sprinklers. However more farmers in our area are installing drip irrigation, which is 95% effective. A quarter of the world’s irrigated land comes from ground water and only 1% is drip irrigated. Perhaps the aquifer could never support the irrigated land even with greatly improved methods of irrigation.

Traditional farming in our area uses 2.5 metres of water per hectare per year with no infiltration to the aquifer; however it was found that conservation farming uses 1.1 metres of water per hectare with 6-7 millimetres infiltration. This reduces ground water pumping by 40%. However it is very difficult to convince the farmers to change the old ways of farming and this is where the governments can assist and subsidize.

Allocations of water from the many dams on our watershed are given to those who can pay the most, not to those who need it most. The poor have to wait many years. Most of the water from the dams is flood irrigation, the most wasteful, and most of the produce from the irrigated farms in our area goes to the USA.

Some 40 years ago our aquifer drained out through the Rio Laja River all year around. Now the static level is from 50 to 200 metres below the ground and wells go to 300 metres. The Presa Allende is one of the largest recharge areas in our watershed. Nonetheless in answer to a question about the environmental concerns for our area, the head of CNA told me some time ago, they would not hold back any water in a drought, irrigation demands must be met.

Each year more agricultural land is washed away and in some areas the farmers using all available land to grow crops, cultivate too close to the stream banks thus causing instability in the soils and the river banks collapse into the water. Livestock trails can turn into small canyons after repeated storms and the soils become degraded reducing their ability to hold water, The absence of trees, which would otherwise stabilize the river banks, is a serious facture in the erosion. Uncontrolled goat grazing prevents reseeding of the grasses and without fences they can destroy the newly planted trees.

Sand and gravel mining adds to the straightening of the rivers, thus speeding the flow and increasing erosion. The rivers and streams have become incised through their faster flow, preventing the water from sweeping over the cultivated land after heavy rainfalls, and soaking into the soils. A flood plain is natural in healthy waterways. All of this results in water not standing long enough to recharge the aquifer. However after many years of illegal extraction of sand and gravel, the city Dept. of Ecology headed by Don Patterson has been able to control the extraction by the big trucks on the San Marcas River.

Problems of erosion and over use of water can be easy to prevent, but impossible to correct. Some of our watershed has reached that stage and cannot be rejuvenated, yet there is a lot we can do to prevent a much worse problem.

Our watershed is the second most degraded in Mexico. From 1992 until 2002 Sociedad Audubon de Mexico and Salvemos al Rio Laja, for a lesser time, worked on river restoration. They organized the building of structures to hold back sediments in the rivers and streams that would otherwise wash down into the Presa Allende, and by slowing the pace of water, restored the natural curves. These efforts allow more time for the water to seep into the ground and recharge the aquifer. In some areas trees were planted along the river banks to prevent further erosion. Holding back erosion also prolongs the life of the Presa Allende. We don’t have statistics, but it can’t be too long before the presa is full of silt and there is no more water dammed.

However no restoration work has been done by Audubon since 2002. Salvemos al Rio Laja is presently participating in assessment work along with the Universidad de Queretaro in Los Picachos and in 14 communities in the Rio San Marcos along with Cuerpos de Conservacion. They have been planting trees in school yards and along river banks, and are also giving workshops in 5 communities in Los Picachos and presently making an educational video and manual which will be ready by the end of this year. Small efforts by communities throughout the watershed over long periods of time not only costs little, but by participating the campesinos are made aware of the need to hold back erosion. Big efforts by machinery and the people stand back and watch.
PEASMA. (Projecto de Educacion Ambiental San Miguel de Allende), was started by two young women, Eugenia Valasco and Natalia Ortega, and is supported by eight NGOs. They are teaching environmental concerns to some 3,700 children in our district and children teach their parents. I was impressed earlier this year by watching 30 school children building rock structures in the creek at Sosnavar on the road to Jalpa.
The 4 million dollar sewer treatment plant, which went on stream two years ago, is not treating all of the city’s sewer. The cheese factory Esmeraldo and the rostro (slaughter house) still send all their waste directly into the arroyo and thence to the Presa Allende. Only part of the sewer from the city mains is being treated. The deep open sewer channel that can be seen from the foot of Hidalgo along Avenue de Guadalupe is not connected to the treatment plant, but dumps directly into the arroyo also. A large portion of the sewer that does enter the plant is sometimes diverted directly to the adjacent fields for irrigation. Our dreams of having a clean presa are far from reality.

There have been forums in various parts of the city inviting resident’s comments and some have been very informative. The best attended was on March 8 this year when Ambassador Alberto Szekely spoke about the need for members of the community to speak up and offer alternatives to protect the city and environment from undesirable development. Szekely is a renowned lawyer and his message was to cooperate with officials and not to confront them—substituting proposals for protests. I ask him if there were laws in place now or contemplated in the future that would control the use of water. He said this was a very touchy area because all waterways are federal and controlled by C.N.A., Comision Nacional de Aqua. He is working hard to suggest alternatives.

So we are moving ahead in awareness and hopefully something will come from the many meetings and forums we are having.

Some 30 years ago we learned the advances of technology would solve all earth’s problems, now we know it has increased them. All the projections of the past years have come to fruition—more are constantly heard. At the World Water Forum in Mexico City last year it was estimated that a 20% drop in rainwater the world over could be expected due to climate change, which means less water shored in the aquifers.

A big adjustment in life style has to be made to save the planet. I do not believe we should adapt instead of holding back the progress of pollution. We will quickly run short of adaptations while environmental destruction intensifies. To save the planet from deforestation and water shortage, we should eat less beef. We have not yet got out of our Wild West culture that cattle are part of the landscape and always will be. The amount of water used to grow beef is enormous 1000 tons of water for one ton of grain. 1,500 gallons of water for one hamburger. To build a car 400,000 litres are needed. The standard of living in the developed world has to make a big sacrifice to save the planet. Basic needs of water are 50 litres a day per person. U.S. uses 400-600 litres which is more than any other people on earth. Most Europeans use only half that amount. They are far ahead of North America in environmental concerns and restraints. We must stop thinking of exploitation and only think of preservation.

We cannot bring the 3rd world to the standard of the rich countries without speeding the destruction of Earth. It is estimated that if everyone in the world wanted to live like people in the US, 5 more planets like Earth would be needed to sustain the current population.

The answers are complex, political. We are part of a world concern that can only worsen without drastic action. Poorer nations are making unwanted changes in their life style due to the depletion and pollution of ground water. The developed nations present a way of life that reflect wants rather than needs and waste rather than conservation.

We must stop worrying about our cost of living, and think more of what our living is costing the earth.

In closing, we hope future administrations will continue the successful work presently being done by our ecology department and the city. Local NGOs are making a great effort also but they need help. Perhaps San Miguel could become an example to the rest of Mexico.

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