Re-Greening Popocatépetl

By Hans-Günther Dymek (Volkswagen), Michael Scholing-Darby (Volkswagen)
01:45 PM, April 24, 2012

Volkswagen plants 300,000 trees around the source region of the Rio Atoyac, thereby helping to secure water supplies in the region.

Water is a scarce resource in Mexico. Even when there is enough rainfall, the huge rise in communal and industrial demand for water in many regions is leading to permanent overexploitation of groundwater deposits. To make matters worse, the quality of those reserves is at risk of being compromised through exposure to untreated wastewater, which can contaminate it. Not even the populous cities of Mexico have so far been outfitted with a sufficient number of purification plants.

The water-supply situation is particularly critical in the Puebla Tlaxcala valley, which lies nestled amidst mighty volcanoes. As significant expanses of forest have been destroyed through logging or fires, a lot of rainwater coming down to the valley does not actually seep into the ground. Even meltwater quantities have been dwindling since global warming has caused the glaciers situated along the slopes of the volcanoes to be diminished. The result is insufficient replenishment of groundwater reserves.

Through this picturesque landscape meanders the Rio Atoyac, one of the most highly polluted rivers anywhere in Latin America. Petrochemicals, detergent residues, and grease turn sections of this river into a particularly turbid-looking sludge.

With its two million inhabitants, the city of Puebla alone requires vast amounts of water. That demand is further increased by the many commercial facilities operated by international companies that have settled in this industrial region some 150 kilometres from the country's capital, Mexico City. One such industrial facility is the automobile factory run by Volkswagen de México.

The people and the economy of the region depend to a large degree on the groundwater resources available at the foot of the volcanoes and in the lowlands of the Rio Atoyac. Galleries of wells provide drinking and service water to private households and businesses. At these wells, water already has to be mined from depths of up to 130 meters. And, in many cases, these wells bring forth nothing but salty water that requires thorough treatment, even if only used for industrial purposes.

The CEO of VW de México, Otto Lindner (left), plants a tree: “Stopping erosion and water loss.”
Photo: Volkswagen
The CEO of VW de México, Otto Lindner (left), plants a tree: “Stopping erosion and water loss.”
Photo: Volkswagen

These wells often had to be closed down (including some that have served the VW plant) because the water they contain has been found to be highly polluted.

For a company like Volkswagen, which abides by a self-imposed obligation to sustainability and protection of the environment, this state of chronic water shortage was unacceptable over the long run. “All of us – the governments, civil society, and private enterprise,” insists Otto Lindner, the CEO of Volkswagen de México, “have an obligation to find ways and come to agreement on measures to arrest the destruction of our planet.”

This obligation in mind, Mexico’s No.-1 carmaker first set out to put its own house in order. The company examined all its production operations with a view to identifying areas in which water resources were being wasted unnoticed. It also installed new water treatment facilities and began making systematic use of rainwater. Most importantly, it spread the message to its workers about how valuable water is. Volkswagen educates its employees according to a global standard that applies to all production facilities worldwide. One focal point of this education is the resource-efficient use of groundwater. In addition, employees may take part in an ideas competition for improvements in environmental protection. As a bonus, realizable suggestions are awarded with a premium. Hence, there is no doubt: Environment education has become an integral part of company policy at VW de México.

These days, wastewater collected from sanitary conveniences at the plant is treated in a biological purification plant, and the wastewater generated in production is physically and chemically processed. The water-preservation scheme at the plant also comprises a procedure by which rainwater is collected in a lagoon of the Rio Atoyac. That water can then be added to the reserves of purified wastewater, which undergoes treatment in an osmosis plant and is fed back into the plant’s water recirculation loop. By redirecting wastewater back for use as service water in factory processes, Volkswagen has even managed to downscale its costs, simply because less groundwater needs to be extracted and paid for. Water footprinting plays a major role to achieve further success in this field. Volkswagen uses a water balance-sheet to monitor its water consumption. Again, the goal is recycling and multiple-shift usage of water.

VW de México does not, however, content itself with achieving sustainable water management within its own immediate sphere of responsibility. That is why the company joined forces with specialists from the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas and the Free University of Mexico City to examine the groundwater situation in the region as a whole. The cooperative analysis found that groundwater replenishment in the valley was contingent to a substantial degree on the functionality of the ecosystems on the volcanic slopes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

Facts and figures

Location 8 km from Paso de Cortés
Altitude to above 3,900 m
Surface area 300 ha
No. of trees planted 300,000 pines
No. of seepage pits 21,000
No. of retaining earth-banks 100
Length of firebreaks 20 km
Groundwater collection 1.5 million m3/a (additional)
Consumption by VW de México 1.0 million m3/a of water

It was important, therefore, to tackle the problem of water scarcity at the root, so to speak, and re-cultivate the deforested slopes between the Popo and Izta volcanoes in the source region of the Rio Atoyac. That project has been ongoing since 2008. In the first phase, 200,000 highland pines, Hartweg’s Pines (a native Mexican tree), were planted on an expanse of around three square kilometers at an altitude of up to 4,000 meters. The planting of 100,000 more trees was then completed in early September 2009. The Hartweg’s Pine is an ideal choice for several reasons.


It promotes the production of humus soil and is thus conducive to the establishment of secondary vegetation there. It prevents soil erosion, thereby stopping water from being drained away. As a consequence, an increasing amount of glacial meltwater as well as rainwater, the so-called blue water, seeps back into the ground.

To help this process along, some 21,000 pits were also dug out on the slopes and about 100 larger earth-banks were erected throughout this terrain. These installations help to retain the rainwater and facilitate water infiltration into the deeper soil layers. “We expect these measures to enable more than 1,500,000 additional cubic meters of water per annum to be fed into the ground reserves in the source region,” says VW project planner and environmental officer Raúl Rodríguez Sánchez. That is significantly more groundwater than Volkswagen de México itself consumes every year.

Over the long term, the biomass now growing there will also help to bond CO2 and to improve living conditions for the native fauna. Another positive effect of the project is that it creates jobs for the local population. Volkswagen de México earmarked $430,000 of funding for the project for the first two years and will subsequently lend its further support to maintaining and managing the re-cultivated forest expanse.

Its involvement does not stop there, however. The company has also committed itself to creating public awareness about the complex correlations that exist between the ecosystem and groundwater deposits. An agreement entered into with the Mexican Ministry of Education will see school classes visiting the forestation site, educational trails featuring information boards will be set up, and factory employees will be selected to be trained and to act as mentors for the renaturation scheme.

Volkswagen has placed all its natural-conservation and water-protection projects under the motto of “Por Amor de la Planeta” (For the Love of the Planet). It is a motto that by no means aims too high: There is no bigger private sponsor of scientific research in the field anywhere in Mexico.

This project description was originally presented in the Global Compact International Yearbook 2010.

About the Authors
Dymek, Hans-Günther

 Hans-Günther Dymek lives in Mexiko working for Volkswagen.

Scholing-Darby, Michael

 Michael Scholing-Darby is Head Political Communication at Volkswagen.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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