As It Happens

Lake in Mexico region known for Day of the Dead celebrations is disappearing

When Mexican hotelier Arturo Pimentel looks out at Lake Pátzcuaro, he sees a massive patch of dry land where sparkling water should be. 

'It is very upsetting for the people in the whole area,' says local hotelier

Dry cracked land with a mountainous island surrounded by a few metres of water on the horizon.
This screenshot from a YouTube video shows dry land where water should be surrounding the island of Janitzio in Mexico's Lake Pátzcuaro. (El Purepeche/YouTube)

When Mexican hotelier Arturo Pimentel looks out at Lake Pátzcuaro, he sees a massive patch of dry land where sparkling water should be. 

The lake in Michoacán state — which he says holds immense cultural, economic and ecological importance for the region — has been losing water for years, he said.

"But this is the worst time ever I have seen," Pimentel, president of the local hotel association, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

"It is very upsetting for the people in the whole area."

Boats docked at a marina. Along the shore is a patch of dry, cracked land. One boat is stranded in what what used to be a waterway, but is now covered in mud and grass.
Parts of Mexico's Lake Pátzcuaro have dried up, and local officials are blaming a combination of drought, deforestation and water theft. (Submitted by Arturo Pimentel )

The lake has lost about 50 per cent of its usual volume, according to CNN affiliate Televisa.

The municipal government of Pátzcuaro told the news station that a combination of "environmental factors," such as drought, and the "illicit extraction of water" is to blame. 

The Pátzcuaro government did not respond to a request for comment from CBC. 

The extent of the problem was driven home in a viral video last week, in which a YouTuber is able to walk across the lake almost to the island of Janitzio. The island is normally reachable only by boat.

"As you can see, it's all dry," the YouTuber, known as El Perepeche, says as he treks across the patched, dry land across from Janitzio.

WATCH | Aerial video of disappearing Lake Pátzcuaro:

Mexico's beloved Lake Pátzcuaro is drying up

26 days ago
Duration 1:29
Aerial drone footage, filmed on April 19, 2024, shows Mexico's Lake Pátzcuaro, huge swaths of which have been reduced to shallow, muddy waters or dry, cracked earth. (Submitted by Arturo Pimentel)

Janitzio, Pátzcuaro and other areas around the lake are known for their elaborate Day of the Dead celebrations, which are a huge tourist draw.

"We have visitors from all over the world and this is the most important thing that happens in this area," Pimentel said.

"The lake is very important because it is also the fountain of so many stories, so many legends, history. It's a fountain of life. And we're losing that part of this area."

He's hoping the rainy season will replenish the lake before the Day of the Dead in November. 

"As business people here, we have to develop some different tourism attractions and have other options," he said.

Nearly a dozen heavily armed and armoured police officers stand around the edge of a patchy lake.
Police stationed around Mexico's Lake Pátzcuaro to guard against water theft. (Submitted by Arturo Pimentel)

It's not the only lake that's losing water in the country that has been facing severe drought.

In Valle de Bravo, once a glittering weekend getaway for wealthy residents of Mexico City, a reservoir that locals depend on is disappearing, The Associated Press reported last month.

In that case, residents blame a combination of drought, water transfers to the capital, bad planning and the unrestrained construction of private dams and holding ponds by wealthy and powerful newcomers.

 A woman lights a candle surrounded by flowers at night.
A woman lights a candle during the Day of the Dead in the Purepecha Indigenous community of Janitzio in 2022. (Mario Armas/AFP/Getty Images)

In Pátzcuaro, Pimentel says deforestation is also a major contributor to the drying lake, as people cut down trees to make way for avocado groves, disrupting the natural water cycles.

"The avocado has become like a plague in the area," he said.

He is calling on his government to take action. While he has seen police stationed around the lake to curb water theft, he says that's not enough. 

"We are in election time. Everybody's in campaign, and they are talking about the issue and lots of 'blah, blah, blah,' but no action yet. So we need the people that are in charge now [to] get to work," he said 

"I think this is a matter of survival right now, because it is not only a tourism matter, but what we will leave to the next [generation] in this area."

With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Arturo Pimentel produced by Philip Drost

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