Once a pest, now a sustainable product

The water hyacinth grows rapidly, stopping sunlight and oxygen from flowing through the water, but this plant can be used in many different ways to help the environment

Once a pest, water hyacinth is now a sustainable product
Overgrown water hyacinths at the Valsequillo lake - Photo: Rodolfo Pérez/EL UNIVERSAL
English 19/05/2018 15:34 Berenice González Durand Mexico City Actualizada 11:03
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The plant is voracious. The Eichhornia crassipes can double its mass in only six days and quickly cover water bodies with a green camouflage that, from a distance, makes it seem like a fluffy meadow. In a postcard, it might be compelling, but the effects of the water lily’s quick reproduction are not.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) catalogs the water hyacinth as a weed, given that, through its rapid growth, it stops the sunlight and oxygen from flowing through the water, affecting the survival of other plants and animals that share their ecosystem. It inhibits the growth of phytoplankton causing a reduction in the zooplankton’s population density, thus directly affecting the food chain. It can also cause sedimentation and floods. It is estimated that the water lily covers around 98,842 acres of Mexican soil.

Dr. Ernesto Favela Torres, a specialist in microbiology and member of the Biotechnology Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Iztapalapa (UAM), has dedicated decades to the study of this plant. The institution is currently leading a project of international scale with the participation of several academic entities in the country to develop a series of plans to make water hyacinths productive and, in turn, aid the sustainable control of their populations.

The investigator explains that the water hyacinth makes up great amounts of organic matter which is very hard to transport. It is estimated that the removal of two acres of this plant can cost up to MXN$100,000. Favela Torres explains that, since there are no laws that dictate the way the plant should be handled, some elimination strategies are being implemented in productive water bodies. Hydroelectric plants and navigable places couldn’t continue to function if the water hyacinth isn’t kept under control. “However, in non-productive water bodies, there are no control strategies and this plant constantly generates problems of deterioration and modification of the ecosystems,” he states.

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Removal of water hyacinth in Xochimilco, Mexico - Photo: Isabel Mateos/CUARTOSCURO.COM

We began our investigation at the UAM eight years ago, through an international call for CONACYT funding that involved Mexico and other countries. We made a proposal in cooperation with France and Spain because, though the hyacinth is particularly problematic in tropical regions where it originated, Europeans are showing concern. They estimate that the water hyacinth will become a problem in the middle to long term.”

The objective of the research is to turn the water hyacinth into a resource. “We propose to develop a strategy for the sustainable handling of the water hyacinth so that we no longer see it as a problem, but as a product.” In so doing, and with a deeper understanding of the organic mass’ virtues, researchers involved have created a series of alternatives ranging from fertilizer and fuel production to nanoparticles.

The specialist adds that in concordance with the specific characteristics of each population of plants, their utility can be determined. The research focuses on developing strategies for the sustainable use of the hyacinth in relation to its direct environment. “This is not about making a business out of it or eliminating it completely,” he claims.

The water hyacinth has been used to make compost and stem oil spills, but it can also be used to produce ethanol.

Favela Torres talked about his work with the plant at the Biology and Water Research for Development Institute in Cuemanco (CIBAC), a place where the UAM is also participating in a project to rescue the axolotl. “In Xochimilco, our work is focused on two things: the production of biogas and compost.”

On an international scale, the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD) is participating with the Metropolitan Autonomous University. “This doesn’t involve lucrative activities. We are only interested in establishing a link with local communities and assess their needs in relation to the water bodies that surround them so that we may offer alternatives that they can implement by themselves,” says Favela Torres, specifying that this can be achieved through formative programs with different levels of technification, in accordance with the community’s possibilities and the people available to assist on the project. 

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