Wed, Mar 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

An aquatic paradise in Mexico, pushed to the edge of extinction

By Victoria Burnett  /  NY Times News Service, XOCHIMILCO, Mexico

With their gray-green waters and blue herons, the canals and island farms of Xochimilco in southern Mexico City are all that remain of the extensive network of shimmering waterways that so awed Spanish invaders when they arrived there 500 years ago.

However, the fragility of this remnant of pre-Columbian life was revealed last month, when a 6.1m-deep hole opened in the canal bed, draining water and alarming hundreds of tour boat operators and farmers who depend on the waterways for a living.

The hole intensified a simmering conflict over nearby wells, which suck water from Xochimilco’s soil and pump it to other parts of Mexico City. It also revived worries about a process of decline, caused by pollution, urban encroachment and subsidence, that residents and experts fear might destroy the canals in a matter of years.

“This is a warning,” National Autonomous University of Mexico geologist Sergio Raul Rodriguez Elizarraras said. “We are driving the canals towards their extinction.”

Xochimilco, a municipality on the southeastern tip of Mexico City, is home to more than 2,428 hectares of protected wetlands, hemmed in by dense streets, where farmers grow rosemary, corn and chard on chinampas, islands formed using a technique dating from the Aztecs from willow trees, lilies and mud.

Residents ply the area’s about 161km of canals in canoes, much as they have for centuries. On weekends, thousands of tourists picnic and party on brightly painted barges, or trajineras.

“This is the last thread that connects us to our pre-Hispanic past,” artist and tour guide Ricardo Munguia said, while chugging through the dawn mist in a motorboat.

As he slid past a field of broken corn stalks, a pelican swooped by and skidded on the water, slowing itself with its wide wings.

“It would be heartbreaking to lose this,” Munguia said.

As bucolic as the canals appear, intense exploitation of the area’s aquifers over the past 50 years has depleted springs, prompting authorities to replenish the waterways from a nearby sewage treatment plant.

As the earth dries out, it sinks, cracking buildings and forming sudden craters such as the one that appeared on Jan. 24, 46m from a barge mooring.

Boatmen at the mooring, known as the Embarcadero Zacapa, said they noticed the hole when a whirlpool appeared, like water running down a bath drain.

By the time engineers had dammed off that part of the canal with sandbags several hours later, the water level had dropped about 25cm.

Since then, the 80 or so trajineras at Zacapa have mostly been idle, as tourists head to rival moorings, boatmen said — even though they can still reach the canals in one direction.

On a recent Sunday, the boats were lined up like rows of gaudy shoes, but none had customers.

“We’re kind of shocked,” said 18-year-old Ivan Montiel Olivares, who has worked on the barges for 10 years. “If things turn bad, what will we do?”

Juan Velazquez, a boatman in his 50s who was cleaning his deck, said that on the weekends he normally made about US$15 a day, plus tips. The last two weekends he had made just US$2.50 each day.

“Nature is making us pay for what we have done,” he said.

Built on a silty lake bed, Mexico City has been sinking for centuries. The Metropolitan Cathedral became so tilted that engineers reinforced the foundations so that it would, at least, sink evenly.

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