The Power of Water: A Visit to Aurora Esquipulas

[Chris Treter, chief instigator at Higher Grounds Trading Company, reflects on the triumphs & challenges of clean water access in Chiapas, Mexico.]

After a bumpy, five-hour ride down muddy roads and windy mountain passes, past rivers, up steep mountains, and between fields of coffee and pastures of cows, we finally arrive to the comforts of our home stay in the quaint town of San Cristobal de Las Casas. We’ve returned from a three-day excursion meeting with coffee farmers, the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative, and the village of Aurora Esquipulas, where we recently financed and completed a water project.

Chelsea steps out of the van, staggers to the curb and vomits. She wipes her face, looks up, smiles, and says with a smirk, “That’s number two. Hopefully I’m almost done.” She, like the rest of us, are covered in mud, tired, and sick to our stomach after an overnight visit to a rainy Aurora Esquipulas.

As happens often in communities that lack adequate access to clean drinking water, sickness befalls us after staying and eating with the community. We physically become aware of the facts of the situation: according to UNICEF, more than 2.5 times the number of people who live in the United States do not have access to potable water. Every four hours, lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills the equivalent of the number of children who could fill a jumbo jet.

Unless we physically witness the conditions of those without water and adequate sanitation, most of us in the United States can’t possibly fathom it. An American taking a 5-minute shower uses more water than an average person in a slum or rural village of the developing world. The smell of the sewage that runs down the side of the hill next to your only drinking source, a dirty spring that you share with hundreds of others (not only for collecting drinking water but also to wash yourself and your clothes) is part of everyday life for many.

Aurora Esquipulas is a big community made up of 1000 families (nearly 8000 people) with affiliation to the three major political parties and the two main organizations struggling for indigenous rights in the state: Las Abejas Civil Society and the Zapatistas.

As in many communities in rural Mexico, the current water system is inadequate for the needs of the community. It currently, quite poorly, supplies 900 families with water but is not big enough to reach the last 100 families.

Those families, 60 of whom are from the Las Abejas Civil Society, must walk up and down a steep hill multiple times each day in order to gain access to one spring that supplies water for everyone. As men tend to the fields, women and children are tasked with the strenuous task of carrying five-gallon buckets full of water or as many two-liter containers as one can carry across muddy passes. Next to the spring sits a couple rustic “bathrooms”—wooden shacks with a hole in the earth. Human waste seeps into the very water source the community drinks from, creating a vicious cycle of water going into and out of one’s body.

With Bruno, our man on the ground in Chiapas, we identified this community as one with urgent need, and Bruno set out to survey the project. The fix was not as easy as some others. In some other communities, you can simply find a spring (or two or three) above the water source and use a gravity fed system connected to a cement water tank or plastic “rotoplas” from which distribution lines are set up to each home, providing individual faucets for each location.

Unfortunately for Aurora Esquipulas, all but three of the homes are below the water source. As a result of the high cost, we decided to look at this project in phases. That way, with limited funds we could still quickly improve the situation. A first step to the solution is containing the spring, which produces 43,200 liters every 24 hours—more than enough for everyone. We then installed four water tank reservoirs that collect 10,000 liters, as well as six faucets and washing stations, on a cement patio.

With this, the community now has a separate place to wash their clothes and collect water. This small first step was a huge leap forward for the community. They greeted us upon our arrival with an all-day party that started off with prayers next to the spring, fresh chicken soup, a multitude of local bands, fireworks, speeches, and traditional dance. At 10 PM, after hours of dancing on the muddy ground, my legs tired from pulling my feet up from the mud, and my face strained from smiling at all the gracious people, I retired to bed, grateful to have spent the day celebrating a step forward in the struggle for water, conscious that we must continue to walk with the community to complete the next phases.

To support this good work, please consider going to onthegroundglobal.org to learn about our Chiapas Water Project and make a donation.

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