Water. A life passion and the basis of life.

Interview with Biologist Olmo Torres-Talamante

While doing research and analysing Tulum challenges, we learned that actually everything has a close relationship with water: We needed to investigate more closely, so we interviewed Olmo Torres-Talamante, a young experienced character who has dedicated his life to studying groundwater, Cenotes (sinkholes) and underground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula and other karstic regions in the world. Our meeting took place in a terrace by the sea at one of the town beach bars and resorts, Papaya Playa. Olmo’s job is his passion! He absolutely loves what he does! In the process he has gotten a BSc. in Biology and a Master in Marine Sciences and limnology (the study of lakes and rivers). Olmo studied at UNAM a renowned public university in Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), leader in Latin America and one of the top 36 best universities worldwide. His interests and beliefs were shaped by his parents, both mexicans passionate divers and sociologists. He decided to study biology to explore and understand what is Life. He paid himself his first open water diver course (CMAS) in 1998 during the first year of bachelor program. After a diving field trip with UNAM in Mahahual (Quintana Roo., Mexico) in winter 1998 he travelled to Tulum and got to know the now extinct and mythic Santa Fe camping, the coolest place Tulum had had since late 70’s. Attracted by the magic of the Maya city Tulum (called Zamá by the Maya , meaning The Dawn) beachfront Maya pyramids, he realised the beauty of this place and thus immediately decides,  to establish himself there. “Tulum trapped me since then and I came back every holiday I could.” In that same first 1998 trip, he had paid for a diving expedition in Tulum with friends but on the last day they could not do it because of bad weather, so the former Dive Aquatic Tulum diving shop took them to a Cenote dive instead. Here it happened: Olmo drank the water and fell in love with the Cenotes and turned them into his lifetime passion. It was also part of his bachelor studies and he took this passion right through the present day. Between the years 1998-2008 Olmo travelled back and forth Mexico City and Tulum. “Nature feeds you as much as you can experience if you connect  to her! It is an endless journey.” Today, at the age of 33, he is working in his own Non for profit organisation RAZONATURA, incorporated in 2007 with 9 friend partners.

How was your company founded? 

Back in 2005 my friends Kim, Adrian, Eduardo, Ismael and Eliu organised the 1st festival for the World Environment Day in the Riviera Maya. Ismael gave the name RAZONATURA to the collective that worked on that enterprise because the aim was to re-think our relationship with nature. RAZONATURA mission is sustainable development, involving social, environmental and economically viable projects. We conceived the idea of a Non-Profit Organisation some years before at the Science School at UNAM. In 2005 Kim was working on his master thesis regarding sustainable lobster fishery in Sian Ka’an and Chinchorro Caye BIosphere Reserves. While I was struggling to finalise my bachelor’s thesis on Cenotes. It was until 2007 when we incorporated the company and started its first project with these same lobster fishermen communities to develop a sustainable cooperative model of lobster harvesting. 300 families are being benefited as they organised into 6 cooperatives and one commercial unit under the CHAKAY ecolabel Brand  granted in July 2012 by The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Razonatura’s project is now a productive 5 years model effort. The MSC also carries an updated description and status page on this Sian Ka’an and Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserves spiny lobster. Funding for RAZONATURA has been granted by UN-PNUD, CONABIO (Comision Nacional par el Conocimiento y Uso de la BIodiversidad), GEF (Global Environmental Fund agency of World Bank) through Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, The Nature Conservancy, SUMMIT Foundation, World Wildlife Fund- Fundacion Carlos Slim, among others .

I earned my MSc. degree in Marine Biology and Limnology (water studies in freshwater and marine ecosystem) from 2007 to 2009 by doing science research in Cenotes with cave- divers inside the underground rivers of the Riviera Maya. In 2009 I finally moved to live in Tulum and got full time into Cenotes and water conservation projects. Along with other NGO’s were CEA (Centro Ecológico Akumal), Amigos de Sian Ka’an, CEMDA (Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental) Mexico’s Federal Water Ministry (CONAGUA) and the brand new Tulum municipality we started a long process to create  the Comité de Cuenca de Tulum (CCT) – Tulum watershed committee, with funding from The Nature Conservancy.

The CCT was finally agreed and signed with government officials July 16th 2011.

So, what are the concerns Razonatura is voicing at the CCT currently? 

Well, Razonatura in close collaboration with other NGOs follow two lines of work at CCT. We have two big issues with water pollution of the aquifer, which is the sole source of  freshwater for the Yucatan Peninsula, due to land based human activities:

  1. Non compliant (septic tanks with cracks & other forms) or clandestine untreated (raw black water, grey water) discharges at ground level directly pollute the top surface of freshwater layer in the aquifer. In Tulum a 120 L/s central treatment plant is installed and operational. What is lagging is the sewage system, that is collector pipes, suction pits and pumping stations throughout the town. Only about 11% of the urban area has sewage system and less than 50% of the households from that 11% are connected today to sewage (less than 6 L/s flow into the plant). An inventory of those direct discharges and/or old septic tanks is still not available.
  2. In relation to wastewater treatment plants there are two main issues:

a) Discharge residual water from treatment plants should meet Class I waters standard if location is in a coral reef costal area, as it is for Quintana Roo at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, in accordance to Cartagena Convention  from United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Caribbean Environment Program for Water Pollution from Land Based Sources and Activities a protocol signed by Mexico in 2010.

But the current Mexican norm NOM-001-SEMARNAT-1996, which is in effect for the whole country, establishes discharge parameters of treated residual water at the equivalent  of Cartagena Protocol Class II waters standard, a lower quality water with higher content of pollutants. The difference between Class I and Class II water is about 5 times in suspended solids & BOD5 in the latter.

Unfortunately this is the benchmark for big hotels treatment plants in Quintana Roo and it is these big hotels and restaurants hat are in turn are consuming the biggest volume of fresh water, about 86& of it all. While only 13% withdrawals are for town inhabitants domestic waste water some of which is treated in the central plant under more detailed supervision and  Class I standards.

Thus most of the injected treated water is being discharged at Class II specifications. 

Tulum Municipality fresh water withdrawals % (CONAGUA)
Tulum Municipality fresh water withdrawals % (CONAGUA)

b) The current and established practice in the Yucatan Peninsula is that the effluent or residual water from treatment plants is injected into the aquifer, which is the sole source of  freshwater to its population,  at the deep saline water layer (60 to 100 m depth). Due to the fact that  fresh water withdrawals from the aquifer are at a higher rate than replenishment itself, and that underground seawater occupies these volumes and result in our aquifer salinisation as well as some Class II treated water pollution, the practice implications are further complicated and do have an environmental impact. Injection is just accumulating an ever increasing flow of treated water, as population grows rapidly, which is supposed to remain deep while mixing and regenerating with underground saline water and other elements. It is rather, a time-bomb problem we are creating.

The current injection practice comes from the best recommendation that in the late 90’s the Japanese International Cooperation  Agency (JICA) could make to Quintana Roo as a result of prevailing conditions at the time. A lot of additional hotel rooms have been added since then.  It is nevertheless not a solution at all today, as injected treated water is less dense than underground seawater and thus floats up to the thin freshwater layer polluting it.

So there is the pressing need of changing the current legal framework to establish the best practices for the fragile conditions of Yucatan Peninsula and specially the Caribbean coast.

For places such as Tulum, an aquifer with a very delicate balance, in a coastal environment with a karstic bed rock, we need treatment and discharge to comply with Class I waters, if we are to preserve healthy coral reefs, unpolluted underground fresh water, mangroves, seagrass and the whole delicate ecosystem.

We also need to have private sector accountability and investment in a way that is proportional to their water withdrawals. The Mesoamerican Reef 2012 report card done by Healthy Reefs for Healthy People (HRI) collaborative international initiative says it clearly:

“15. Private sector should contribute significantly to the fulfilment of conservation objectives (as defined in their management plan) of the region’s MPAs through financial assistance, technical sup-port and/or human resources.

16. Governments should provide economic incentives for conservation and sustainable businesses and eliminate subsidies that compromise conservation goals.

17. Adopt voluntary “Codes of Conduct”, “Eco- labels,” and other mechanisms that reduce environmental impacts in accordance with international standards for hotels and marine recreation providers.”

Treated wastewater injection replenishment into the aquifer is a very delicate matter in our karstic coastal environment:

  • Tulum’s underground fresh water system is first of all, interconnected, so pollution of one body of water affects others. We have to take into account that  the existence of such diversity of habitats in Tulum such as its seawater, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and freshwater mangroves, as well as breeding, nursery and other protected sea areas like Sian Ka’an Reserve Cayes, makes it of utmost important that domestic and small industrial/business wastewater be treated, and even industrial pretreatment in certain cases, need to  implemented and monitored before their discharge.
  • Yucatán Peninsula karstic bed rock system and its interaction with underground fresh water and seawater systems. Yucatan Peninsula plain limestone bed rock dissolves easily in the tropical warm and humid weather of the region. Cenotes are thus formed and they happen to be the main topographic characteristic of the Peninsula. They are actually sinkholes into the underground cave system left dry during glacial geological periods and once under seawater. Today these sinkholes are doors into our only underground fresh water reserves in the Peninsula. Between 7 and 8 thousand sinkholes, specially concentrated north of an imaginary line from Tulum to Campeche, have been accounted for so far.
  • Since the karstic rock permeability of the whole region is so high and the gradient is practically non-existent, fresh water from rainfall accumulates in a thin layer (about 15m in average, in Q.Roo State) that floats on top of the deeper seawater that infiltrates from the Caribbean into deeper cave systems. Such a complex system of equilibrium is most delicate and highly vulnerable to land based pollution and activities, not to forget the interconnected coral reef in our waters, part of the second largest coral reef in the world: the Mesoamerican barrier reef system.

Observing effluent limitations for treated domestic and hotels/restaurants wastewater discharges to comply with class I waters like Tulum’s aquifer or the Yucatan Peninsula, is vital. Thus we need Mexico’s government to ratify the signed Cartagena Convention UNEP agreement as soon as possible, and reform NOM-001.SEMARNAT-1996 to accomodate Class I waters parameters,. Additionally, emphasis should be put into wastewater reutilisation. A zero injection treatment system and heavy reutilisation are the best option, but would be to costly for our region and thus are ruled out.

So, how bad is water pollution in Tulum?

In general terms, water quality in Tulum is relatively good. Some Cenotes are indeed polluted though, such as the ones inside the urban area, like the Deportivo and near the dump trucks garage. Cenotes (sinkholes) can be offshore, inland and coastal. Inland and coastal Cenotes are more exposed to pollution due to run off of the waste water.

One indicator of pollution is the colour of the water. Some crystal clear Cenotes now have green coloured opaque water, which means that this water contains an excess of nutrients that triggers algae and bacteria blooms whose chlorophyll give this green colour to water.

Establishing the source of water pollution is somehow difficult since Cenotes are interconnected by a system of underground rivers. Pollution can be local in the form of excessive tourism activity, it may be due to soil washing into it as a result of jungle depletion around the Cenote area. Even so, some Cenotes get isolated from the system due to rock bed fragmentation and collapse.

Another factor to consider in our karstic bedrock is that about 99% of rainfall water gets trapped in the pores of limestone rock itself and that it will drain very slowly towards the underground system or the sea.

Fresh water contamination is also a result of some saline water flow coming from the sea at depths of +100m or more, occupying the depleted fresh water volume by an excess water withdrawal, for example from the city of Tulum wells that provide tap water to citizens.

The system is very complex. Some even say that marine water underground flows crosses the Peninsula from a higher Caribbean sea level into a lower level Gulf of Mexico sea


Water flow and contamination potential - CINDAQ 2001.
Water flow and contamination potential – CINDAQ 2001.

Do you think the water pollution problem can still be managed? 

Yes, we are just in time to fix it. We need to conserve the water quality and quantity by changing our behaviour and bad practices.. It is our source of life – ! It is a must to provide sewage network coverage to the households while Tulum still has a population size that makes it manageable. If we do not catch up now, its exponential population growth and city area expansion will make it impossible. (See article: Can paradise be sustainable?)

What are our challenges in Tulum? 

There is a wrong development approach: For one thing, it takes population growth and urban expansion for granted, so we are hostages in our minds to something that seems inevitable and bigger than ourselves as society. I’d say No! We can have a different sustainable future. It also leads to follow the worse footprints of Cancun and Playa del Carmen regarding environmental pollution. The overexploitation of resources is also an established assumption, as well as population growth.

Citizens have to stand up for a different development. We declared this as citizens of Tulum in the 2011 Unidos por Tulum manifesto: We do not want to become another Playa del Carmen! (look at the chic Playa Mamita beach… water stinks! That is terrible).

Work is needed with real state agencies and agents that are also following this inevitable population growth model and the Playa copy mode. They sell a property just by showing a picture of a beautiful turquoise sea and white beach, which will in turn disappear as a result of indiscriminate sales. They should return some of the profit back to a conservancy fund!

Existing hotels are being grown and new ones built. They cut the mangroves which are essential to protect the coast and purify  water.   We are doing away with our own backyard!  They should invest in a conservancy fund aside from refraining to deplete the mangroves!

Laws and regulations should demand a 5-7 years rate of return from investment projects (real state, tourism, hotel related) instead of 2-3 or even less that many want to get out of their projects payback. This would get only long term investors committed with Tulum, and also provide a long breath source of funding for conservancy, out of their business profits. They will thus re-invest in their own assets to keep their value. “If you want to come to live in paradise then you have to do it right! A paradise on Earth is seldom found, when you do, you have to invest to keep it as such! It is worth it!!! Be smart and conscious, not the opposite!”

What are the solutions? 

Well, we need to consider different approaches:

1.    100% sewage system coverage or a program to catch up

“If I were the Major or Governor I would not allow a single additional construction permit in the city of Tulum, until all existing housing gets connected to the sewage system and treatment plant!” [now at 11,3% coverage]

To get this done both local and international funds will be required.

2.    Investors have to invest in Tulum’s conservation

Investors coming to Tulum and surroundings should “put money into the savings box” of conservancy, which in turn will not only benefit society but keep their assets value from eroding into nothing if Tulum freshwater and seawater get polluted.

3.    Education

Good practices need to be taught and promoted into the population and investors to take responsibility for a rational use of water.

4.    In-house water treatment and reuse –[ look into Tulum’s I’LÊ Permacultura efforts]

Wetlands and the grey and black water separation and reuse in households need to be mandatory.

5.     Modern technology dry toilets

The latest technology of dry composting toilets needs to be revised and the concept approved to cause least pollution of the environment.

6.    Rainwater collection 

Rainwater collection should be mandatory in order to reduce the amount of underground withdrawals. Mayas collected water in “aguadas” and did not necessarily utilise Cenote water.

7.   Being smart: Living here is about changing your lifestyle! 

Do you want to live in Tulum? Then you should adapt your lifestyle to it.

This is a fragile ecosystem. Do you think it is worth it? I do!

If you need to decide for just one solution, what would it be?

Stop growth and development as something you measure in just number of projects!

“Development is not about quantity, it is about quality!” We need to catch up first, then grow wisely.

But, if your project is 100% water based sustainable, you will be allowed to do it. Yet, you need to help the community by re-investing a % of the overall project cost, into a conservation city fund. If you increase the quality of life of the community, you will solve the social issues of inequality and insecurity. People can’t remain detached citizens about this!

Olmo. Thank you very much for your insight. We are looking forward to continue our conversations regarding the water cycle, freshwater withdrawals and waste water management, as well as the risks and dependencies of the system that makes this vital liquid available to its citizens and visitors and lets us continue having it in pristine conditions for our environment conservancy and our responsible tourism industry. 


Licencia de Creative Commons
Water. A life passion and the basis of life. by Juan Ayza Merino is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-SinObraDerivada 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at juan.ayza@gmail.com.

Please also find related articles:

Beach cleaning in Sian Ka’an

Can paradise be sustainable?

Tulum dumpster has no more than one year left to saturate!

The Permaculture solution: Interview with Pepe Blanco

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