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Caminos de Agua Guanajuato – Mexico News Daily

In Mexico, water scarcity is increasing at an alarming rate. In the year 2000, 58% of Mexican municipalities had access to public water sources daily and only 2% had access only one to two days a week. By 2022, according to an in-depth investigation by the newspaper El Pais, the percentage of municipalities with daily access to water had fallen dramatically to 33%, while the percentage of municipalities with daily access to water had increased almost tenfold to 19%. The remaining 48% had access 3 to 5 days a week. More recent data are not available, but it appears the trend is accelerating.

The situation in the state of Guanajuato is particularly dire. The only state with a higher water stress index is Baja California Sur. In Guanajuato, 65% of the state’s aquifers are overexploited, with groundwater levels dropping 1 to 3 meters per year. For example, in the Upper Rio Laja basin, where 740,000 people live, in the 1960s residents only had to go down 5 to 50 meters to drill wells. In the 1980s, the population of the river basin was already extracting groundwater. Since then, the groundwater level has dropped hundreds of meters, requiring the current wells to be dug up to 500 meters deep.

Caminos de AguaCaminos de Agua
With an inclusive coalition of grassroots organizations, community leaders, university scientists, engineers, foundations and governments, Caminos de Agua is making a major impact on the lives of citizens most affected by the water crisis in Guanajuato and across Mexico. Dylan Terrell, founder and executive director, center. Casilda Barajas, Director of Social Outreach, second from right.

Furthermore, in Guanajuato, according to the State Water Commission, 84% of extracted groundwater goes to agriculture, especially alfalfa, a water-intensive crop used to feed livestock.

Water scarcity leads to an even bigger problem: arsenic and fluoride contamination

Because wells now have to be dug to such extreme depths, we have access to ‘fossil water’ that has been deep in the ground for tens of thousands of years, absorbing minerals and metals from volcanic rock. Some, like calcium and magnesium, are useful, but some are absolutely not: arsenic and fluoride. 61% of all wells tested by Caminos de Agua in the Rio Laja basin showed excessive levels of arsenic and/or fluoride. Arsenic levels up to 23 times the permitted limit were detected.

Across Mexico, 21 million people are exposed to excessive amounts of arsenic and/or fluoride in their drinking water, as are 200 to 300 million people worldwide. The health consequences of excessive fluoride include irreversible dental fluorosis, in which teeth turn brown and eventually crumble; crippling skeletal fluorosis, which is the weakening and deformation of bones; and cognitive developmental and learning disabilities in children.

Arsenic causes skin cancer, gallbladder cancer and possibly other cancers, as well as skin lesions, cognitive development delays and kidney disease. Mexico has a higher rate of kidney disease than almost anywhere else in the world.

How to remove arsenic and fluoride from drinking water?

Removing arsenic and fluoride, along with other chemicals such as pesticides and nitrates, from livestock farm runoff is very difficult to do. Boiling water only concentrates the chemicals, and none of the common water filters, which are effective against pathogens, remove these chemicals.

That’s why Caminos de Agua, a small but impressively impactful nonprofit organization in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, has provided a wide range of resources to address the problem of arsenic and fluoride contamination. The team began monitoring water quality at 600 locations in the Upper Rio Laja watershed. When they discovered widespread contamination, they turned to installing rainwater collection systems on the roofs of homes and schools to collect and store water that is inherently free of harmful chemicals, along with inexpensive ceramic filters to remove pathogens . Working with other water organizations across Mexico, they have impacted 45,000 people in this way.

Non-profit workers repair the water supplyNon-profit workers repair the water supply
Caminos de Agua works with community members to build rainwater harvesting systems, such as this one in Puerto de Matancillas.

They then spent six years developing a community-scale groundwater treatment system specifically designed to remove arsenic and fluoride and that can also be adapted for many other contaminants. Now, for the same cost as two rainwater harvesting systems for two families, they can install a groundwater treatment system for fifty families. The design can be scaled for thousands of people. The systems are made from locally available materials, designed for easy maintenance and proven in real conditions. In 2021, they installed their pilot system in the rural village of Los Ricos.

“The most important aspect of the system is not technical; it is human,” said Dylan Terrell, executive director and founder of Caminos de Agua. “This system is now owned and operated entirely by a group of local women who initially came together because they were concerned about the health of their children. Today, they are responsible for the first source of clean drinking water for their entire community.”

The women learned how to independently monitor the system, fix leaks and troubleshoot problems. They monitor water quality and receive payments, making the system operational and economically sustainable over time. Each family in the community pays a nominal amount of 50 pesos per month.

“Building the system took time and we built it together with community members, which is good because technology alone is not a solution,” said Terrell. “If we want to solve these increasingly complex problems around water and other environmental challenges, we need to create this kind of marriage between technology and humanity. We do this by designing technologies with the active involvement of the people most affected by the problems. This is how we create sustainable solutions.”

“The two principles that guide our work in local communities are co-responsibility and respect,” emphasizes Casilda Barajas, Director of Social Outreach. “Truly collaborative community partnerships may take longer to build, but they create the best path to sustainability.”

Caminos de Agua staff and community volunteers are installing a rainwater harvesting system in La Carbonera.

Caminos de Agua recently brought online a second, larger groundwater treatment system in the community of Alonso Yáñez in March 2024, serving 270 families or approximately 1,500 people. They also launched a groundbreaking public health study in Alonso Yáñez, in collaboration with researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, Columbia University and the University of Colorado. The researchers measured biomarkers for kidney damage in children who were exposed to fluoride levels more than five times higher than the permitted limit. They will then assess the changes in the children’s health after drinking clean water with the contaminants removed.

“Our vision is to have ten groundwater treatment units operational within the next five years, each owned and operated by the community. In doing so, we demonstrate a scalable, autonomous solution to a critical global water quality problem, and create both a technical and social blueprint to address these issues. challenges in underserved communities throughout Mexico and beyond,” Terrell explains.

This year, Caminos de Agua will also continue to scale up their installation of rainwater harvesting systems. “We plan to build as many as 350 large-scale rainwater harvesting systems by 2024, complete with associated filtration.”

Caminos de Agua installed their first community-scale groundwater treatment system in Los Ricos, a small rural village with high levels of arsenic and fluoride contamination in the groundwater. Here, Caminos de Agua employees join community representatives in the town of Alonso Yáñez for their second such system.

Terrell emphasizes that while the organization is having an impressive impact, much more work is needed by many actors to address the problem of pollution and overall water scarcity. Many people have urged the national government to pass laws to defragment water management in the country and better regulate water concessions to fulfill the human right to water enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. Furthermore, Terrell and other activists argue that agricultural producers should finally start paying for the water they use, which will incentivize them to adopt less water-intensive methods, leaving more water for direct human consumption.

In addition, massive investments in water infrastructure are needed throughout Mexico. Currently, as much as 40 percent of public water is lost due to leaks. Due to underinvestment in water infrastructure over the past half century, 57% of Mexico’s population still does not have access to safely managed drinking water, an shameful fact in a country with an economy as large as Mexico’s. That percentage is comparable to some of the world’s least developed countries. As a result, Mexico is the world’s largest consumer of bottled water per capita.

Water schools: finding a way forward

Educational efforts, including technical workshops and community building initiatives, are an important part of Caminos de Agua’s work. This year, the organization is launching a three-year “Water School” initiative. Twenty instructors will train thirty young community organizers from across the Upper Rio Laja River Basin in watershed management, rainwater harvesting and filtration technologies, reforestation, composting toilets, community-scale retention ponds and more.

“Through these efforts, we want to foster a new cohort of community leaders who are committed to securing our local resources into the future,” Barajas said.

To learn more about the water crisis and Caminos’ innovative programs, visit Agua www.caminosdeagua.org.

Ann Marie Jackson, based in San Miguel de Allende, is a writer and NGO leader who previously worked for the U.S. Department of State. Her award-winning novel “The Broken Hummingbird,” set in San Miguel de Allende, was released in October 2023. Ann Marie can be reached through her website, annmariejacksonauthor.com.