Down the drain: how tourism clogs Yucatan's water veins

One of the magical features of Mexico’s southeastern tip are the many water filled sinkholes. Over 7000 of the so called cenotes perforate the brittle limestone. Since millions of years the underground system carried the most clear water of the world in its thousands of interconnected caves. And then, humans appeared. 

What turned the Yucatan into a Swiss cheese, happened 66 million years ago: it was the effect of the well known asteroid, that ended the era of the dinosaurs. It crashed down at the northern rim of the peninsula and left nothing but its powerful impact on the landscape and a crater with the present-day name Chicxulub.

Graphic of the location of the Chicxulub crater.

Graphic of the location of the Chicxulub crater.

Crystal clear impurity

Now the caves, grottos, holes and lagoons are one of the main tourist attractions in the area. On a hot tropical day there is almost nothing better than to refresh yourself in the water, that is transparent clear – but only visually. Unter the microscope the water is dirty. It is contaminated with residues from the waste water of 35’000 residents plus 2 million tourists each year: 

“UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health has found pollutants like pharmaceuticals, cocaine residue, shampoo, toothpaste, pesticides and chemical runoff from highways and even golf courses in groundwater in the area of Cancun and the Riviera Maya.”

— Statement on dw.com on a study of the UN University.

Why? Because the area has no proper sewage system. Many homes, hotels and shops like laundries simply lead their used water into the ground. Also, there are disturbing reports of drivers of trucks loaded with black water spilling their filthy load into the jungle – just to return faster to other hotels and get more money. From the jungle floor the water seeps through the limestone freely into the groundwater network, meaning also the cenotes, and from there directly and untreated into the ocean. In the sea the contamination is a threat to the second largest coral reef in the world which stretches from the shore of Cancún down to Honduras.

So, it is known and proven that the human impact on this unique scenic feature is as destroying as the toxin loaded atmosphere after the crash of the fatal asteroid. 

If the state is not changing something to find a way to build a sewage system adequate to the needs of a flourishing tourist destination, people living and visiting here will not only damage the marine environment and human health but also, in turn, the region’s tourism-based economy.

How cenotes are connected to the sea.

How cenotes are connected to the sea.

From sink to sinkhole to the sea in 7 days

So, almost everything that goes into the sink ends up in the sinkholes and finally flows into the sea. And due to the fast water cycle of the region, this only takes seven days, as Paul Sanchez Navarro, director of the Mexican Organization for nature conservation (OMCA) states in an article about the topic. 

But what can we, each single one of us, change about it in a virgin area where the population outgrows infrastructure for reasons of lack of money or greed or carelessness? Here are some ideas of reducing the pollution of the precious water.

  •  Use only biodegradable shampoos, cosmetics and dish washing soaps

  •  Avoid cosmetics with micro-plastics like scrubs or whitening tooth pastes

  •  Wash clothes at home with biodegradable detergent

  •  Don’t flush toilet paper, wet wipes or menstrual hygiene products

  •  Think twice, if you really need to take this chemical medicine