By Jurgen Ahlers
Available in Spanish (Read below)
San Miguel de Allende (SMA) prides itself on being a World Heritage Site. It could also become an “eco-city,” joining a global network of cities that have taken bold steps to transition from depleting resources into thriving sustainable townships. The World Bank defines eco-cities as “cities that enhance the wellbeing of citizens and society through integrated urban planning and management that harness the benefits of ecological systems and protect and nurture these assets for future generations.” Becoming an eco-city would require a strong environmental plan and the will of the people, who need to voice their growing concerns to safeguard a healthier, more promising San Miguel by addressing the growing climate crisis and its effect on our city.
As COVID restrictions have receded, San Miguel has seen an ever-increasing influx of tourists, some of whom are settling here. But while tourism is on the rise, the city risks its job-creating prosperity if it ignores its worsening environmental problems, especially those related to the water supply, wastewater management and air quality.
Water supply: The Alto Río Laja watershed encompasses seven municipalities in the northern part of Guanajuato state, including all of San Miguel de Allende. Today, almost all the water in the region comes from the aquifer, an underground water reservoir that serves more than 700,000 residents in thousands of communities, both rural and urban, such as San Miguel de Allende. Our aquifer is declining at an alarming rate, approximately 2-3 meters per year, making it some of the most exploited groundwater in the world. The main culprit is industrial agriculture, which uses more than 85% of our water source to grow water-intensive vegetables. As a result, wells have to be drilled hundreds of meters deep to reach the water table. Every year, more wells in our region go dry and, in some cases, collapse in on themselves.
Complicating matters further, the water that does remain is highly contaminated with arsenic and fluoride, reaching more than 23 times the levels recommended by the World Health Organization and the new Mexican norm for arsenic and more than 12 times the levels for fluoride. These extremely difficult-to-remove contaminants are closely linked to dental fluorosis, crippling skeletal fluorosis, kidney failure, cognitive development and learning disabilities in children, skin disease, and even various forms of cancer. Entire generations are being plagued with the negative impacts of arsenic and fluoride in their drinking water, and, worst of all, children are hardest hit as their bodies absorb these contaminants at a much greater rate.
Food Insecurity: To combat food insecurity, we applaud all efforts by the municipality to restore abandoned reservoirs to capture rainwater. We also recommend widespread reforestation to stabilize eroded watersheds. By effectively capturing rainwater during the summer monsoon season, rural campesinos can be prevented from sinking deeper into poverty as their ability to grow crops and raise farm animals is increased.
Wastewater management: The increase in population, coupled with the lack of adequate sewage treatment in the urban area of San Miguel de Allende, has meant an influx of untreated domestic wastewater that is discharged into the Allende Reservoir (the “Presa Allende”). In the absence of adequate wastewater treatment systems, an excessive amount of pollutants has invaded the reservoir and allowed for the development of a vast cover of “lirio” (water hyacinth) over the reservoir, which is nourished by the phosphates, nitrates, and carbon present in wastewater that is dumped without proper treatment, threatening the resevoir's ability to provide adequate food for wildlife and fishermen. The presence of this water hyacinth depletes the oxygen in the water and does not allow light to pass through, causing a process called Eutrophication, where algae and aquatic plants decompose, depleting oxygen, and causing the death of aquatic life. The hyacinth cover does not allow the passage of boats or access to fishing nets, so these activities become impossible for locals and for those involved with ecotourism on the reservoir, such as kayaking and other water activities. The deterioration of the landscape due to the dry hyacinth, and the odors that it generates when it decomposes, cause people to stop carrying out recreational activities in these areas.
Air quality: Except during the summer rainy season, the air pollution index for SMA hovers in the “Poor” or “Very Poor” rather than the occasional “Acceptable” categories. Public buses, too large for San Miguel’s narrow streets, spew diesel fumes daily. Continued deforestation, due to urban sprawl and corporate agriculture, is exacerbating the climate crisis, leaving too few trees to absorb the CO2 emissions.
San Miguel has the ability, in concert with the state of Guanajuato and the federal government, to preserve and enhance the city’s infrastructure. The ambitious drive for increased tourism, without an environmental plan, will “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” Fortunately, there are solutions to many of these environmental problems.
Rainwater: A growing number of local NGOs are installing rainwater catchment systems in both rural and urban areas. Rainwater does not put further pressure on our already exploited groundwater resources and is also naturally free of arsenic and fluoride. Many rainwater harvesting systems are outfitted with effective low-cost filters to make the water suitable for consumption. Additional funding of such projects will be vital for the future of San Miguel and surrounding areas.
Wastewater: Local leaders and community members need to strongly advocate for a state-of-the-art wastewater management system adequate to meet the needs of the burgeoning SMA community. Not doing so is causing the current problem with the Allende Reservoir and could lead to a future, much worse, environmental disaster. In the meantime, on a smaller scale, innovative measures are being taken to alleviate some of the contamination of the dam by using the lirio (water hyacinth) as compost for planting trees and other non-edible plants, which help to visualize the situatation but are not enough to have a significant impact on the root causes of the problem.
Air: And more trees help improve air quality. An aggressive reforestation plan could possibly use the lirio in the Presa as a source of mulch and compost in that effort. We could be planting trees and park benches in a widened pedestrian street system. We could limit motor traffic through the city, particularly in the historic city center, by constructing large or underground parking lots off the main arteries coming from Querétaro, Celaya and Dolores Hidalgo and bringing tourists into town by electric public transport, something that was half-heartedly attempted a couple of years before the pandemic. As a social and financial investment, this is more rewarding than unchecked land use.
Through grants from global environmental organizations, we stand a chance to change our polluting public bus system to electric buses and help turn San Miguel into a world-class sustainable “eco-city.”
But, first, we clearly need a detailed and comprehensive environmental plan that reflects guidelines established by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting standards by 2030 and 2050.
We welcome Mayor Trejo’s stated intention to replace diesel with electric buses and we desire to work together to make this intention a reality. The city should also insist that any new construction contracts be awarded only to builders who use solar panels and water catchment installations.
Local individuals and organizations stand ready to assist the city. We urge all who wish to see a sustainable San Miguel de Allende to get involved with your local environmental and civil associations to make this vision of a sustainable eco-city become a reality.
AUDUBON EN MEXICO, April Gaydos
CASA, AC. Paulina Hernandez
CAMINOS DE AGUA, Dylan Terrel
CASITA LINDA, Louise Gilliam
CEDESA, Mercedes Paramo Sanchez
CENTRO PARA LA JUSTICA GLOBAL, Bob Stone
EDUCACION COLABORATIVA, Roberto Robles
EXTINCTION REBELION MEXICO, Martin Buen Viaje
FUNDACION DE APOYO INFANTIL (FAI), Lourdes Morales Rojas
SALVEMOS RIO LAJA,
TIKKUN ECOCENTER, Ben Zion Ptashnik
UUFSMA, Jurgen Ahlers
VIA ORGANICA, Diana Hoogesteger