By Frédéric Saliba
In northern Mexico’s Comarca Lagunera region, rising arsenic levels in the groundwater are leaving many residents sick and disabled. The culprit? Widespread dairy farming, which is sucking the area’s aquifers dry. Those who can’t afford bottled drinking water pay the price.
TORREON – Despite the suffocating desert heat, Juan Jaquez Muñoz shivers under his covers. In his old house in the small village of Horizonte, in the North of Mexico, this villager has been stuck in bed since his left leg was amputated a month earlier. “The arsenic in the water poisoned me,” says Jaquez Muñoz, who is 66 but looks two decades older.
The man’s plight is hardly an isolated case. Residents throughout the region of Comarca Lagunera, between the states of Durango and Coahuila, are threatened by the toxic substance, which is present in the aquifers. The region is the country’s principle milk producer, and agricultural over-exploitation of the underground water resources is blamed for the arsenic in the water.
In Horizonte, which is also a drug trafficking territory, there are plenty of amputees. “The arsenic in my blood first affected my toenails, and then my whole leg went black,” says Manuel Suñiga, a 60-year-old former day-laborer.
Gonzalo Garcia Vargas, a toxicologist at the University of Durango, cites epidemiology studies to explain that “the consumption of water rich in arsenic, over a long period of time, causes the appearance of rough patches on the palm of the hand and the ball of the foot.” Arsenicism, as the condition is called, also causes circulatory and reproduction problems, is a risk factor for cancers of the skin, liver, kidney, prostrate and bladder, and, as was the case for Suñiga, can cause gangrene of the foot, according to Garcia Vargas.
Approximately 1.5 million affected
A study by Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua) found that the concentration of arsenic in the subterranean water in the region reaches 300 micrograms per liter, which is 30 times the maximum established by the World Health Organization.
“The reduction in the level of the groundwater has caused the amount of arsenic, which occurs naturally in the water, to increase. The phenomena has also spread toxic salts into the immense network of pools underneath the Comarca Lagunera,” explains Adrian Ortega, a hydrogeology specialist at the University of Mexico.
Recognized since the 1940s in rural areas, the phenomenon has since expanded to the cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacio. This health and environmental crisis, which has been caused by human activities, now affects more than 1.5 million residents.
“For years two dams have prevented the Nazas and Aguanaval rivers from feeding into the groundwater, which is being over-exploited by agriculture,” Ortega says. Above ground, immense green fields of alfalfa used to feed the cows stand out against the otherwise semi-arid landscape. “The region is paying a colossal price to be the number one in milk production,” says Victor Cabrera, a researcher at the Laguna Technological Institute.
Every day, 300,000 cows produce 7 million liters of milk, the majority of which goes to feed the Mexican dairy giant Grupo Lala. Other clients include Nestle and Danone. “To increase their fodder, the farmers are getting water from deeper and deeper in the zone, where there is very little precipitation,” Cabrera explains. Every year, 1.1 billion cubic meters are taken from the groundwater, but only half of that quantity is replaced each year, according to Conagua. The recent drought that has affected the region for the past year and a half has only exacerbated the problem.
Failing to respond to the crisis
Critics say that so far, local authorities have simply ignored the problem. “Nothing has been done, for years and years on end, because of pressure from the farm lobby and from the large dairy companies,” says Francisco Valdes, president of an association for the protection of the Nazas river. Valdes, an engineer and environmental activist, campaigns for reduced milk production.
“Out of the question,” responds Carlos Fernandez, owner of an ultra-modern dairy farm in Matamoros. The facility has 1,600 cows and is equipped with fans and humidity machines to cool the animals down. “The solution to the crises is to better manage the region’s water resources,” he says. Environmental organizations, on the other hand, say there simply needs to be more water. One possibility, they argue, would be to use water from dammed reservoirs to fill up the aquifers and thus dilute the arsenic they contain. “But our suggestions have been blocked because of water concessions that have been given to rich farmers,” Valdes says.
One thing residents can do to protect themselves is buy bottled water. But many simply can’t afford to. “Here, almost everybody drinks water from the tap,” says Maria Socoro, a 45-year-old resident of a dusty village called Sofia, about 50 kilometers from Torreon. Despite the risks, Socoro, a widow with three children, continues to poison herself, day after day.
The government in Durango has announced it will begin distributing tens of thousands of water filters for use in residents’ homes. “But then you have the problem of collecting all of the used filters,” Valdes complains. In Coahuila, government started building filtration systems this past January near the nine most contaminated wells in Torreon. “The goal is to get rid of the arsenic in the water before it is distributed,” explains Eglantina Canales, who is in charge of environmental matters for the local government.
Another sign of hope: In February “access to clean water for domestic consumption” was inscribed in the Mexican Constitution as a basic right. There’s no reason to believe, however, that the benefits of the reform will trickle down anytime soon to the residents of Comarca Lagunera.
Read more from Le Monde in French
- Oh, Baby: There May Be Arsenic in Your Formula (healthland.time.com)
- Climate change danger: Arsenic in the water supply (grist.org)