Water is Still a Big Issue on Yucatan Peninsula

Ideas and Issues
Cenote at Chichen Itza

Puerto Aventuras   Visiting Tulum in Quintana Roo is a breathtaking experience not so much because of the ruins, which pale compared to Chichen Itza and Uxmal, elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula, but because of the sweep of the blue-green ocean and the bright blue sky that surrounds what seems almost a fortress at waterside. Tulum by the books was one of the latest pyramid developments of the Mayans in the 15th century, lasting only 80 years or so after the Spanish arrival. One plaque at Tulum invited the visitor to imagine they were in the shoes of the cacique there and looking out towards the water and seeing the Spanish ships arrive for the first time. The equivalent would be somewhat like a scene from the movie, “Arrival,” as visitors from another planet suddenly were hovering over a dozen different locations on the globe.

Historians and scholars still debate exactly what caused some of the other Mayan cities to suddenly depopulate. Chichen Itza had been a major urban center of more than 90,000, so the available footprint a visitor sees now is simply a ceremonial front yard, so to speak, to what would have been a vast enterprise.

Of course I don’t know with any authority, but projecting backwards from today, access to water has to have been a huge factor. The cenotes in Chichen Itza were underground springs, easily accessed for water and ceremonial purposes, but the limestone subsurface is better at filtering water than storing mass quantities to support growing civilizations. The Yucatan Peninsula, despite the beauty of the ocean and its long coastline of beaches, high humidity, and wet rainy season is water poor.

Watchtower at Tulum on the coast

Staying in private homes in Merida and Cancun in our own stab at semi-sustainable tourism, we were given a short course in the challenges of the current water delivery system as well. In Merida, we woke to the first morning without any water. The pump had not been turned on so it was “one and done” for the first in the shower, until we could puzzle out the problem. In Cancun,  we received more instruction. There the water came from the street, provided at a cost from the city, like all public water systems, but filled a ground level cistern of sorts and had to be pumped up to the roof where a black plastic tank, ubiquitous throughout the Yucatan, held 1500 liters of water. If drained and not refilled automatically, we were shown where to restart the pump. The general level plain of the peninsula, described everywhere inaccurately as “flat as a tortilla,” meant that to access sufficient gravity for the water to be used below the roof, it had to be gotten there in the first place. It also means that the responsibility for water ends at the street curb. When a pump goes out, it has to be replaced. When a hurricane hits and there’s no power, then there’s also a crisis in the availability of potable water.

A quick look at the internet turns up reports from twenty years ago up to recently that point out the emerging water crisis on the Yucatan as population has exploded since the advent of industrial tourism and its supporting service worker population. Add to that problem, according to the United Nations, uncontested by Mexico, 70% of the underground water in the country is polluted in one way or another, and the issue intensifies. In Puerto Aventuras, we have been about the only representatives from Gringolandia over our week here and while walking we passed the water treatment facility in this town of 6000 people or so, the second largest in the Solidaridad Municipality of the state of Quintana Roo, yet we were of course warned by our host, unnecessarily, not to drink the water.

It’s a safe bet that the early Mayans knew the value of water, perhaps more preciously even than the modern inhabitants of this beautiful area, but water continues to be the delimiting and irreplaceable resource, even if little seems to be done about its conservation and protection, where it’s water, water everywhere, but increasingly coming to the point where there’s not a drop to drink.

Water tank system in Puerto Aventuras