Up a River without Water

Sallie Latch
Cliff DuRand
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Local San Miguel officials and civic leaders returned from the week-long World Water Forum held in Mexico City to report on what they learned there and inform sanmiguelensians about our water issues here. The March 25 forum was attended by about 35 residents who were presented with reassuring information about the quality of water in the city, warnings of problems in the campo, and homey advice such as to drink and cook with purified water and “when you brush your teeth, don’t swallow so as to avoid taking in the fluorides that might be present.”

But there was no attention to the larger, long-term problem of a vanishing aquifer amidst burgeoning development and wasteful agricultural irrigation. Although Mexico has an Integrated Water Resource Management Plan on the national level, it has not been implemented and “it is difficult to scale it to local needs and is complicated because of our particular watershed and regional objectives,” said Mark Hill of Ecosystems Sciences Foundation. “We are in this by ourselves. There is NO grand fund for San Miguel de Allende. Therefore it is very important that we share what resources we do have and work together,” Hill concluded.

Much of the discussion focused on regional cooperative efforts using such existing resources. This came in the form of a report of a water testing study that had been carried out by Ecosystem Sciences Foundation(ESF) with the cooperation of the city government, SAPASMA, and the University of San Luis Potosi . Conducted over a five month period that tested water from wells, ponds and other sources throughout the San Miguel Municipality, the study found no dangerous levels of arsenic in our water supply (although unsafe high levels were found in eight communities in mountainous areas). Also, it found no coliform in SMA water, although it is present in some other communities. Nor was any e-Coli detected.

That was the good news. However, of the wells tested, there was no purification treatment for 65% of them. And of the sites that did have purification systems, 21% were not functioning, according to David Varner of Ecosystems Sciences. Further, 19% of the water is distributed in barrels or buckets rather than through pipes, making it vulnerable to contamination.

The greatest concern seemed to be with the high fluoride levels found in eight communities. Twenty of 101 samples tested had fluoride levels above the human safe level of l.5 mg/ L, with some way over 4.0. Children are most at risk where there is this high level of fluoride in the drinking water. Professor Deogracias of the University of San Luis Potosi pointed out that in the U.S. a fluoride level of .6 mg/L is considered the safe maximum level, rather than the Mexican standard of 1.5 mg/L.

Derek Risso, also of Ecosystems, pointed to the need for popular education about the dangers some communities are exposed to. Because these are related to the drawing of water from ever deeper into the aquifer, he recommended greater use of rainwater harvesting techniques. However, he emphasized that the watershed issue is the main problem needing urgent attention and noted that water is running off lands, causing erosion, and rapidly depleting the aquifers.

The information gleaned from this water testing study is of obvious value to sanmiguelensians. Don Anderson pointed out that this is the first time such testing has been done in 36 years. Frequent follow up testing is called for.

The people of San Miguel will also be happy to learn that, according to the Director of SAPASMA, 95 % of all sewage from the city is now being treated rather than ending up in the lake. He also informed us that Congress has passed a law requiring golf courses to use only recycled water rather than potable water. The law goes into effect in August.

In spite of that, it was evident to the panel members who had just returned from the World Water Forum that Mexico was giving less attention to its water problems than in Africa. There was agreement that this country was giving insufficient attention at the national level to its water problems and that consequently San Miguel de Allende and the region are mostly on their own in resolving the problem.

Perhaps that is why, as informative as the panel was, many in the audience were disappointed with the lack of discussion regarding such other critical issues as growth and development in our municipality and region. They wondered, will there really be no construction limits? Is there no need for them? If our water supply is in danger now, what will our future look like if growth is unchecked. Could it be true that “profit is more important than life?” What about the vast agribusiness projects in the state? Should they really be producing for export rather than food self-sufficiency at home? Or is it only the small farmers growing broccoli that are causing problems? Further, is it enough to know that recycled water, rather than potable water, is going to the golf club? Shouldn’t we be asking, how is the decision made regarding who gets recycled water? More important, what is the policy regarding the distribution of all water?

Then there is the question of privatization of water, a hot issue at the World Water Forum. Are there other ways to make it available to people, ways that make it accessible to everyone irrespective of ability to pay. As water becomes scarcer, it’s value and price can be expected to increase. Will profit come before people? Or will a more just solution be found? Or, is it really true, as one speaker claimed, that “people in the rural areas prefer to spend their money on beer and sodas. They have to have their consciousness raised,” he suggested.

Consciousness raising is a good idea, but it is needed among city folks as well. Robin Luxmoore of the Audubon Society pointed out that Mexico’s lack of interest in the water issue “is aggravated by the fact that very few people venture out of their city environments and go to the campo to see how serious the problem really is.” It is the poor, indigenous communities in the campo who worry most about the environment. Their survival depends on it. “Their needs are in great contrast to those that occupy our attention here in the city,” said the Director of the Environment and Ecology, Gerardo Arteaga. He concluded by saying, “in order to make improvements in the lives of these people, it is necessary to promote their involvement in any proposed programs. It is especially important to include the women because their lives and role are closely tied to water.”

This writer went away with the feeling that it’s up to city folks and rural people to join together to find just solutions to the water problem. Hopefully, more public conferences like this one will be held to enlighten us and involve us in finding solutions that benefit everyone.