Water Shortages in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

It’s never really a good time of year for water in Oaxaca, even though during the rainy season the heavens certainly do open up. The summertime rains are just a teaser, intent upon making us forget what’s in store for the balance of the year and until the following May or June – severe and worsening water shortages in most of the state of Oaxaca.

Only a decade ago we could count on the rains beginning in earnest during April or May, reaching a peak in July and August, and tapering off in September; now it’s much more unpredictable and irregular. Farmers no longer know when to plant. They are continually worried about having to harvest crops with stunted growth on the one hand, and on the other losing their yields entirely, as a result of the destructive forces caused by flash torrential downpours. Concerns over water shortages in Oaxaca for both crops and human consumption become increasingly dire with each passing year.

According to Olegario Silva Gaspar, president of the Consejo de Vinculación del Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Acatlán de Osorio, as a result of climate change Oaxaca’s Mixteca region is undergoing a process of desertification. During the 2011 – 2012 growing season, 300 millimeters of rain fell, whereas the average level of precipitation for the area had been 750 millimeters. In an attempt to combat the problem the Museo de Agua located just north of the Oaxaca – Puebla border, with the assistance of private enterprise, has been working with rural families in an effort to stimulate the production of amaranth, the nutritional, high protein food which thrives in desolate areas receiving little moisture.

The Centro de Demonstración Tecnológica Alternativas para el Desarrollo Rural Sustenable confirms that urban areas are also being affected, hardly earthshattering news for those of us living in Oaxaca City.

The increasing presence of water delivery trucks known as pipas, both in downtown Oaxaca and in suburbs which had traditionally been flush with water year round (i.e. San Felipe del Agua) evidences the problem. Pipas carrying between 1,100 and 20,000 liters of water wend their way through the streets with increasing frequency as underground streams, wells and reserves begin to dry up towards the end of each year. The sides of the trucks read agua para uso humano. This is tap water, not for drinking despite the somewhat misleading verbage.

A municipal water delivery system does exist, the liquid of life arriving into businesses and households through a system of underground pipes, “filling” both cisterns and those round black rooftop receptacles known as tinacos.

But downtown restaurants and hotels now require water delivery by pipas all year round, of course more often during the dry season. It´s common practice for hotel management to post signs asking guests to be water conscious (“when it’s yellow let it mellow …”), and be understanding when it comes to towels and sheets not being changed daily.

Water costs; much more so for those without large cisterns or none at all. The fortunate residents of Oaxaca have large cisterns as well as a tinaco on the roof. When a pipa is required, one phones to order the size required, and within a day it arrives, pumping water into the cistern. Usually a motor is used to then pump the water into the tinaco, then gravity keeps the taps flowing. Some Oaxacans have a hydroneumatic system, pumping water directly from the cistern through the pipes in the home or business.

The most serious problem arises for those with only a tinaco, or a very small cistern plus tinaco. Water truck owners do pay the national water commission a fee for the right to access water from the mountains and where there is otherwise a year round abundance of available water such as in deep wells. However, the main cost of water is in its delivery, that is paying the pipa driver and the costs associated with the truck (financing, repairs and maintenance). Thus, a homeowner with only an 1,100 liter tinaco pays much more for his water, per liter, than his counterpart with a 15,000 liter cistern. The smaller pipa has effectively the same driver and truck maintenance costs as the larger one. A delivery of 10,000 liters may cost 600 pesos, while a delivery of 2,500 liters costs upwards of a lofty 350 pesos.

It’s a well-known fact that during the dry season, when municipal water arrives on an infrequent and irregular basis, Oaxacans of modest means often go days without water because they cannot afford pipas; this is especially so during the height of the driest part of the year, when one never knows when municipal water will arrive, or for how long it will flow into cisterns and tinacos.

When the dry season is in full swing municipal water is often literally beige. It’s been stated that 85% of the underground pipes in the city of Oaxaca are cracked or broken. Thus, when paltry sums of water struggle to get through the system, the water dredges up dirt and earth, much of which goes through even a two filter system of purification. Accordingly, some residents go as far the pipas.

But for those Oaxacans of modest means, there is little if any choice but to accept the water that arrives, when it arrives. These are the same Oaxacans who are forced to drink this water, at times neglecting to first boil it, and thus succumb to fatal attacks of dysentery.

Not to worry visiting Alvin Starkman´s Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) during the dry season. In addition to using the municipal water system, the Starkmans have dug a deep well, thus providing an abundance of clean, fresh water year round. Alvin offers touring advice to visitors to Oaxaca wanting to visit the village sights. His passion is mezcal (http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com) and providing mezcal tours to quaint distilleries off the beaten path.

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