‘Doomed to stay’: The dying villages of Mexico’s Lake Cuitzeo

As Mexico’s reservoirs run dry, the fishermen, farmers and ranchers stuck on the drying lake beds wonder how they will survive.

Ranchero Cornelio with one of his young calves; as his cattle graze he takes a rest on one of the few trees in the desert landscape that once was Lake Cuitzeo [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

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Fifty-two-year-old Augustin Rodriguez stands on the withered grass of his front yard and opens the tap. Water slowly drips from the garden hose the fisherman’s family uses for their daily needs. There is just enough to fill the cooking pot; the rest of the water is for the three goats that are cooped up nearby, next to the makeshift open-air kitchen.

The colourful buildings of San Nicolás Cuiritzeo in Mexico have seen better days. Like the water that has disappeared from the lake that neighbours the village, many of its inhabitants have left to seek a more prosperous life elsewhere. Once a healthy mix of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, today only about 350 remain.

Augustin shrugs. “We have to be thrifty. The lake has been empty for months. We have to make do with some groundwater that we get from a well a little further away, but that too is almost empty. If it doesn’t rain in the next few days or weeks, we’re in for a big problem,” he says.

His family sits outside, in the shade provided by a skinny tree. Defeated, he steps towards them and wearily sits down on a dusty angular stone, taking a sip from his lukewarm beer. “My brothers and I have been out of work for months. We can’t hold out much longer,” he says.

He wants to show us the seriousness of the situation and takes us to the lake in question, about a kilometre south of his house. Lake Cuitzeo is a natural freshwater lake and the second-largest water reservoir in Mexico. Located 300km to the west of Mexico City, in the state of Michoacan, it is irregularly shaped, with its northern, western and eastern parts interconnected by marshland.

During half the year, thanks to the rainy season, it has a surface area of more than 400 square kilometres (99,000 acres). For those few months, it teems with life from the villages surrounding it; farmers use the water to irrigate their crops, fishermen fish the vast area, and livestock can be seen along the banks among the thriving abundance of aquatic plants and local wildlife. The lake becomes an extension of people’s gardens as mothers do laundry and children play in the water. It also attracts some tourism, with boats filled with Mexican families, hidden under colourful umbrellas, navigating the waters.

Horses graze while a fire has been set to burn the remaining withered aquatic plants on the lakebed to free up more potential grazing area [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

But now the lake is only a shadow of its former self; 70 percent of it has disappeared. “Look, this is where the water level was at, just a few months ago,” says Augustin as we step onto parched dirt. The bottom of the lake is bone dry, a desert where the sun mercilessly scorches everything. Hidden among the withered water plants and cattle are the family’s fishing boats, stuck in the shriveled ground.

Augustin steps up to his boat and grabs the torn net that lies in it as sweat drips off his brows and onto the dusty ground. “We are used to the lake being drier around this time of year. That’s how we’ve always known it. But this is the second year in a row that we have had to wait this long for the rain to come. It’s getting drier. If it continues going like this during the next few years, this will be a dead zone and everyone will have to leave,” he says, wiping the wetness off his face.

Resting between the central states of Michoacán and Guanajuato, Lake Cuitzeo is the economic lung of the region and employs many from the 28 villages surrounding it. But this is now under threat because the dry period – which is supposed to last roughly from September to the end of May – has become increasingly harsh and long over the past decade. As the rain makes its timid return for the year, it will take a few more weeks of patience before inhabitants can enjoy the benefits of a filled lake again.

While the dry season is a natural phenomenon, human activity has also had a direct impact; this includes poor management of the remaining water and failure to invest in the infrastructure needed to collect and preserve rainfall, as well as an old highway which, acting like a dyke, splits the lake into two and results in more rapid evaporation on both sides. Together with rising temperatures and lack of rainfall due to drought, the lake loses more water every year, resulting in desertification and a decline in the fish population. The catch for the majority of fishermen, who mostly make a living for the rest of the year during these wet months, is at risk.

Augustin and his brothers Ismael and Antonio sit in front of their house in San Nicolás Cuiritzeo [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Fishing boat graveyard

La Palma, a small fishing village of about 200 inhabitants, is on the far eastern tip of a piece of land that stretches into the middle of Lake Cuitzeo. On the dried-up edge of the lake, near the village, a few men are busy with a long fishing net hanging between two trees. Here too, a graveyard of abandoned fishing boats are stranded on the torn-up earth.

La Palma’s 20-some fishermen – or at least the ones still working during the dry season – gather every day before dawn in the central square. From there, they go in groups with their fishing nets in the back of rusty trucks and make the bumpy one-hour drive to Iramuco, one of the lower villages on the eastern shores of the lake. It is the only place where a little water remains and fishing is still possible.

“You have to get there early, the competition is fierce. Everyone wants to get a spot there for the day,” says one of the fishermen from behind a net that he and others are tending to in La Palma.

During the day, rickety pick-up trucks come and go along the worn streets on the lakeside, not infrequently with a dozen men in the back. These fishermen, from different villages across the lake, catch and sell mostly freshwater bream, one of the few remaining fish species in the lake, in the various villages around Cuitzeo.

But the men in La Palma are at their wits’ end. They earn just enough to eat and drink. “For a bucket full of sea bream, we get 150 pesos [$7],” says Roberto, a 48-year-old fisherman. He lies under the shade on a bed of fishing nets and sips a golden liquid, presumably a locally made beer, from a cup made out of a used water bottle.

“We catch about the equivalent of 10 buckets a day. All the proceeds we share fairly among us. Do the math on how much that is. There are no reserves. If we don’t fish for even one day we can’t support our families,” he says, sticking up his index finger to emphasise the importance of just one day.

Fishing boats stuck in the dry mud in La Palma [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

A day later we join up with the fishermen as they finish work on the lakeside of Iramuco. As we approach the landing area, the stench of the vanishing water and exposed algae, which lingers throughout the town, becomes almost unbearable. Mosquitoes hover around in thick clouds, but their inescapable sound does not seem to bother the men as they work and a breeze eases the burning of the sun.

A young boy carries a box full of fish ashore. His hands and feet are painted black from the mud. “We have to push our boats forward with long poles because our engines, which would usually propel us through the water, would otherwise get stuck in here. The water is barely deep enough to get somewhere above our shins. Even the egrets are spread all around this part of the lake because the water is so shallow. Usually, they can only fish on the banks,” he says, leaving a trail of black footprints as he walks up to the truck.

In the 1990s, the government of the state of Michoacán estimated that more than 5,000 tonnes of fish were taken from the lake annually. Now fishermen barely extract 250 tonnes, 20 times less. Of the 19 fish species documented in 1975, only six remain.

The fishermen of La Palma prepare a new fishing net near their home. They plan to use it in Iramuco, an hour-long drive away, the only place in Lake Cuitzeo that still holds water [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Empty dams

The situation around Lake Cuitzeo is indicative of what is happening elsewhere in Mexico. Drought here is a recurring natural phenomenon and a scorching heatwave plagues people and animals at least once a decade. But now they last for longer and have become increasingly harsh and dry. The country’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA) states that Mexico is currently experiencing another “exceptionally dry period,” affecting 85 percent of the country, something that has not happened since 2011.

“Mexico’s geographical location and climate make it extremely vulnerable to drought and periods of high rainfall,” says Arturo Chacón Torres, professor of hydrological vulnerability to climate change at the University of Morelia. He is the reference in the region when it comes to climate change and spoke to Al Jazeera on the sidelines of a conference at the university on the exceptional drought affecting the lake. Some 200 politicians, representatives of local fishermen, and other communities follow the information session with great interest.

“Surviving the dry season depends largely on the amount of water collected during the wet months,” explains the professor. However, in 2020, not enough rain fell to fill the entire network of dams in the country. As a result, more than half of Mexico’s 210 largest dams are now at less than 50 percent of their capacity. In fact, a third of them are at a critical level with a capacity of less than 25 percent, especially in northern and central Mexico.

Boats rest in some of the last remaining water in Lake Cuitzeo near Iramuco. Egrets can be seen standing in the extremely shallow water [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Agua negra

The dire situation around Lake Cuitzeo is due in large part to humans, the professor argues. “The causes are numerous. Pollution, expanding cities, and the destruction of forests and wetlands for farmland have greatly affected the soil’s ability to soak up and retain water. When you cut down a tree, you remove half of its weight in water from the ecosystem,” he explains. “Without vegetation, water cannot penetrate the soil and evaporates faster.”

The rise in average temperatures, from 20.4 degrees Celsius (68.7 Fahrenheit) in 1985 to 22.4 degrees Celsius (72.3 Fahrenheit) in 2019, has also exacerbated the problem, as the soil dries out faster and forest fires are more frequent, causing more vegetation and biodiversity to go up in smoke.

According to Professor Torres, the pollution of waterways is also a major problem. “Almost 30 villages are located on the shores of the lake. They all discharge their wastewater directly into the lake. The same goes for farmers and factories in the nearby industrial areas. The water then turns black, agua negra (black water) we call it here. If you see cows and goats drinking that kind of water, you know it cannot be healthy.”

A 16-year-old boy carries a box full of fish ashore. Behind him, the other fishermen unload the rest of the fishing gear [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Dust lungs

We drive along the highway that divides the great lake in two, south to north. Both sides look like there has never been water here, with no signs of evaporation or even cracked dirt. When we get out of the car, our eyes prick and water from the dust in the air. In the distance, enormous pale clouds hover like a permanent fog over what was once the lake, obscuring the surrounding villages in a kind of mist. On the other side, animals can be seen walking across, in search of anything green that remains. People drive their cars across this part of the lake and leave more dust trails behind them.

When the lakewater evaporates, toxic dust particles – made up of the remains of dried-up algae, a byproduct of farming fertilisers which, overused, flow into the lake and cause harmful algae to grow – remain on the ground. Strong gusts of wind and traffic from motorists, who use the exposed lake bed as a shortcut, create clouds of toxic dust that reach municipalities up to 20km (12 miles) away in the state of Guanajuato. This affects the health of the lake’s residents, causing allergies, respiratory illnesses, and gastrointestinal complications due to the bacteria they carry, according to the state’s Department of Health.

In 2017, violent gusts of wind caused a major sanitary crisis on the west side of the lake when nearby villages were overwhelmed with toxic particles. Scores of people were diagnosed with illnesses and food was also contaminated.

Built 30 years ago, the highway that splits Lake Cuitzeo in two has significant impacts on the lake’s ecosystem. The words of the professor echo in our heads: “No thought was given when those structures were built. They hold back water in several places, resulting in a raised vulnerability to drought in large parts of the lake. And then there are the controversial structures that rose up on the lake bed throughout the 20th century. Two dams were built, from which corn farmers draw water to irrigate their fields. All of these add up to the problem.”

The kids’ pool of a local water park that overlooks the parched desert landscape of Lake Cuitzeo [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Green oasis

Eighty-three-year-old Nicolas leans on his walking stick. The ground beneath his feet is almost as parched as the skin around his old bones. He sighs and straightens his hat for more protection against the sun as he guides his seven thin cows forward. He has been walking around the dry lakebed for a good hour in the scorching heat, looking for a place where the animals can graze. “Vamos. Andale (come on, go),” he says.

Nicolas has lived all his life along the shores of the lake. He earns his living by growing corn and raising cows, two sectors that are hit hardest by the drought. “The situation has never been more dire,” he says. “I have spent my whole life on the banks of Cuitzeo. I like living here, but for the past year or two, the weather gods have seemed very unforgiving.”

Steadily, he sinks underneath the shadow of some cacti and squints his eyes, watching his cattle disappear into the heat haze in search of something to graze on. Despite the adversity, he seems at peace with his situation and proceeds to pull his hat down to rest, letting out a sigh.

Cattle farmers like Nicolas are directly affected by the drought. When it does not rain, they cannot plant greenery for their cattle to eat and are forced to replace it in the animals’ diet with a protein supplement. The animals also have to walk much further in search of water and sometimes it is necessary to drive them to the nearest spring. So now that the dams are empty, the costs increase significantly and in the worst cases, the herds simply die of hunger or thirst. As Nicolas walked alongside us towards the shade under which he finds his daily refuge, a cow stopped to drink from some contaminated water at the roadside.

Eighty-three-year-old ranchero, Nicolas [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Yet not all ranchers around Lake Cuitzeo are equal. Due to differences in altitude around the lake, some cattle farmers on the east side enjoy more favourable living conditions.

In Araró, the lowest village east of the lake, the soil is more fertile. There is no water in the lake there either, but the grass grows almost effortlessly thanks to several natural groundwater wells that keep the soil moist.

We walk onto a green tapestry of plants and into herds of sheep, goats, horses, and cows. They all look healthy and fat. Some of them even have time for a nap, not needing to eat or drink any more.

“Farmers from different surrounding villages come here with their animals. They walk a couple of kilometres from their towns,” says Herry, a smiling, 25-year-old ranchero who appeared from among the animals on his horse.

He tends about 30 cows and as many goats, together with his brothers. Hundreds more animals graze around. “It’s practically the only place where some water is still available,” he says. “A green oasis in an ocean of drought.”

Turning the reins, he spurs his horse on with a soft but brisk “yah yee yah”; he is off to get medicine for a sick cow.

Young ranchero Herri (left) gets ready to go out on his horse to tend to a sick cow [Jules Emile/Al Jazeera]

Climate refugees

Professor Arturo Chacón Torres sums up the situation. “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,” he acknowledges. “But in the end, the difficult situation simply confirms what international studies conclude about Mexico’s water crisis: it is a crisis of management and governance.”

Old and dilapidated sewers and drainage systems cause flooding when there is too much rainfall, so the abundance of water is lost and cannot be stored in reservoirs, nor in the soil because of the lack of water-retaining vegetation. City streets flood while fields in the countryside erode. And without proper governmental aid, both farmers and fishermen face heavy losses.

Meanwhile, for many families around the lake, the situation has become so unlivable that leaving seems the only option left. The vacancy rate in several of the villages we visit is clearly visible. Abandoned and deteriorated houses dominate the landscape.

When we leave the lake with Augustin and walk back to his family, the atmosphere is oppressive. Many of his friends have given up because of the increasing uncertainty. They are moving north, towards the US. “But we can’t possibly afford it,” says Augustin. “The crossing is dangerous and costs too much money. We are doomed to stay here.”

Source: Al Jazeera