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«Water Pollution Control - A Guide to the Use of Water Quality Management Principles Edited by Richard Helmer and Ivanildo Hespanhol Published on ...»

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Water Pollution Control - A Guide to the Use of Water Quality Management


Edited by Richard Helmer and Ivanildo Hespanhol

Published on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Water Supply &

Sanitation Collaborative Council and the World Health Organization by E. & F. Spon

© 1997 WHO/UNEP

ISBN 0 419 22910 8

Case Study VIII* - Lerma-Chapala Basin, Mexico

* This case study was prepared by José Eduardo Mestre Rodríguez

VIII.1 Introduction

In many of its regions, Mexico currently faces an imbalance between water demand and availability, primarily due to natural water scarcity as well as uneven water quality distribution. Rapid urban and industrial growth, among other economic and social factors, have made this worse. Water needs have grown, water users are fiercely competing with each other and conflicts are emerging as a result. Water quality has also deteriorated as urban and industrial effluents are often discharged with no previous treatment.

Furthermore, Mexico is slowly overcoming a severe economic and financial crisis which has limited hydraulic infrastructure development and impoverished large population sectors.

Mexico covers 1.97 million km2 of the North American continent (Figure VIII.1), with a population of 91.12 million growing at 1.8 per cent a year. Politically, Mexico is divided into 31 autonomous states (each one with its own elected government) and a federal district, which includes Mexico City. A complex system of mountain ranges create 310 hydrological basins which experience different degrees of hydraulic development and water pollution. Of all the Mexican basins, Lerma-Chapala is the most important.

Consequently, it receives priority attention at all three government levels, federal, state and municipal, and especially from the National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua; CNA) which is the sole federal authority entrusted with overall national water resources administration. Public awareness on water issues in Lerma-Chapala has led to the active participation of water users, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and social institutions with a plethora of interests directly or indirectly linked with the water sector.

Figure VIII.1 Location map showing the position of Mexico and the Lerma-Chapala basin VIII.2 The Lerma-Chapala basin The River Lerma with a length of 750 km originates in Mexico's central high plateau at an altitude above 3,000 meters above sea level (masl). The river ends in Lake Chapala (1,510 masl) which is the largest tropical lake in Mexico (Figure VIII.2), 77 km long and 23 km wide. The maximum storage capacity of the lake is 8.13 km3 and the surface area is about 110,000 ha. The lake is also rather shallow; its average depth is 7.2 m, with a maximum of just 16m. The Lerma River basin, is a tropical region with an average temperature of 21 °C, an area of 54,400 km2 (less than 3 per cent of Mexico's entire territory) and an average rainfall of 735 mm a-1, mainly concentrated in the summer, from which a mean run-off of 5.19 km3 is derived. The River Santiago arises from Lake Chapala and flows westwards finally reaching the Pacific Ocean. The Santiago River basin is less developed in terms of population and economic activity, except for Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, and with a metropolitan area with more than 3.5 million inhabitants.

Some 26,000 deep water wells operate within the Lerma-Chapala basin, with very low efficiency rates, due to their high electricity consumption and rather low water yields.

Almost 70 per cent of all 38 aquifers in the region are overexploited (Figure VIII.3).

Figure VIII.2 Map of the Lerma-Chapala basin showing rainfall and run-off figures for each state included in the basin The current basin population is 9.35 million with an annual growth rate slightly less than the national average. The population is distributed between 6,224 localities, 18 of which have a population greater than 50,000 inhabitants; the rural population is currently 32 per cent. Regional socio-economic development has been triggered by water availability and industrial and agricultural production per capita have surpassed national levels. This region boasts 6,400 industries which generate one third of the GNP and 20 per cent of all national commerce occurs within this basin. Furthermore, it currently comprises one eighth of all the irrigated land in Mexico. The agriculture in this area is of such importance that national farm produce exports rely heavily on the performance of this tiny region. With the three economic sectors highly developed and with a superior transportation network, partially financed by private investors, this area is, undoubtedly, one of the richest regions in Latin America.

The Lerma-Chapala basin includes fractions of the central states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Mexico, Michoacan and Queretaro (Figure VIII.2). Conflicts derived from surface run-off uses (mainly for irrigation and potable water supplies), combined with the general discharge of untreated effluents, have given rise to serious regional, and local, pollution problems. Frequent conflicts over water quality occur in Chapala Lake which plays a key role as the main water source for Guadalajara.

Figure VIII.3 Aquifers in the Lerma-Chapala basin indicating their level of water abstraction VIII.3 Pre-intervention situation Before 1989, the regulatory and legal framework provided clear procedures for surface run-off measurement and the related information systems and analysis tools; but there were serious deficiencies in water quality monitoring and recording. In addition, institutional structures, mostly centralised at the federal level, were unable to slow down water quality deterioration throughout the basin. Eventually, this situation became acute, dramatically reducing water availability for many uses. There was, nevertheless, public and official awareness of the key issues relating to water quality and sustainable development. Hence, in 1970, under the Secretaria de Recursos Hidráulicos (Ministry of Hydraulic Resources), the first technical and administrative unit was created to prevent and control water pollution from different sources. The Lerma-Chapala basin was a natural choice for the pilot area to carry out the first water quality assessment and to lay the foundation for future intervention.

From an economic and financial perspective, the hydraulic services in the LermaChapala basin did not differ from the general scheme prevalent in the rest of the country.

Funding was insufficient to meet demands. Water pricing and actual payments made by users were below real water costs, restricting capital investment and management expenditures. This, in turn, limited the possibility of providing a reasonable water service for irrigation, for industry and for households. Furthermore, such a situation fostered the limited participation of water users and generated a negative attitude towards water resources management and supply. Even today, when changes are currently being implemented, many users (at all levels and sectors) are still reluctant to pay for water.

Potable water supply had reached acceptable levels of coverage in urban areas but not in rural areas. In townships with a population above 50,000 inhabitants, service coverage was usually close to 85 per cent or more and large cities usually boasted coverage of around 95 per cent. Chlorination of the water was rather uncommon, except in large cities. Water quality control was also extremely limited, notwithstanding the efforts of the water and health sectors. The Limnological Studies Center, established in Chapala in 1975, and the regional laboratory for public health, set up in Leon, Guanajuato in 1981, backed up efforts to promote water quality control.

Urban sewage systems had lower coverage levels than the potable water systems.

Untreated effluents were discharged directly into rivers and reservoirs. Furthermore, when treatment facilities did exist, like in the city of Querétaro, their operation was usually inefficient, as a result of faulty design and mismanagement related to financial aspects. Few social sectors were willing to pay for effluent treatment.

The Mexican economy grew considerably after the Second World War. National and international investments promoted industrial growth and this was further aided by a domestic market unable to purchase imported goods. Simultaneously, irrigated agriculture grew steadily in terms of surface area, economic importance and water demand. National and regional economic development policies did not allow for a longterm water conservation strategy and as a result irrigated agriculture is responsible for 81 per cent of all water abstractions in the Lerma-Chapala basin.

This region includes 16 large reservoirs which help to regulate erratic run-off from year to year. They have also helped considerably to reduce flooding risks. However, as a result of an excess of nutrients derived from untreated effluents, the reservoirs were seriously affected by massive infestations of water hyacinths.

Figure VIII.4 Map of the Lerma-Chapala basin indicating the water quality classifications for the main river stretches and the associated sources of water contamination Industries as well as most towns, located in the basin are mainly supplied by groundwater sources (90 per cent). The most important industries concentrate their activities on meat, dairy and other agricultural produce, beverages, pulp and paper, leather goods, petrochemical and chemical products, all with little or no emphasis on wastewater treatment and recycling.

Development in the Lerma-Chapala basin is largely sustained by intense water use.

Industries in the basin generate around 0.608 × 103 m3 a-1 wastewater with 130,500 t a-1 biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) coming from urban waste and 424,260 t a-1 chemical oxygen demand (COD) coming from industrial discharges. These organic and inorganic pollutant loads and a scarcity of wastewater treatment capacity have intensified water quality problems and severely reduced water availability (Figure VIII.4). Diffuse pollution caused by drainage containing fertiliser and insecticide residues from irrigated areas, together with solid waste washed away by rain from rural households lacking domestic waste disposal systems for excreta and rubbish, have also contributed to the water quality problems.

Lake Chapala is the most important water distribution centre in the region and was seriously threatened by growing biological and chemical water pollution. This generated a public outcry in the state of Jalisco and eventually became a matter of national concern.

VIII.4 Intervention scenario By the end of 1988 it had become apparent to society and government institutions that a complex and serious situation existed in Lerma-Chapala basin. Water demands were higher than natural availability and to such extent that even all the effluents were also already committed for use. Water allocation was a chaotic process because most water rights were granted with no clear strategy to protect water users downstream or to cope with regional water scarcity caused by frequent droughts. Users were competing with each other, usually industry and cities were exerting heavy pressure on irrigated farmland. Conflicts were not uncommon at all levels including disputes for water among neighbouring states. In general, water quality had fallen to a new, unacceptably low level.

In specific locations, water quality had deteriorated so badly that life itself, in all its forms and manifestations, was challenged. River basin protection was almost non-existent.

Erosion had increased in former forest areas and grasslands were disappearing at an astounding rate as a result of irrational livestock practices. Silt sedimentation eventually reduced the hydraulic capacities of streams, rivers and reservoirs and dramatically reduced the lifespan of several dams.

Society began demanding swift and effective executive action to remedy the situation in the basin. In April 1989, the Federal Government and the governments of the five states which share the basin formally, agreed to co-ordinate their efforts to carry out a "Program for Water Allocation among Users" under a new set of rules and simultaneously to undertake a "Large-Scale Sewage Treatment Program in the LermaChapala Basin" (Programa de Ordenamiento de los Aprovechamientos Hidráulicos y el Saneamiento de la Cuenca Lerma-Chapala). The four main objectives derived from this

dual programme were:

• To reduce water pollution.

• To establish a new system in water allocation.

• To give a thorough impetus to all activities that may help raise water efficiencies.

• To establish some sound basic rules for soil and water management, to enable and encourage biological canopy protection and recuperation, practical (and profitable) approaches for rational soil management and other preventative action.

These four objectives were accepted and adopted by society which, in turn, has played a key role in reviewing the results, evaluating the actions and even by arguing for the introduction of changes proposed by social sectors.

Government agencies installed a "Consulting Council for Evaluation and Follow-up" of all sub-programmes and activities derived from the basin programme. The Council was integrated by Federal Government ministers, state governors and chairmen from decentralised public enterprises (mainly petroleum refining and electricity). This Council was, in fact, a predecessor of the present River Basin Councils.

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