The Future of Travel: Climate Edition by Hena Sharma

Mexico’s Worst Drought in 30 Years Has Dried Out this Lake

"As we advanced through the lake, we noticed there was very little water - it looked like a swamp or something. As we advanced much more, we realised it looked like a desert" - Jules Devoldere

Mexico is currently facing its worst drought in 30 years. Though it’s a recurring phenomenon, due to the effects of climate change, this year’s conditions have been unrelenting. Documentary photographer Jules Devoldere and his collaborator Arnaud De Decker, a journalist and international reporter, spent the early half of this year in Mexico. Together they captured this drought and the effects it has had on local communities living between the states of Michoacán and Guanajuato.

“We looked into environmental and sustainability issues to cover and we found this particular story when we were in Mexico City doing research.” As they spoke to locals around Mexico, they learnt more about what the country was experiencing. “We were told that the rain has been so unpredictable and it’s been so dry that the inhabitants aren’t really able to rely on water coming during the first months of the rainy season,” says Jules.

Though it was May, the start of the wet season, the lakes ran dry and there was no rainfall to be seen. The pair travelled 300 km west of the capital to the area surrounding Lake Cuitzeo to see one of the worst hit water bodies and communities.

Mexico’s Drought

Mexico has been affected by drought for the past couple of years. “The rainy season has been getting shorter every year and the amount of rain that falls has been less and less every year as well,” Jules explains to us. NASA highlighted in their “Widespread Drought in Mexico” report that “nearly 85 percent of Mexico is experiencing drought, with water sources dwindling. One of the water bodies that has been exceptionally dry is Lake Cuitzeo, with around 70% of it without water.

"As we advanced through the lake, we noticed there was very little water - it looked like a swamp or something. As we advanced much more, we realised it looked like a desert" - Jules Devoldere

Before the current drought, Lake Cuitzeo was the lifeblood of Michoacán’s flourishing fishing economy. But since the building of dams and two motorways that split the lake in half, Lake Cuitzeo has slowly deteriorated. This new infrastructure increased the surface area of the lake, which only causes the water to evaporate at a faster rate, thereby making it even more sensitive to drought. With a 2.5 degree global warming trajectory, the drought and water shortages are likely to get worse as Mexico gets hotter and the droughts worsen.

Lake Cuitzeo, known to be the second largest water reservoir in Mexico, usually fills up over the rainy season. It’s then used by the whole community from local farmers and fishers to families doing their laundry. When Jules and Arnaund arrived at the lake, however, they discovered it to be a shell of its former self.

Augustin Rodriguez and his brothers

Fifty-two-year-old Augustin Rodriguez, a father and fisherman, is one of the people affected by this water crisis. "We are used to the fact that this part of the lake is drier at this time of the year. That's how we've always known it. But this is the second year in a row that we have had to wait so long for rain. It's getting drier. If it gets even drier in the coming years, this will become a dead zone and everyone will have to leave,” he explained to Jules and Augustin.

Augustin is not the only inhabitant affected by this -- the whole community is. As reported by Al Jazeera, only around 350 farmers, ranchers and fishermen remain in San Nicolás Cuiritzeo, a neighbourhood close to Lake Cuitzeo. The lake is known as the “economic lung” of the region, with approximately 4,000 families relying on it. That’s 4,000 families that could potentially become displaced.

Now, there exists a “graveyard of boats” instead, says Jules. There are 28 fishing villages along the banks of Lake Cuitzeo, but without any water, the boats lie on dry and cracked earth. Though the Mexican government has made it more affordable for fishermen to purchase boats, there is little point when there is no water in the lake, Jules points out. People need to rely on the community to provide water, like Don Victor, who hosted Jules and Arnaud in his hacienda or homestead which sits on top of a natural water source.

Don Victor loading up with truck with fresh water
Don Victor loading up with truck with fresh water

“The Man of the Water”

Don Victor is referred to by the community as “El Hombre Del Agua” or “The Man of the Water.” His land is located on the eastern, lower side of the lake, where natural freshwater deposits exist and year-round humidity keeps the area green. Most importantly, though, there is an abundance of drinking water. Victor takes it upon himself to deliver water from his supply to neighbouring villages and communities after witnessing little support coming from local municipalities. This has earned him the respect of those in the area and the affectionate title of “The Man of the Water.”

Every week, he fills up 30 large water bottles from his source and loads it into his pickup truck to sell and distribute. “A lot of people know him, he took us to people that had something to say about the water… I spent one day with him going through other villages to pick up empty water jugs then he would fill and sell them,” said Jules.

“It's my duty to help the people...Thousands of people are suffering from the drought. The little water they still get from the wells runs out, and they then have to share it with the animals. It is difficult” - Don Victor

Victor has one of the only swimming pools in the entire region, filled by the groundwater from under his land. He allows children and mothers to use it and hosts swimming lessons for the community. The juxtaposition stuck with Jules, who could see the desertified Lake Cuitzeo in the background of Victor’s lush swimming pool.

“When I stood up on a balcony, I could observe the swimming classes taking place in the green garden, while seeing the desert-like lake in the back, behind the walls of the hacienda. A pretty surreal contrast if you think about it. The pool always had water from the groundwater well underneath the hacienda.”

Don Victor's swimming pool for the community

Blackened Waters

The lack of water is not the only issue facing those living around Lake Cuitzeo. There are also health risks involved with the lake drying up. There’s algae production at the bottom of the lake that is caused by farmers dumping toxic chemicals and pesticides into the water. “Once the algae has dried up, it turns into dust and the wind takes it across the lake. They’re very harmful for your lungs actually because there’s also remains of pesticides in them,” says Jules. Cars and other vehicles use the dry lake bed as a shortcut, causing huge swathes of dust clouds to form, spreading dried algae and bacteria 20 km away in the air.

When in Mexico, the pair spoke to Professor Arturo Chacón Torres of Michoacan University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo, who specialises in Environmental Sciences. He explained that pollution of the waterways and human activity is a large part of the problem -- on top of rising temperatures.

“Almost 30 villages are located on the shores of the lake. They all discharge their waste water directly into the lake. The same goes for the farmers and factories in the nearby industrial areas. The water then turns black, we say agua negra here. When you see cows and goats drinking from it, you know it can't be healthy.”

Infrastructure issues and mismanagement is something that has contributed to the lake’s disappearance. “The amount of rain that Mexico receives should be sufficient if it is properly stored and managed. Losses can’t be avoided due to deteriorating infrastructure,” explains Torres.

A Widespread Issue

Lake Cuitzeo is not the only body of water in Mexico that is running dry. The situation is indicative of what is happening within much of the country, and in fact across much of the world. Villa Victoria Dam, located on the outskirts of Toluca, central Mexico, is also one experiencing water shortages.It’s relied upon by 9 million inhabitants in Mexico City, along with two other reservoirs. As of April 2021, however, Villa Victoria Dam was at one-third of its capacity. Considering it is the one of the main water supplies for the capital’s residents, its emptiness is a reminder of the severity of Mexico’s climate crisis.

As COP26 starts next week, it will be interesting to see what Mexico’s climate change plans are in the wake of its current situation. As the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in Latin America in the midst of a water crisis, many are wondering how Mexico will mitigate its climate issues with policies and action. Some feel concerned by Mexico having not met many of the goals made in the 2015 Paris Agreements.

Poorer residents in rural areas, those with the smallest carbon footprints, are feeling the brunt of the effects of climate change in Mexico and some are no longer willing to wait for policy adaptations. Many are opting to move out of the region or even to the United States, becoming what are now called “climate refugees,” says Jules. Although “many try to find work in construction or in carpentry, there are a lot of people trying to move to other regions or to the States to try and escape the climate crisis. There aren’t a lot of people that succeed.” A lack of funds and financial sustainability means many of these climate refugees migrate back, joining the others that are seemingly “doomed to stay.”

As much as these problems are localised, they’re also part of a wider issue. The Global North produces more CO2 and plastic waste than the Global South, but countries like Mexico are less financially and infrastructurally developed to deal with climate change’s adverse effects.

Still, says Professor Torres, Mexicans are growing frustrated with their government and lack of action. Petitions have been created with over 40,000 signatures in response to Lake Cuitzeo. “The governments of Michuacán and Guanajuato are barely doing anything to improve the situation,” says Torres.

Photography: Jules Devoldere and Arnaud De Decker

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