Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo, may be a tropical paradise but it is one with a sewage problem that has the potential to cause serious environmental damage on the island.
When tourists visit Holbox and see mud puddles in the road they usually assume it is stagnant rainwater.
But it’s not necessarily so.
Wastewater overflows every day from a sewage system that can no longer cope with the pressures placed upon it.
According to the state Water and Sewer Commission (Capa), the problem stems from a drainage system that was installed more than 18 years ago when the island population was just 800.
At the time, a four-inch sewer pipe and 81 collection tanks worked perfectly.
But today the permanent population of the island, situated about 10 kilometers off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, is over triple that number and 20 of the tanks no longer work.
For the past three years the system has not been functioning at an optimal level leading to the risk of severe damage to the environment.
There are concerns for the health of the island’s mangroves as well as for whale sharks, which seasonally frequent local waters, and other species endemic to the island. There are also concerns about health risks to humans from exposure to raw sewage.
Mayor Emilio Jiménez explained that 3,000 residents, 1,500 workers and up to 1,500 tourists — a total of 6,000 people — now use a system that was built for 800.
The pressure on the system and its breakdown in some sections has led to some of the island’s hotels disposing of wastewater into the sea or even the street.
Pedro Gasca, 58, lives in the island’s main settlement and has a drain next to his house.
“Three years ago the drainage stopped working on the whole island,” Pedro said.
“At the start when they installed it and got rid of the septic tanks, it worked very well. Today, the system is overflowing.”
Gasca has also had problems within his own home. A neighbor ran to the beach to warn him that water was running from the house.
“When I arrived I discovered that the water from the toilet was overflowing. Shit was coming out for two continuous hours.”
The problem is not confined to the drainage system and pipes.
The treatment plant, situated on the east side of the island, is also overflowing, flooding the plant’s yard and reaching the surrounding mangroves.
On a tour of the plant, local official René Correa donned rubber boots to show a journalist from the newspaper Milenio the extent of the problem.
“What we are stepping on is not clean water. It’s everything that overflows on to the mangrove swamp that surrounds this plant. As you can see it goes up to our knees and it’s not even raining.”
A worker from the water commission said the problem is “the result of population growth but it’s also the fault of hopeless urban planning, a lack of maintenance of the drainage [system] and neglect on the part of all levels of government.”
Correa said that more than 15 million pesos (US $844,000) are paid annually to authorities in property taxes, hotel licenses and other taxes but “none of those resources stay on the island.”
All that comes back, he says, is “40,000 pesos with which we pay for the gas for the garbage trucks.”
Capa says that 30 million pesos are needed to fix and update the system.
The Quintana Roo government has stated that a plan is in the works but neither local authorities nor island residents are aware of any details or when work is expected to start.
René Correa also accused Governor Carlos Joaquín González of ignoring his calls and messages.
Meanwhile, the fetid puddles continue to accumulate, plaguing unwitting tourists and residents on the island paradise.
It is not the only environmental threat Isla Holbox is facing.
Environmental groups have denounced a range of other issues they believe are affecting the island and the federal environmental agency Profepa recently closed down 36 tourism-related projects, deeming them illegal.
Source: Milenio (sp)