Dead Lakes, Dying Seas

In my last post we discussed Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, specifically the chinampas, or floating gardens, used to feed the population. Tenochtitlan was situated on an islet in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the largest of five lakes. The surrounding four lakes, Zumpango, Xaltoca, Xochimilco, and Chalco, combined with it to cover about 580sq. miles of the valley floor. The four lakes in the Valley of Mexico are now considered extinct with only small remnants to be found. What remains of Lake Texcoco rests about 2.5 miles outside of Mexico City. It is surrounded by salt marshes and its waters are evaporated to access the salts found in high concentrations.

The Aztecs were a hydraulic society. They depended upon these lakes and surrounding mountain spring water for their basic needs such as bathing, cleaning, agriculture, and transportation.  When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan, the leaders ordered the waterways and structures destroyed. When Mexico City was rebuilt in its place, these structures were not restored. Flooding was a common problem. One flood submersed most of the city for five years. The Spaniards began draining the lake by channels and a tunnel connected to the Pánuco River. Yet, the flooding continued until a deep (98-820 ft.) drainage system was installed in 1967. The city fills the lake basin and most of it exists under the phreatic level. The soft, saturated clay base Mexico City is resting on is collapsing due to that extraction and the continued seismic activity that is frequent in the area. This leads to a circular problem. The extraction of ground water causes the city to sink. The sinking has created runoff problems, waste management issues, and flooding.

Pollution, waste management, and drinking water scarcity are issues the city must deal with. You can read more about this here. The lakes are no longer in proximity to the city to support its population. There are other ecological consequences involved with the extinction of the lakes. Species that were indigenous to these lakes also became extinct or are endangered. Some parts of the valley are now semi-arid while Mexico City remains subtropical. “In recent years, architects Teodoro González De León and Alberto Kalach, along with a group of Mexican urbanists, engineers and biologists, have developed the project plan for Recovering the City of Lakes. The project, if approved by the government, will contribute to the supply of water from natural sources to the Valley of Mexico, the creation of new natural spaces, a great improvement in air quality, and greater population establishment planning.” (Wikipedia)

Abandoned Ship on the Aral Sea

Two abandoned ships in the former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan. - Photo by P. Christopher Staecker


This is not an isolated incident. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once considered one of the four largest lakes in the world. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted the two rivers that fed the sea, and it has been shrinking since. I came across this disaster after I concluded my research on Mexico City, and the parallels were not immediately apparent to me. Both areas suffered major repercussions as a result of the depleted bodies of water. The Wikipedia link above discusses the history behind the situation and the ecological/economic impact it has had on the inhabitants of the area. The article I had been reading at the time I first encountered this story featured someone’s travel journal and tons of photos of ships listing to the side or wedged flat into the bottom of some dead sea. It looked more like a desert. You can see some similar photos at Artificial Owl.  I thought of Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl during their adventures in the sand at Davy Jones’ Locker.  

I encourage you to read more about both situations and the long-term effects. These were not natural disasters. The situations were caused by humans and their political agendas. The consequences have been severe for these regions. Have you come across this in your reading? This is fodder for your imaginations. Does it spark a story idea or two?

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