Lake Chapala - shrinking waterbodies, a buena noche and contaminated fish tacos

December 9, 2017

Thurs 30th - 21km


After landing at Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla Airport, Kat and I headed straight down to a small town on the northern side of Lake Chapala. The lake is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake and the principal water source for the city of Guadalajara. Its water level has been rapidly decreasing since 1979, primarily due to an increase in urban water consumption (in large part this is due to the influx of American and Canadian expats in the region putting additional pressure on the lake’s water resources).  Notwithstanding this, other factors such as expansion of agricultural development, increased sediment, regional droughts and increased evaporation (due to the lake becoming shallower) have all played a part. According to NASA, the lake is now only one-quarter of its historic capacity. The entire area of Washington DC (and then some) could fit on the land surrounding the lake that was once submerged.

 We ran from the town of Chapala, along the lake, until we hit 21km. The towns and villages we passed through depicted a bygone Mexico. The pastel coloured shopfronts, cobbled streets and sidewalk cactuses imitated the postcards found in Cancun tourist stores (with the mass-produced day of the dead skulls nowhere to be seen).  After we finished the run, we met with Josue Sanabriiz, a local man who is part of the indigenous community living in a small village called Mezcala. Josue explained that the people who live here, the Cocas, are currently struggling to find a way to defend their heritage and way of life, an identity that relies largely on the shrinking lake and land surrounding it.  However, declining water levels are not the most immediate concern, he said. The lake is contaminated. Municipal, industrial and agricultural wastes flow into the lake from the Lerma River, polluting the water and poisoning the fish, making them unsafe to eat. Josue’s concerns are often met with skepticism and fear by others in the community, who rely on these fish resources as a primary part of their diet. Many indigenous locals have been falling sick with kidney problems, Josue told me, however they refuse to accept that this is likely linked to their fish intake. I was certainly not going to be ordering any fish tacos for dinner, as Josue scooped up a handful of water, explaining that the green colour is due to faeces and untreated wastewater.


At least, this is what I think he said. The entire one-hour conversation was in Spanish, requiring a lot of concentration on my part and a lot of repetition on his.  Although Kat tried to reassure me that she had followed about three-quarters of the discussion, I was hesitant to rely on her for translation assistance, considering only an hour before (and following a number of conversations with locals and restaurant staff) she had asked me whether the language spoken in Mexico was Mexican.   


Although there are a number of factors to blame for the shrinking of Lake Chapala, you simply have to type “lakes” and “climate change” into any web search engine and you can see the extent to which large waterbodies are drying up due to global warming all over the world. “The shrinking Lake Chad,” “Climate change is shrinking the Colorado River” and even “Effects of climate change on New Zealand lakes” are just some of the headlines that appear.  However, by far the most poignant example is Bolivia’s once second largest lake, Lake Poopo. Following a number of droughts in the Andes, Lake Popoo all but disappeared in December 2015. On average, the lake has warmed 0.23 degrees Celsius each decade since 1985, a consistent warming pattern strong enough to evaporate it entirely. [Photo to the right is an abandoned fishing boat on dried up Lake Poopo - credit Independent UK]


It is not simply the loss of water resources that makes this example so distressing. The drying up of the lake has threatened the entire identity of the Uru-Murato, the indigenous peoples that have inhabited the area for generations. The Urus called the lake their “mother” and their whole livelihood centred around its abundant fish resources and rare flamingo population (they used flamingo fat for medicinal purposes, among other things). These people have been left with nowhere to live, forced to take up jobs miles away on salt flats or try their hand at farming, jobs that they are unaccustomed to and that are at odds with their culture and identity.  It is difficult to express just how important the lake was to the Urus and the knock-on effects caused by its disappearance, however this amazing article from the New York Times sums it up perfectly. It is definitely worth a read, if not just to see the amazing pictures taken of the area and its people. This is just one of numerous examples of climate change threatening Native Peoples’ access to traditional foods and adequate water.


Finally, I want to briefly mention the Dead Sea, a saline waterbody on the borders of Palestine, Jordan and Israel. It is located at around 400m below sea-level, the lowest point on earth. Water flows into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River. Over the years the water has become increasingly salty, around eight or nine times saltier than the world’s oceans, allowing people and objects to float on its surface. Its jagged shoreline is a result of the sea’s rapid decline, the water receding inwards as the surface level decreases by a startling 1m per year. [Below - running around the jagged edge of the Dead Sea in October]

If this reality isn’t alarming enough, earlier this year researchers drilled down below the deepest point of the Dead Sea to collect evidence of historical whether patterns in the region. They uncovered extremely deep, dense salt-beds, evidence of previous severe droughts and an indicator that rainfall was historically only about one-fifth of current levels. These arid conditions would have resulted from natural circumstances (i.e the conditions would not have been triggered by human interference).  However, such findings illustrate that even in the absence of human induced climate change, there is precedent for droughts far more extreme than we ever predicted. Adding climate change to the equation could be catastrophic.


Talking to the locals in Mezcala was probably one of the highlights of this trip so far. The authenticity in Josue’s face as he spoke to us, ferociously trying to get across as much information as he could about the importance of this issue, was something I will never forget. I will also never forget the chuffed look on Kat’s face as we parted from our favourite Uber driver. At that moment, using her best Mexican, she said “well, I hope that you have a buena noche tonight.” We have all learnt many things in Lake Chapala.

A huge huge thank you to Kat who made the last 4 legs of the run so much better than they otherwise would have been. I hope you had as much fun as I did.




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