Tehuacán Valley, Mexico Remains Resilient as Nation Faces Worst Water Crisis in Decades

Severe water scarcity is a daily reality for many in Mexico, particularly the people of Tehuacán Valley. Facing a dwindling supply compounded by development, drought, and pollution one organization models a solution.

A boy steps gingerly through the mud after scooping water to use for bathing at his home in a nearby village. Photo © Brent Stirton / Getty Images Reportage for Circle of Blue

By Andrew Maddocks, Circle of Blue

There’s no water distribution infrastructure in Mexico’s San Marcos Tlacoylaco, and clean freshwater has been scarce as well as prohibitively expensive to buy for decades. But help is on its way to San Marcos, a town of about 10,000 people in the upper Tehuacán Valley, because new rainwater storage tanks and sewage-recycling systems in individual homes are making water more accessible to families.

A Mexican non-profit group, Alternativas, is at the source of this economic and social change in San Marcos. Alternativas has developed a two-pronged approach aimed at residences and farms that involves water management systems for residences coupled with a campaign to replace corn with amaranth as a staple crop. This ecologically-based water conservation model, tested in San Marcos and 200 other towns, is seen as a potential strategy for solving the uncertain future for all of Tehuacán Valley’s increasingly troubled water supply.

Indeed, a prolonged drought last year that damaged the nation has made water scarcity in Tehuacán worse. The already limited supply has also been compromised by population growth, funding shortages and pollution. More people than ever—from every class and background—have lost access to clean water for days at a time. Facets of Mexico’s economy have been severely damaged as its deepest aquifers have been drained.

Four years ago, Circle of Blue produced Divining Destiny, which captured the social, political and economic consequences of contaminated water resources in southeast Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley.

People have moved to cities and now travel along the highways in the valley to look for employment, only to be told they won’t even find water. The water table has dropped so low that no new well permits are available. Swelling urban populations have placed further strain on cities already lacking financial resources.

Tehuacán City—as well as all other cities in Mexico with populations of 50,000 people or more—was required by law to open its first water-treatment plant by 2005. But the plant was too costly to finish, according to Raúl Hernández Garciadiego, director general of Alternativas, the Tehuacán-based NGO that develops and implements sustainable living practices. Now the city, which has a population of 300,000, is throwing out wastewater that contaminates downstream rather than cleaning and re-using it.

Alternativas discovered contamination across wide swaths of the valley as the organization looked for a location for their new, larger amaranth factory. Amaranth production is one part of the NGO’s water conservation plan.

Since indigenous peoples in the Tehuacán Valley domesticated corn for the first time in the history of mankind between 5000 and 3400 B.C., maize has become the world’s food staple. But corn requires heavy water use. Amaranth, on the other hand, uses less water and has better nutritional value.

The dusty village life near San Marcos Tlacoyalco.

The dusty village life near San Marcos Tlacoyalco. Photo © Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Circle of Blue

Sixteen years ago Alternativas began a growing cooperative called Quali, or quality, to support amaranth production. As a result job opportunities expanded and malnutrition rates in communities decreased due to amaranth. With yields booming, Quali started to look to build a new, larger factory in 2008. Their search began in the northern part of the Tehuacán Valley, near San Marcos.

But biological waste from industrial chicken farms and chemical pollutants from fabric treatment plants, known as maquiladoras, had contaminated huge areas. Quali members tested every factory site before construction, and found that most were heavily contaminated.

The group decided to move its new factory down the valley, and began construction on the new facility in 2009.

Last summer, as the drought cut off critical rainfall in the region and across much of the country, Quali farmers lost 50 percent of their crop. It’s a dramatic loss that Garciadiego still marks as a success, since other farmers in Mexico without irrigation lost 100 percent of their yield.

Despite the recent drought and long-time pollution, Quali’s annual amaranth yields have increased by an average 35 percent, Garciadiego said.

But while Quali members could pick an alternative site for their factory, residents in polluted areas of the valley cannot move so easily. After years of living with the contamination, residents have suffered health problems.

Cervical and breast cancer incidence rates are higher in the Tehuacán Valley than most of Mexico. A February 2009 newspaper report in La Jornada de Oriente stated that in the Tehuacán county four to five new cases of cancer discovered every week in public health clinics.

Water contaminants and particulate matter in the air are to blame, according to Garciadiego. At times the activist has felt powerless to help. But he found strength in community leaders, like Francisca Rosa Valencia who was a San Marcos native.

Valencia was a tireless community organizer who pioneered water management and amaranth expansion in the valley for 20 years. In 2007 she fell ill with cervical cancer, dying from the disease just three months later.
Losing her was a huge blow to the area’s ecological movement.

“We didn’t understand the Lord’s decision to invite her to the sky,” Garciadiego said. “Some of our friends said that perhaps she deserved to see the fruits of her work from a special place. It was a very hard shock for each one of us when she passed away.”

Despite the loss, Valencia left behind a legacy of exceptional hard work, water conservation and amaranth expansion that Garciadiego and Alternativas hope to continue.

In the two years since Valencia died, Alternativas has not only expanded its amaranth production, but also developed parallel waterworks throughout much of southern Mexico’s Mixteca Popoloca region.

The organization has served more than 200,000 residents in over 200 villages and built 7,500 water works of different sizes as of December.

“Nowadays people can fulfill the family household need, farm small plots nearby and water their animals, mainly goats,” Garciadiego said.

People’s crops are healthy and their goats have water dripping down their chins because of Alternativas’ water management system. Their system installs rainwater storage tanks and sewage-recycling systems in every home possible.

The tank saves enough water during the wet season to sustain each family through the dry season. A biodigester anchors the sewage recycling system that processes family waste and then connects to small garden that acts as a filtering area. Whatever families grow absorbs nutrients from the fertilized ground.

Industrial chicken farms dot the landscape of the Tehuacan Valley.

Industrial chicken farms dot the landscape of the Tehuacan Valley. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

With the rainwater tanks and biodigesters, Garciadiego said, families have a self-sufficient water supply that costs only as much as the initial equipment installation.

For centuries townspeople walked vast distances from their squat cinderblock and adobe homes to find water. Recently they’ve depended on erratic pumping from wells, or lost a high percentage of their income buying water in large tanks brought to them on trucks. Now they have a convenient, in-home alternative.

Alternativas’ model also eliminates the need for reservoirs, piping, sewers and treatment plants—all impossibly expensive, logistical nightmares in these rural towns.

“The hydrological approach, drilling, piping, pumping and delivering sewage to water treatment, is so costly that in majority of cases this model of water management is not possible to be set in place,” Garciadiego said.

Garciadiego hits the ‘p’s’ of pumping and piping with such rhythmic disdain he might as well be describing pipes made of gold—the concept is that impractical.

Garciadiego believes his organization’s work in the Mixteca Popoloca region is only the first stage in spreading the ecologically based model to improve water availability, agricultural success and livelihoods across the valley. Alternativas’ model is a new paradigm for water-starved, impoverished areas across Mexico, he said.

Even with the world’s tenth-largest economy, Mexico does not have the resources to implement Western-style water infrastructure, he said.

“If we use a sound, ecological approach to management, to household water use, to drip irrigation and water treatment at house level with nothing but initial construction cost,” Garciadiego said, “it will be an ecologically sustainable future for water management.”

Alternativas’ solution could be part of a comprehensive water management plan Mexico is trying to piece together amongst regions with different economic and geographic environments.

But the national water commission of Mexico, CONAUGA, hasn’t fully embraced Alternativas’ plan. Garciadiego said there is a lack of government understanding, as well as a business imperative to expand Mexico’s traditional infrastructure of reservoirs, pipes and treatment plants.

Juan Bezaury, Mexico representative for The Nature Conservancy, said that while Alternativas’ model works in poorer isolated areas, Mexico needs piping and infrastructure in major urban centers.

The civil, but somewhat disconnected, relationship between Alternativas and CONAGUA exemplifies the problem Bezaury sees with water management planning in Mexico—it’s full of multiple disconnected organizations.

“We’re still falling far behind. There’s not even an integrated plan to tackle the issue. We have a supply that’s failing, and no clear track to restore the problem.”

-Juan Bezaury

“We’re still falling far behind,” Bezaury said. “There’s not even an integrated plan to tackle the issue. We have a supply that’s failing, and no clear track to restore the problem.”

But the track remains clear in Garciadiego’s mind, at least at the local level. He’s taking his message about a sustainable model that will work across Mexico to foundations and civil organizations this month.

In November the world’s attention will turn to Mexico in anticipation of the United Nations climate change summit, the first after Copenhagen’s 2009 meeting. As the climate changes droughts will likely become worse, Garciadiego said, and he wants to focus on how increasingly severe water scarcity will affect people. Especially the poor.

Garciadiego wants to attract some of that international attention towards Alternativas’ model, and bolster ongoing water supply restoration efforts in Tehuacán and beyond.

To Bezaury, Mexico’s water future depends on a unified strategy across the government, non-profit and business worlds the response to Mexico’s water challenges. It must focus on technical demands rather than political gain, in a sector known for corruption and inefficiency.

“We have a supply that’s failing, and no clear track to restore the problem,” Bezaury said. “Moving into elections time I’m not sure what [will] happen.”

Click here to see Circle of Blue’s package Divining Destiny, and here to read public opinion in Mexico on fresh water issues in our WaterViews report.

Divining Destiny in the Tehuacán Valley

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