Water hyacinth, from pest to green gold?

The effects of its quick reproduction are ravenous

Dead fish amid water hyacinth – Photo: José María Martínez/EL UNIVERSAL
English 11/10/2017 18:00 Berenice González Durand Mexico City Actualizada 18:00
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Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth, can double its mass in six days and cover a body of water with a green camouflage in what appears to be, from a distance, a soft meadow. The postcard may look beautiful, yet the effects of the quick reproduction of the water hyacinth are not.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) classifies the water hyacinth as a floating aquatic weed since its fast proliferation prevents the free passage of the sun and oxygen affecting the survival of animals and plants sharing their ecosystem.

The aquatic weed inhibits the growth of phytoplankton causing a decrease in zooplankton population directly affecting the food chain, and it can even be a direct cause of sedimentation and flooding in canals and dams.

Its growth is favored by hydrous sources rich in Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus,(P) and Potassium (K) and it is estimated that water hyacinth covers about 40 thousand hectares of bodies of water in Mexico. The history of this floating aquatic weed is long: once it releases its seeds in an ecosystem, it can remain in it for up to twenty years.

Researcher Ernesto Favela Torres, a specialist in microbiology at the Department of Biotechnology at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana abbreviated UAM) campus Iztapalapa has spent several decades studying this plant. Currently, this institution is the technical leader of an international project involving several academic institutions in the country to develop a series of projects that seek to transform water hyacinth into a series of products that would help the sustainable control of its population.

Favela Torres explains that the aquatic weed represents large quantities of organic matter implying a very expensive mobilization. It is estimated that removing one hectare of this plant costs about MXN$100,000.

Favela Torres points out that as there are no formal policies for its management, certain extermination strategies are carried out, but mainly in navigable water bodies or hydroelectric plants, where they simply could not continue being productive due to the aquatic weed proliferation.

"However in non-productive bodies of water, there is no control strategy and this plant deteriorates and modifies ecosystems," he emphasized.

"In the UAM these investigations formally began eight years ago, through an international call for a fund from Mexico's National Council of Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología abbreviated CONACYT) involving Mexico and other countries. We made a proposal to work along with France and Spain, because although the water hyacinth is a particular problem in tropical countries, in Europe it is considered to be a problem in the medium term.”

The purpose of these researchers is to make the aquatic weed a sustainable product. “Our proposal is to develop a strategy of sustainable management of the water hyacinth. In agriculture, fast-growing crops are hard to achieve and the aquatic weed multiplies quickly. " In this way, researchers involved in the projects have created a series of alternatives ranging from the production of fertilizers and fuels to nanoparticles based on water hyacinth analysis. 

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