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The United Nations General Assembly voted Wednesday, July 28 to declare that access to safe water and sanitation services is a human right.

122 member states voted for the resolution, which was introduced by Bolivia and backed by groups such as Food and Water Watch, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Blue Planet Project.  No UN members voted against the resolution, but 41 – including the USA and Canada – abstained.

I read about it in a Reuters dispatch published in a Oaxaca newspaper.  If you didn’t find it in your local paper, you can read an article from the Inter Press Service.

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Four years ago the farmers of San Antonino, a village in the Oaxaca Valley, didn’t have enough water to irrigate their crops. The wells weren’t dry, but after pumping for 15 minutes or so they’d have to stop and wait for the well to recharge. As rich in communal spirit as they are lacking in cash, the farmers came up with a plan: a series of new wells to capture rainwater and runoff from their fields to recharge the aquifer. They built 60 of them, and once they proved successful, the municipal government built 60 more. The wells, 25 or 30 meters deep, are lined with concrete and also filled with rocks and sand to filter the water. Now, they have sufficient, clean San Antonino 2010 07 14 san antonino 005water year-round to irrigate their radishes, flowers, squash, lettuce, beets, and herbs. They also have a model that attracts farmers from nearby towns and grad students from Mexico City.

That doesn’t entirely solve their water problems, explained leaders of the Committee for the Defense of Water. The federal water agency, CONAGUA, is trying to impose a permitting system that would force farmers to register their wells and pay the government to use their own water. Their village still lacks a reliable water supply for their homes. Deforestation and climate change have produced serious droughts. And a Canadian company has been given permission to mine near  by mountains for gold and silver, a process which is sure to use up copious amounts of water and leach toxic chemicals back into the environment.

The Committee in San Antonino isn’t all by itself; they have aid from the Flor y Canto (Flower and Song) Center for Human Rights in Xoxocotlán, 20 km away. Flor y San Antonino 2010 07 14 san antonino 003Canto’s mission is defense of indigenous rights, and in recent years that has meant a focus on water. With a staff of 5 women, all volunteers, Flor y Canto works in 12 communities in the municipalities of Ocotlán and Zimatlán providing technical and legal assistance.

Nationally, 90% of Mexicans are said to have access to water services, but those figures can be deceiving. In the house where we stayed for a few weeks, water service had sporadic interruptions. In some neighborhoods, the pipes may be empty for weeks on end. When that happens, families have to buy water from trucks that cruise their neighborhoods selling water for ten times the rate of public water supplies.

The rate of access to water and sewage services drop off in rural areas and drop off further for indigenous communities like San Antonino. According to a report from the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, 42% of indigenous people lack water service, and 70% lack sanitation.

Giant dam projects are still being proposed, often over the objections of local communities, to address water scarcity. Better approaches include reoaxaca 2010 07 10-ocotlan pipapair of leaky pipes, micro-dams, and reforestation projects.

Claudio Ortíz, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Water in, said San Antonino doesn’t have water service, but he has a truck that he fills from his own well. Instead of charging an arm and a leg, he said he just charges what it costs to run the truck.

Speaking of the community well project, Delfino Hernandez Sanchez, president of the Committee, said, “We started doing this because we had a need.”

I was fortunate to meet Delfino and his neighbors on a study tour sponsored by Witness for Peace, in which we are looking into the relationship between social conditions and migration from rural Oaxaca.

“What our parents left us is this land,” he said, and he’s proud he will be able to pass it on. “It’s not just for my children; it’s for all the children in the community.”

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