Oaxaca, Water and Back in the U.S.A.

The topic of water, scarcity, abundance, conservation, and consumption has been on my mind ever since returning to the U.S.A. from Mexico, landing in the San Francisco Bay area last Saturday night.  I am here in Santa Cruz, California, now for a week to visit my 97-year-0ld mother.  Almost fully recovered after breaking a hip, I am grateful that she is mobile, fully aware and for our time together.  I am also grateful that I can climb into a hot shower at my sister’s house and not worry (too much) about using more than a half-bucket of water, which is the case in Oaxaca.

In reality, I am aware of the water coming freely from the shower head and faucets.  I am aware that I can ingest this water, keep my eyes and mouth open and my nostrils uplifted.  If some gets down my throat, so what!  This awareness is heightened by my experience living in Oaxaca, where it is dry, dry, dry and water is scarce, scarce, scarce, and ingesting plumbed water is verboten.

On the return flight north, our routing is over the Sea of Cortes aka Gulf of California.  The wide Colorado River mouth is at the notch where Baja California meets northern Mexico.  It is dry, dry, dry.  From the air I can see the salt and silt and the curve of the riverbed undulating like a snake.  It reminds me that water, precious water, is diverted upstream in U.S. territory to sustain plants and animals.   I think of Mexico and the paucity of water, the rough terrain, the few fertile areas for cultivation of food, the high mountain ranges that make up most of the country. Is there hope for the Colorado River delta?  Perhaps, according to this New York Times article.

Water costs money in Oaxaca.  I can tell when the holding tank on the roof of the house where I live is low because the water pressure drops to a trickle.  If I do a laundry — even on low water level and gentle cycle — I will use about almost half of the holding tank!  Now I know why local women soak their family’s laundry in buckets before putting them through a rinse cycle.  This way they will conserve at least fifty-percent of the water usage.

Marianne Kinzer, in the Winter 2013 issues of ReVista, a David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University publication, writes,  “The story of water in Oaxaca, Mexico, a picturesque place that draws international tourism, illustrates Mexican, Central American and worldwide water problems.”


For me, the issue is local. I have learned to collect water.  There is a bucket in the two shower stalls and in the kitchen sink.  I use this gray water to wash floors and water plants and trees.  The dry season lasts for months and these plants are thirsty.  My Oaxaca world is small and focused on the details of daily living — water, food, transportation.  When I run out of water, I call Dany Hernandez who comes to deliver for 100 pesos.  This fills up the tank and life goes on until the next week, when I can safely predict I will run out again (depending on how many loads of laundry I do).  Doing a hand wash has become more of a routine, with the exception of bed linens.  I am constantly conscious of water scarcity, cost and consumption.

For the last few months, as I walk along the dirt road to the casita, I cross what the locals call the Rio Grande.  This is a stream bed that can be a trickle or a rushing torrent during the rainy season that only lasts a few months.  When it is wet, I have to find another route. Usually it is parched and crackled like alligator skin, easy to cross, another reminder of water scarcity.

Someone told me this week that within twenty years the polar ice cap will melt.  Climate change is not a myth.  I may still be alive, based on my mother’s age and if I have her genetic load.  What will the melted ice cap mean for coastal flooding, tides, availability of water beyond the flood?  As I shower and make coffee from tap water here in Santa Cruz, I think about whether the luxury of fresh, clean water will be but a memory.  I believe we are beyond the tipping point.

P.S. I ordered another camera body which arrived yesterday to replace the one I lost.  Facebook iPhone photos of the Puebla adventure are posted if you are interested.  Otherwise, I resume life in the U.S. until the end of June when I return to Oaxaca once more.

8 responses to “Oaxaca, Water and Back in the U.S.A.

  1. Water is a timely topic but seldom taken very seriously by most due to the ‘myth of abundance.’ This is where people who have been accustomed to unlimited, cheap, clean water all their life assume that they will always have such a luxury at their disposal. Water is being ‘mined’ as a resource by countries like China, France, the U.S. My eyes began to open while listening to Maude Barlow on Alternative Radio. She wrote the book Blue Covenant-The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. The bottom line is that the Earth can only support a limited number of people, and i fear we have already exceeded that number. I am not a conspiracy theorist, just someone saddened to see something tragic occur that could have been avoided with a little forethought and a lot less greed. Thanks for calling attention to this.

  2. Great blog, Norma. The scarcity of water in general and the poor taste of the bottled water delivered to my apartment during my month in Oaxaca, was one of the most negative aspects of living there for me.
    Certainly Oaxaca is dry, but the mountains surrounding the valley are not. I believe that a big part of the problem is bureacratic. Those who have access to adequate (not necessarily abundant) water supply are not going to share unless they are part of a plan for the greater good. Are there any reservoirs to catch the frequent downpours during the rainy season? Pipelines from the mountains? I know that this is all expensive, but it should be a very high priority. I don’t think the Mexican government is up to this crucial task. I need to get more educated on this topic.
    I have to also add that the no TP flushing rule in Oaxaca in the 21st century is more than an inconvenience. TP is made to virtually dissolve. How can a sewer system not handle TP?? I guess hotels have someone whose job it is to fish it out. When I asked this question, I just got shrugs. The Mexican people have way too high a tolerance for the inconveniences of life.
    I dealt with it, it’s not a big deal for a month, but I would not want to deal with it permanently. Mexico is a wonderful place, I don’t consider it a 3rd world country, but it needs to deal with this basic issue. The US should partner with Mexico much more than it does to work on these common issues.

    • Elaine, thanks again for adding your insights. Very valuable! Sewers, sanitation, and waste disposal is a work in progress for Mexico. During a recent fiesta, I helped out to finance a baño seco — to recycle human waste while giving people a clean, convenient place to use the facilities. I have a friend in San Cristobal de las Casas who runs a B&B. She says, flush everything, paper and all. She gets her septic pumped every six months so as not to inconvenience herself and her guests. I was thinking of doing that where I live, too, but succumbed to local tradition of collecting TP in the waste basket and then dumping it. You are right. In Mexico, I learn to accept so much more than I would ever do here in the U.S. As with much of everything having to do with change, it seems that the health initiatives are privately generated and financed through foundations, universities and other change agents. In Teotitlan del Valle, there is a reservoir that collects irrigation water for use during the dry season. Pipes bring mountain water down from the Sierra Norte for showers. Private businesses purify water for drinking. I know of no waste water treatment facilities or government owned water purification systems. Yes, time for a change. And, with the average daily wage still at 100 pesos or about $8 USD, there are many fundamental priorities still to be achieved, like food, clothing and shelter. Clean water could rank right up there, too. Thank you for the dialog!

  3. Norma, I just sent you a link to a NYTimes article about rerouting the Colorado River so Mexico will get some water again. I know it won’t get to the hilltops of Oaxaca, but it’s a start.
    On another subject, here’s some information about my newest play:
    A story of innocence and guilt. But who is innocent, and who is guilty?
    Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six, a play by June Finfer, is the true story of justice denied when six young African-American men are accused of murder in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1948. Based on a recently published book by historian Cathy Knepper, Jersey Justice is the searing account of a pre-civil rights, pre-Miranda Rights, Red baiting, Jim Crow era. The fate of the men was a cause célèbre at the time (supported by Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and Arthur Miller among many others), but the case has largely been forgotten, probably because of the role the Communist Party played in supporting the men and attracting public attention. Part of the Chicago Writers Bloc New Play Festival 2013
    Next Theatre, at Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston
    Admission $10
    Tuesday, April 30, 8 PM
    Tickets may be purchased from Brown Paper Tickets, at 800-838-3006, online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com or at the door.

  4. Hi Norma,

    Your daily experience of water shortage & quality issues in Oaxaca is a cautionary tale to us all. It makes me think, yet again, about limiting my showers and being more efficient with water. The only criteria that astronomers use to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life is the presence of WATER.

    All the best to you, Leslie

    • Leslie, I remember being constantly thirsty in Oaxaca and that 70% of our bodies are water. It is our life force. Essential. The astronomers are right, as you so intimately know! Thanks for the comment. Abrazos, Norma

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