Reason for being
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The Independence Watershed stretches across seven municipalities in northern Guanajuato State in Central Mexico. Ninety-nine percent of the water consumed in this region comes from a large underground reservoir known as the Independence Aquifer, which serves several thousand distinct communities—including San Miguel de Allende—providing life-sustaining water to well over half a million residents.
The aquifer is declining at an alarming rate. Wells are starting to go dry, and the water that remains may contain eight times or more the World Health Organization recommended limits for arsenic and fluoride—a toxic cocktail known to cause unsightly dental fluorosis in children, painful skeletal fluorosis, developmental and mental disabilities, organ failure, and cancer among longer-term water consumers.
Children are at greatest risk as their growing bodies absorb these minerals at a much higher rate, and exposure to high fluoride in utero has shown severe impacts on children’s mental development later in life.
(Arsenic and fluoride are not absorbed through the skin. Bathing and brushing teeth are not considered health risks).
Why is this happening?
The cause of this crisis is unsustainable over-extraction of groundwater for agriculture, forcing wells ever deeper into mineral-rich “fossil water” contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride.
Ours was once a region of traditional dry-land farming, but with the introduction of export-oriented agricultural policies, the rush to pump has driven down the water table from five meters in the 1950s to more than 200 meters in recent years. Today, wells regularly exceed 500 meters in depth.
Roughly 85% of water pumped from the aquifer goes to agriculture. Crops like broccoli and lettuce bound for markets in North America are frequently lavished with several times the amount of water as used in other regions. We are exporting our finite water supply, and lax enforcement of water policies, compounded by expansion of agriculture, is the culprit.
Experts estimate that 30% more groundwater is extracted from the aquifer than gets refilled naturally by rainfall. As the water table declines, more wells will go dry and arsenic and fluoride concentrations continue to rise, imperiling the health of hundreds of thousands.
WHO IS AFFECTED?
No one in the region is immune to deteriorating water quality. While San Miguel de Allende is a prosperous and cosmopolitan town, poverty rates in the surrounding rural communities exceed 60%—among the highest in the country—and virtually every one of them struggles with water quality, scarcity, or both.
WHAT IS THE Solution?
Boiling water and typical domestic water filters do not remove dissolved mineral contaminants like arsenic and fluoride—including ‘whole house filters’ with multiple filtration cartridges and a UV sterilization lamp, sold widely in San Miguel de Allende. The only viable commercial solutions are a reverse osmosis filter system or buying bottled water from a reliable source.
But if you are among the several hundred thousand living in poverty, bottled water is simply unaffordable, and a costly reverse osmosis system, an unimaginable luxury.
Rainwater, on the other hand, is inherently free of mineral contaminants like arsenic and fluoride and immune to the threats of water-table loss. Rainwater is inexpensive to store and generally abundant enough to fulfill consumption demand even in our semi-arid climate. Combined with a basic filter to remove pathogens, rainwater is a safe and affordable alternative to reverse osmosis or bottled water. Rainwater harvesting improves community health, reduces environmental stress on over-extracted aquifers, and gives people control and consistency over their water supply.
 Bashash, M., et al., (2017). Prenatal Fluoride Exposure and Cognitive Outcomes in Children at 4 and 6–12 Years of Age in Mexico. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi: 10.1289/EHP655.
 Ecosystem Sciences Foundation (2006). Well water quality in San Miguel de Allende phase I: Results and conclusions. Retrieved from here.
 CEAG (2016). El agua subterránea en Guanajuato. Comisión Estatal del Agua de Guanajuato, Guanajuato, México.
 Hoogesteger, J. & Wester, P. (2017). Regulating groundwater use: The challenges of policy implementation in Guanajuato, Central Mexico. Environmental Science & Policy. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2017.08.002
 CONEVAL (2010). Medició Municipal de la Pobreza 2010: San Miguel de Allende, Dolores Hidalgo, San Diego de la Unión, San Luis de la Paz.
what we do
Caminos de Agua promotes healthier more prosperous lives through practical, sustainable solutions. We work in partnership with local communities and other diverse actors to innovate and implement open-source solutions for our region in the Independence Watershed, but that can also be adapted throughout the world without restriction or license.
At Caminos de Agua, we believe that access to safe, healthy drinking water is a fundamental human right. We help communities at risk confront challenges of water quality and scarcity through:
- Water monitoring.
- Community-led Solutions.
- Research and Development.
We sample and test water quality from rural wells and urban taps throughout the watershed, in collaboration with our university and institutional partners. As of 2017, we’ve tested over 150 sites throughout the aquifer. Recently, we’ve begun incorporating other indices in our monitoring program, including scarcity, historical access, cost, and community water conflicts; developing a more complete understanding of regional water issues. We share our data with the National Water Quality Inventory (INCA in Spanish), and we post water quality test results on an interactive map. Records are available for public inspection upon request.
Rainwater harvesting systems and ceramic water filters—like any technology—are useful tools, but not complete solutions in and of themselves. At Caminos de Agua we firmly believe that successful water solutions are based on the intersection of low-cost, proven technologies with an implementation model driven by local communities. We take an open approach the communities—typically partnering with other grassroots organizations and following the initiative of local leaders. We focus on capacity building for projects like rainwater harvesting system installations at schools, community centers, and homes, and implement them through community-led workshops, supported with printed manuals and technical supplements. We prioritize communities suffering from the most severe water quality and scarcity issues.
Community members provide thousands of hours of volunteer labor and make all decisions regarding project location and organization based on need and participation. Our water solutions strengthen existing community processes—contributing to stronger, better-organized, and more resilient rural communities. Local community partners include Pozo Ademado Community Services, The San Cayetano Community Center, and United Communities for Life and Water—a coalition of 21 rural communities in the most impacted region of the aquifer.
Recognizing that “community” may transcend geographic boundaries, we regularly work with other organizations in Mexico and beyond focused on water issues. For example, we sell our certified ceramic water filters to sister organizations located in other parts of Mexico and our technical manuals and materials are made available for free in English and in Spanish.
Click here to find our project map and continuously updated summaries of on-going community work.
Our education programs fall into three areas: awareness-raising on local water issues, technical training workshops, and comprehensive courses and internships. We’re confronting the failure of local governments to inform the general public on scarcity and quality issues, through public forums and local publications. We work directly with community leaders to assure that impacted communities are informed of the issues, risks, and solutions. We reach beyond the boundaries of our watershed by collaborating with news media, national and international organizations concerned with public health and environmental justice. We host interns and conduct open enrollment and university-accredited technical training programs and more comprehensive courses for local communities and global students alike.
Research and Development
Our qualified engineering staff, supported by experts at affiliate institutions in the U.S., Mexico, and the UK, is currently developing aggressively affordable filters that can remove arsenic and fluoride from drinking water. We also continue to design and develop new technologies, like bicycle water pumps and passive solar technology, to address specific needs or complement other solutions.
Our technologies are based on rigorous science, tested under real-world conditions, and protected under open-source licenses—making them free to use for all without restriction. We aim to create solutions that can have impact beyond the boundaries of our watershed, especially the arsenic and fluoride filters we are developing. Water contaminated with arsenic and fluoride is a locally acute, but globally distributed, public health challenge—impacting upwards of 300 million people throughout Latin America, North Africa, South Asia, and China.
Mineral contamination and groundwater over-exploitation are mere consequences of larger institutional failures, which will only become more intensified—with new problems arising— if the governmental response remains that of inaction and avoidance. Our efforts to deliver technical solutions like rainwater harvesting and filtration systems will become inadequate if the root causes of our mismanaged water resources continue to go unaddressed.
Today, we actively engage with local water agencies and governmental departments, at times confronting them about deficiencies in their published information, urging them to address water quality issues and pursue more responsible regulatory policies. We also work with grassroots organizations and initiatives at the policy level to bring attention to water issues, locally and nationally. While we work primarily with local communities and other regional actors, we maintain a global outlook on water issues.
Who we are
Who is Caminos de Agua
We’re a community focused, data-driven, and science-oriented NGO (non-governmental organization) based in San Miguel de Allende. We empower at-risk communities to obtain adequate supplies of safe and healthy drinking water. The organization got its start in 2010 with a mission of improving lives in impoverished rural communities through affordable sustainable solutions. Knowing the importance of safe drinking water for good health, we developed and began manufacturing ceramic water filters that remove biological pathogens.
Concerned about levels of mineral contaminants in local water supplies, in 2012 we initiated a program of well testing and monitoring to document the steadily worsening water quality and scarcity conditions. Recognizing that water can be free of biological pathogens but still be unhealthy due to mineral contaminants, we developed programs for constructing rainwater harvesting systems in schools, community centers, and homes. In parallel, we began researching affordable alternatives for removing arsenic and fluoride from well water. In 2015, with our focus now exclusively on water issues, we changed our name to Caminos de Agua.
Today, Caminos de Agua is a team of ten full- and part-time employees, plus several graduate-level engineering and public interest interns from Engineers Without Borders UK and other universities and institutions. We’re a mix of expat residents and Mexicans, technologists and community organizers, researchers and educators — united by our concern for public health and welfare. Caminos de Agua is organized as a registered nonprofit in both the U.S. and Mexico.
We work with local communities and partner with leading research and academic institutions globally at the cutting edge of water quality issues. Our institutional affiliations include: North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University, University College of London, University of Guanajuato, Engineers Without Borders UK, Northern Illinois University, Brandeis University, and many others.