The Declaration of El Charco del Ingenio, Facing an Undeniable Regional Water Crisis
By César Arias
Experts from around Mexico converged at El Charco del Ingenio botanical garden in San Miguel de Allende for three days to assess the status of our regional water quality and quantity. As one conferee summed it up, “Water, a common good of nature, is threatened by irrational extraction, increasing pollution, and the privatization goal of governments and corporations.”
Based on the comments, beliefs, and research, together with the audience of nearly 100 concerned residents, academics, researchers, environmentalists, students, growers, artists, and local NGOs, a concluding paper called “The Declaration of El Charco del Ingenio” was written. The document summarizes a set of water facts revisited and learned at the conference. The Declaration concludes with a statement of demands agreed upon by the conferees. It is hoped that by informing the public, authorities responsible for water management will be moved to meaningful actions to ameliorate a situation described by many as a crisis.
San Miguel’s water is supplied by the Independencia Aquifer. It has suffered for decades from the indiscriminate extraction of groundwater and from a model of agriculture and livestock which only benefits a small sector of the population. To be clear, more than 80 percent of the volume of extraction of groundwater is for agricultural irrigation, and increasingly to agro-industrial plantations for export, resulting in a “virtual exportation of water.” The depletion of the aquifer is so severe that natural recharge no longer exists and, according to qualified scientific studies, has turned groundwater that is thousands of years old into a non-renewable resource.
Wells which go deeper and deeper have reached “fossil water” containing minerals that are often far above the official Mexican standard for potable water and harmful to human health (fluoride, arsenic, manganese, and sodium, among others). The presence of sodium and other minerals is causing salinization of soils, which is progressively turning the soil unproductive.
This very serious phenomenon adds to water pollution caused directly by human activity, which further pollutes the surface water bodies, such as rivers, streams, arroyos, and presas. Making matters worse is the proliferation of untreated sewage in urban and suburban areas, which discharge domestic waste and other contaminants, mostly without sanitation, turning surface water bodies into open drainage pits. San Miguel’s sewage treatment cannot handle the volume of sewage coming from a rapidly growing population; runoff from agribusiness plantations, dairy farms, golf courses, and residential gardens containing chemicals demonstrably harmful to human health; and residual waste from industrial activity, which contains substances of high toxicity dumped untreated or poorly treated (most recently from industrial parks related to the auto industry where non-compliance with environmental regulations pervade).
Faced with this alarming picture—which has been repeatedly documented by research from UNAM and other scientific institutions—the federal and state governments, as well as water management, agricultural, and health agencies, and sadly some residents and businesses, refuse to accept the water crisis we are living with and practice a policy of denial and concealment, with devastating effects.
The conferees are calling out the authorities in water management at all levels of government to abide by and fully comply with the constitutional mandate that establishes water as a human right with a priority of potable water for human consumption. Most especially, the federal water agency (CONAGUA) must aggressively implement an environmentally responsible, transparent, public, and fair process for granting concessions for the use of groundwater, prioritizing food production for local and national consumption, rather than to the agro-export industry. All residents must insist that the government develop and enforce public policies that drastically reduce the volume of current extraction, introduce crops with low water demand, promote water-saving irrigation techniques, and build rainwater infiltration facilities in order to recover in the medium term groundwater levels of the Independencia Aquifer. At the same time, government water authorities must acknowledge the absence of deep flow recharge, pollution from fossil minerals, and the growing impact on the health of the population.
The federal and state governments (CONAGUA and CEAG) must implement effective and long lasting sanitation policies to prevent toxic pollution of surface water as a result of untreated urban, agricultural, industrial, and recreational waste discharges. Local programs of payment for environmental services must be established with the capacity to finance actions for watershed management and the creation of sustainable alternatives to the exploitation of the natural environment.
The conferees agreed that most residents, when properly informed, expect government to take the required actions, and were unequivocal about the public’s willingness to pay for necessary improvements to guarantee safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities as well as enforcement of water conservation laws and regulations.
The Declaration of El Charco del Ingenio may be read in its entirety at elcharco.org.mx/Ingles/boletin/boletinAbril2016.html#2
César Arias is a member of the board of directors of El Charco del Ingenio.