A bottled-water company tapped an ancient aquifer that thousands of people and businesses share. Then came the protests.
On May 29, 2021, a boom reverberated through Santa María Zacatepec, a small town near the city of Puebla, in central Mexico. At first, the sound might have been mistaken for one of the earthquakes or small volcanic eruptions that are common in the area. Then some local children told their mother that a strange hole had appeared in the farmland behind their house. When civil-protection officers arrived the next morning, the hole was about thirty feet wide, or the length of two cars parked bumper to bumper. Police cordoned off the area, but pieces of earth kept falling in.
In the weeks that followed, the sinkhole filled with muddy water and appeared to ingest the land around it. The residents of the house, which was soon perched on a cliff, had to move out. Dogs fell in and firemen rescued them; journalists showed up from far and wide. Tourists took selfies and paid five pesos to visit a hilltop viewing station that some locals had set up. They shopped for snacks, alcohol, and bottled water at a market that popped up around the sinkhole. The opening, which was almost perfectly circular, grew to more than four hundred feet wide, or longer than a football field, and a hundred and forty-six feet deep.
Santa María Zacatepec sits on top of the Puebla Valley aquifer, an underground basin that began forming more than two hundred and fifty million years ago. At seven hundred and eighty square miles, it is small in comparison to Mexico’s largest aquifers, but it is constantly refilled by rainfall that flows down from the surrounding volcanoes. Tens of billions of gallons of water are extracted from it each year. A few weeks after the sinkhole formed, conagua—the Comisión Nacional del Agua, or National Water Commission, tasked with managing Mexico’s national water resources—issued a statement blaming it on natural causes. “No evidence exists that the cause of the sinkhole has been the overextraction of the aquifer,” the agency said. But, soon after, a scientific report, which was cited by the state government of Puebla, came to a different conclusion. It connected the sinkhole, in part, to the “intense subterranean water usage observed over the last fifteen years in the zone of Santa María Zacatepec.” (The report bore the logo of the National Polytechnic Institute, though the institute later claimed that it had not sanctioned the study.)
Twenty-three thousand people live in the rural municipality that surrounds Santa María Zacatepec, and, because many of them have no access to centralized tap water, they rely on shallow wells. But in recent years many businesses have tapped into the aquifer, from farms to pharmaceutical firms and textile factories. Extraction of the aquifer is regulated by conagua, but, as the water is siphoned off for more and more uses, residents told me that they have needed to dig deeper.
One company in particular has become the target of a protest movement: Bonafont, a subsidiary of the Danone group that operates several water-bottling plants in Mexico, including one near Santa María Zacatepec. For years, Pueblos Unidos, a local alliance of water-rights activists whose name translates to United Peoples, has been protesting companies that tap into the aquifer. The activists point out that some residents, facing dry wells, now have little choice but to buy their own community’s drinking water from corporations. In March, 2021, they organized a demonstration that shut down Bonafont’s local plant. And when the sinkhole opened, two months later and only a mile away, they wondered whether they had another reason to protest.
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