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.
To slow the collapse in the city center, parts of which dropped about 8m over the past century, officials in the 1960s shifted water extraction from downtown to wells near Xochimilco, a decision experts called a “death sentence” for the canals.
Jose Felipe Garcia, Xochimilco’s director of civil defense, said that the canal would be back to normal by the end of last month.
Speaking by telephone, he said that the hole — which was filled last week — was a product of subsidence and geological faults beneath the area.
However, Rodriguez said it was part of a grim pattern of collapses in the area whose cause was “man made.”
Half a kilometer from the Zacapa mooring, a 1.8m-deep crater opened in November last year, splitting a main road and trapping two small buses, residents said.
Eduardo Sandoval — an architectural engineer who lives in the neighborhood, Santa Maria Nativitas, and leads an organization fighting for water rights — said the holes were a signal that problems were “accelerating.”
Water in Nativitas has been a source of endless tension, with 130 houses damaged by subsidence, Sandoval said.
Trucks fill up at the local well and sell water on the black market, but homes near the well can get water from their faucets for only a few hours each day.
There are scattered government initiatives to increase the water supply, such as collecting rainwater in rooftop cisterns, but the feat of supplying the region’s 22 million people with water more than 2,134m above sea level requires more creativity, experts said, such as reusing dirty water.
The water in Xochimilco’s canals is polluted. Treated water pumped into the canals from nearby Iztapalapa contains heavy metals, Metropolitan Autonomous University biologist Maria Guadalupe Figueroa said.
Worse, illegal dwellings on the chinampas dump raw sewage into the canals, affecting fish and crops, she said.
Today, much of the tilapia fished from the canals are used for cat food, and many farmers grow flowers rather than edible crops.
Despite a ban on construction on the chinampas, more and more of the islands are being settled, as small-scale farming becomes less competitive and demand for residential space grows, experts and residents said.
Cables droop across smaller canals, supplying electricity to cinder-block houses that have no running water or sewers. Near one house, beer bottles stuck out of the mud and a rusty bedspring served as a fence on the water’s edge.
Juana Altamirano, who has lived for years in a plywood shack on what used to be a chinampa farmed by her father and grandparents, has outhouses with the Spanish-language words for “men” and “ladies” scrawled on the metal doors.
The sewage, “goes into the earth and doesn’t do any harm,” she said, an improbable claim, as she lives on an island of tangled roots and mud.
Altamirano, 57, admits that the canal water is polluted.
Her eldest grandchildren learned to swim in the canal, but these days, the water gives swimmers a rash, she said.
“Still, we breathe pure air,” she said.
With every farmer who, like Altamirano’s father, stops cultivating the chinampas, “we lose a part of our identity,” said Felix Venancio, an activist trying to protect the chinampas and the communal land, or ejido, in San Gregorio, a district of Xochimilco.
The knowledge of chinampa farming “goes from generation to generation,” Venancio said. “We’re losing that.”
Figueroa said that authorities were working on a new plan for preserving the wetlands, pulling together academics, farmers, businesses and different branches of government.
Xochimilco, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, has had no shortage of preservation plans over the years, but they remain half-complete and funds “get lost along the way,” Figueroa said. “There’s a huge amount of corruption.”
She figures that, without a serious conservation effort, the canals will be gone in 10 to 15 years.
However, much of the damage was reversible, she said, adding: “It’s still a little paradise.”
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