by Virginia Próspero Villan
During the 1970's, when nobody could imagine that Cancún would become the most important tourist destination in Mexico, the Nichupté lagoon witnessed the few inhabitants that dared go over it in their small boats.
Thirty years later, such curiosity became fear: human activity cut off its contact with the sea, gained land through land filling, tolerated illegal dumping of waste water.
As if the above were not enough, it allowed the installation of an open dump. The consequences were felt not by humans but by the lagoon itself, that at least for the next 20 years will have to pay monthly high interest rates to abate pollution.
This story of atrocities is far from reaching its end. At present the lagoon is suffering the impact of the lack of a sewer system in the city, which is calculated at being around 40%.
Attempts to restore the lagoon have been few. Some went almost unaware, others enjoyed considerable publicity, but in general none has remedied its degradation.
The cleaning up depends upon an impossible dream: providing the city with a sewer system at 100% coverage. This depends upon a consolidated population possessing an environmental culture, without the fear of migration plus other options which are on the way to implementation.
Upon the planning of Cancún, the lagoon was dredged and filled in to create the Pok Ta Pok residential area. However, the god Chaac reminded residents by means of floods that at one time this area was his.
Another filled-in area contains the abandoned building of México Mágico, the Isla Dorado residential zone and the La Isla shopping center.
The channel that permitted the exchange of water between the sea and the lagoon was blocked in order to build the parking areas of Plaza Caracol and surrounding business areas.
Through the years the federal authorities permitted the construction of restaurants, hotels, marinas, shopping centers and amusement parks on the banks of the lagoon. Even more, recently a shopping center attempted to fool the Ecology Directorate to fill in and expand the existing installations but their request was finally rejected.
The Nichupté lagoon system actually measures 6700 ha. It is located in the northeastern coast of the public entity and is constituted by the Nichupté lagoon and four peripheric lagoons: Río Inglés, del Amor, caleta Nizuc and Bojórquez (the latter two lagoons are highly degraded).
Towards the mid-eighties the red alert was released: the lagoon began to stink as a result of the discharge of waste water, the lixiviated liquid coming from the old garbage dumping grounds (closed in 1994), the organic matter coming from the sewer system pipes and the lack of an adequate sewer drainage system in the city.
Upon the breakdown of the organic matter, conditions became favorable for the development of macroalgae, seagrass and medusae that cloud the water and which, upon dying and undergoing decomposition, generate gases such as hydrosulphuric acid and ammonia.
The reaction of environmental associations and authorities led to the support of the design of a Programme of Environmental Management for the Lagoon System. Towards the end of the eighties the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism, which created what is today Cancún, implemented a programme of harvesting algae. It consisted of picking up the surplus algae which underwent decomposition under the sunlight by means of a harvester. Later, since this method did not give adequate results, it was replaced by manual harvesting in boats.
Already in the nineties, the former Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE) prepared the management plan taking three years to do it. Paradoxically, in the meantime, the Federal authorities allowed the establishment of 29 tourist marinas.
Starting at that moment the system became further degraded, thanks to the
action of aquatic vehicles that produce difficult-to-break-down pollutants,
although ten years later the tourism operators decided to use less polluting
The Subcommittee for the Protection of the Nichupté Lagoon System was created on October 18th, 1993. It was constituted by authorities of the three government branches, civic bodies, groups of professionals and tourism executives.
In the beginning it was seen as an instrument to prevent further degradation of the lagoon system, but through the years the titanic efforts that such goal demanded, brought about a decreasing interest from the group.
Moreover, as pointed out by the former President of the Biologists' Association, Ms Graciela Saldaña, the delegates or persons in charge of official institutions, such as the Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMAMAT), the Federal Judicial Agency for the Protection of the Environment (PROFEPA), and the National Water Commission (CNA) show up but rarely, which prolongs the deadlines for analyses, slows down decision-making, results in a paucity of information and permits investors to go over the Subcommittee.
The current President of the Biologists' Association, Mr Rafael Rodrigo Zárate adds another deficiency: The meetings of the Subcommittee are scheduled in terms of the hubbub provoked by environmental scandals brought about by the setting up of tourism projects.
Another serious error detected by the former delegate of SEMAMAT, José Antonio Arjona Iglesias, is that decisions on the operations of tourist projects that could cause serious impacts on the system, cannot be related to the resolutions of a professional association or society.
Prior to the creation of the Subcommittee, the Programme for the Environmental Protection of Cancún was founded on August 5, 1993, with municipal, state and federal authorities signing the document.
In the fifth of its seven clauses it proposed: i) the respect for regulations on land use - which still constitutes a problem - ; ii) the expansion of the sewer system in the urban core to at least 70%; iii) the construction of a new sewage treatment plant in the city; iv) the relocation of the municipal garbage dump; v) the installation of sewers in the Bonfil district; the recovery of 783 ha of derelict land; the reforestation of the Luis Donaldo Donoso Boulevard, among other foreseen actions.
Several years later, the document was included in one of the three thick folders that contain the history and actions of the Subcommittee. To date, the foreseen actions have not been accomplished.
Three long years elapsed before the problem could reach the President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, and on March 15, 1996 he announces the ambitious project 'Crystaline Waters 2000', aiming to achieve the cleaning up of the lagoon system in record time.
He decreed a deadline of 60 days to formulate and turn in the Programme of Integral Cleaning up of Cancún and the Lagoon System. In the beginning of May of the same year the person in charge of the Subcommittee, Ms Maria Cristina Castro, turned in the document which considered the cost of the operation at 832.600.000 pesos.
Of the total investment, 77.1% was attributed to infrastructure and cleaning up (which included part of the work plans for Aguakán); 17.3% to complementary activities to cleaning up operations; 2.8% to studies and projects; 2.8% to conservation and regulation of environmental information.
In 1998 and 21 months prior to the Presidential objectives, the Subcommittee presented a diagnostic to the members, in which it recognized the errors and achievements, and that proposed speeding up the planned actions in order to accomplish the goals as determined.
One of the first obstacles encountered was due to the difference in views between the Government and Aguakán. These resulted in legal procedures and prevented the continuation of tasks and the assignment of the corresponding budgets to accomplish the goals. Thus the cleaning up activities were approached rather as a strategy. With the proposed plan one could arrive to the absurdity that the investments were carried out by the participating institutions without achieving any progress, as recognized by Ms Castro, to which one should add the fact that the programme contained works but not strategies. For example, they expected that the local communities would participate spontaneously, without foreseeing awareness-building campaigns and without involving the educational sector.
Even if the authorities demanded the setting up of sewage treatment plants, they did not consider the use of residual muds and treated water for productive activities, neither they foresaw means of dealing with toxic wastes.
It also recommended the improvement of the efficiency of the three treatment plants of Fonatur in the hotel district: Pok Ta Pok, Gucumatz and El Rey, a controversial subject for the institution since it asserted the contrary.
Another aberration consisted in the setting up of three aerators - which implied an expense of Federal funds of 2.4 million pesos. These were handed over to the Municipal government on May 22, 1999, just at the moment that the Mayor, Rafael Lara, ended his term of office.
The operations continued for several months, then were abandoned for a year, the installations underwent deterioration and eventually were repaired towards end 2000, but the Ecology Directorate decided not to accept them nor to take charge of their functioning and still no decision has been made as to what should be done with them.
Even if Hotel owners and other services recognize the loss of the natural beauty, which represents the major attraction for tourists arriving to Cancún by the millions, the clandestine illegal dumping continues.
According to a report of the municipal Ecology Office, 132 dumpings have been registered, grouping both the illegal ones and the ones resulting from rainfall. The hardest hit zone is found in Punta Cancún. Only in the space between the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel and the Coral Negro market, 35 discharges have been detected. Four were found exactly in front of the Hotel and one of them is sealed. Six discharges (one sealed) were found several meters beyond, in front of the Kin-Há Hotel. Two were found in front of Calinda Viva, seven in the Caracol Centre and three were found in the El Pairán Plaza and in the Coral Negro market.
The lagoon system receives both fresh and salt water. Thus the mangroves find ideal life conditions. Moreover several edible fish species flourish in such ecosystem.
Migratory birds also find their haven in the system and the blue crab goes from the sea to the lagoon to complete its reproductive cycle. The absence of this species would permit the proliferation of a great number of insects.
Unfortunately, as pointed out by the President of the Biologists Association, there are no parameters to determine the rate of progression of pollution, since there is no monitoring of water quality nor of the distribution of the population living in the area.
Two proposals have been advanced to deal with the pathological state of the lagoon system: i) the cleaning up proposed by the Corazone civic group, although the authorization of the City Council is needed to implement it. ii) the Federation included the lagoon in the National Crusade for Forests and Water that proposes that 55% of the 6700 ha be assigned for conservation.
In this manner a fourth development area would be established in the National Marine Park Costa Occidental de la Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún and Punta Nizuc, a management plan would be drafted, and the Federation would assign resources for its protection.
Mr Rodrigo Zárate indicates that there are several inconveniences. At the present time the Technical Committee of the Trusteeship of the Marine Park decided to reduce expenses of PROFEPA by 50% and thus would lack the capacity to watch over 3700 additional ha. Moreover, the nautical members of the institution expressed their opposition to charging 60 additional pesos to tourists for visiting the reef areas. This would bring about a scarcity of funds for park activities.
The degradation continues to advance in the lagoon system and it seems that it is irreversibly approaching its end. This can happen unless the authorities at the three levels work in a coordinated fashion to achieve definitive solutions to contamination problems, without limiting their actions to palliative measures for the coming three or six years
Determine, through a comprehensive analysis, if the treatment plants of FONATUR are operational.
Provide the local populations with a basic infrastructure and invite them, by
means of an information campaign to link up with the sewer drainage system.
Part One (Spanish): pages 1 & 6 in Novedades de Quintana
Roo, 21 May 2001
Part Two (Spanish): page 9 in Novedades de Quintana Roo, 22 May 2001
Translated into English by John Celecia