Reason for being
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Ninety-nine percent of the water consumed locally comes from a large underground reservoir known as the Independence Aquifer. This aquifer encompasses an area of 6800 square kilometers and 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 at the periphery of the aquifer are starting to go dry, and the water that remains contains unhealthy levels of minerals and heavy metals — especially arsenic and fluoride — a steadily worsening condition found throughout the aquifer.
Water samples frequently contain 10X or more of the World Health Organization recommended limits for arsenic and fluoride—a toxic cocktail known to cause unsightly dental fluorosis in children, and among longer-term water consumers, painful skeletal fluorosis, developmental and mental disabilities, organ failure, and cancer. Children are at greatest risk, as their growing bodies absorb these minerals at a much higher rate.
Why is this happening?
The cause of this crisis is unsustainable over-extraction of ground water for agriculture, forcing wells ever deeper into mineral-rich “fossil water,” which is not replenished by seasonal rainfall. This is the source of arsenic and fluoride contamination.
Ours was once a region of traditional dry-land farming, but with the introduction of export-oriented agricultural policies, the rush to pump has seen the aquifer decline from approximatetly 5M to nearly 500M in recent decades.
Today, over 85% of the water pumped from the aquifer goes to agriculture. Crops are frequently lavished with 3-5 times the amount of water that would be used on the same crop on U.S. farms. Lax enforcement of water policies, compounded by expansion of agriculture in the region, is the real culprit in our water crisis.
The State of Guanajuato is one of the largest producers of broccoli in the world, along with lettuce and a variety of other vegetable crops, most of which are bound for markets in the U.S. and Canada. In short, we are exporting our finite water supply.
Experts estimate that current water extraction rates exceed sustainable natural recharge by 30%. The water table continues to decline while concentrations of arsenic and fluoride continue to climb.
WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
Typical domestic water filters do not remove dissolved mineral contaminants like arsenic and fluoride — including those “whole house filters” with multiple filtration cartridges and a UV sterilization lamp, sold widely in San Miguel.
The ONLY viable commercial solution is a reverse osmosis filter system, the kind that is installed at the sink with a low-flow gooseneck tap, typically costing USD $200-300; or bottled water from a reliable source.
Alternatively, one could install a rainwater cistern for drinking water— combined with a basic filter to remove biological pathogens— since rainwater is inherently free of mineral contaminants like arsenic and fluoride.
WHO IS AFFECTED, AND WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
No one on the aquifer is immune to deteriorating water quality. While we tend to think of SMA as being prosperous and cosmopolitan, the hard truth is that poverty rates in the communities with which we share the aquifer exceed 60%—among the highest in the country—and virtually every one of them struggles with water quality, scarcity, or both.
The solution to our water quality woes really is quite simple: install a reverse osmosis filter system, buy bottled water from a reliable source, or build a cistern to collect rainwater…
…Unless you happen to be among the several hundred thousand local residents living at or below the poverty level. For them, bottled water is simply unaffordable, and a costly reverse osmosis system or private rainwater cistern would be unimaginable luxuries.
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 should be a fundamental human right. We help communities at risk confront challenges of water scarcity and quality through:
- Water monitoring programs.
- Educational outreach.
- Community-based solutions.
- Research and development.
We sample and test water quality from over 150 community wells and urban taps throughout the Independence Aquifer, collaborating with our university and institutional partners to assure the accuracy of our test results. We post results of our water quality tests on an interactive map, and we maintain these records in an historical database, available for public inspection upon request.
When necessary, we’re confronting the failure of local governments to inform the general public of water scarcity and quality issues, through public forums and local publications. We work directly with community leaders throughout the watershed to assure that impacted communities are well informed of the issues and risks. We reach beyond the boundaries of our watershed by collaborating with news media, national and international organizations concerned with issues of public health and environmental justice. We host interns as well as conduct technical training programs for students throughout the world, through our open-enrollment international workshops and university accredited courses.
Unlike other NGOs and government agencies that deliver formulaic solutions to problems, we approach the communities we serve with an open mind—typically partnering with other grassroots organizations and following the initiative of local leaders. We focus on capacity building for projects like rainwater cistern installations at schools, community centers, and homes, and implement them through community-led workshops, supported with printed manuals and technical supplements.
Community members provide hundreds of hours of volunteer labor for each of these projects. Community leaders, councils, and coalitions make all of the decisions regarding project location and organization, as well as beneficiaries, based on systems of need and participation. Our water-focused solutions help strengthen existing community processes—helping create 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 Spanish.
Click here to find our project map and continuously updated summaries of on-going community work.
Research and Development
Our qualified engineering staff, supported by experts at U.S. and Mexican affiliate institutions, is developing technical filtration media to remove arsenic and fluoride, utilizing aggressively low-cost materials and production methods under real-world conditions. All of our technology is “open source” and free for others to use.
This is of particular importance for the arsenic and fluoride filter now in development. Arsenic- and fluoride-contaminated water is a locally acute, but globally distributed, public health challenge. It impacts hundreds of thousands locally, but upwards of 300 million globally who confront similar mineral contamination of water supplies throughout Latin America, North Africa, Bangladesh, India, and China.
We actively engage with local water agencies and other government agencies, at times confronting them with 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 quality issues.
How we started
We’re a SMA-based NGO obsessed with helping communities at risk obtain adequate supplies of safe, 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 primacy 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-water testing and monitoring to document the steadily worsening conditions. Recognizing that water can be free of biological pathogens but still be unhealthy due to mineral contaminants, we developed programs for constructing rainwater cisterns 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 prestigious 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. We’re organized as a registered nonprofit in both the U.S. and Mexico.
As an organization, we’re community focused but data-driven and science-oriented. We work 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 Boarder-UK, Northern Illinois University, Brandeis University, and many others.